SAN DIEGO – Philip Rivers' offseason reality check was a reminder that the end might be coming soon.
That was the feeling the San Diego Chargers quarterback got on June 18 when he watched former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson retire. Other teammates have come and gone during Rivers' eight-year NFL career, but there was something that gnawed deeper at him when Tomlinson called it a career.
"When I sat there and watched L.T.'s retirement, I just thought, 'Wait, he was just here with us, playing,' " said Rivers, who also watched guard Kris Dielman call it quits this offseason. "[Tomlinson] had a heck of run, we didn't get it done and now all of a sudden, it's over."
At age 30, Rivers is running straight into the plight of being a Charger. For all the numbers put up and indelible moments created for fans, the end always comes without a title. Be it Sid Gillman, Lance Alworth, Don Coryell, Kellen Winslow, Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, Junior Seau or Tomlinson, there are lots of great moments.
None of them bears a ring though.
That's why when Rivers and current teammates such as Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd talk about "time running out" or the "the clock is ticking," the clichés ring with a little more desperation.
"You hit 30 and you see L.T. hangs it up and it's like, 'Hey, you gotta get this done,' " Floyd said. Gates, 32, who finally looks healthy after two years of dealing with a foot injury, echoed those sentiments.
"You get old in a hurry in this game," said Gates, who's missed nine games combined the past two seasons.
A series of events has caused Chargers veterans to be more reflective this offseason. Tomlinson's retirement was one. The tragic suicide of Seau was another. To a lesser degree, Rivers had another such moment when he visited Indianapolis for Super Bowl week. He didn't stay for the game, but he was struck with a tremendous sense of the energy.
"You're there and you realize just what this really means, it was awesome to experience that," said Rivers, whose closest flirtation with a Super Bowl was the AFC title game during the 2007 season. "I'm still not going to the game until we're in it, but that made me understand the whole deal."
Shortly after that, Rivers watched the Peyton Manning saga unfold. From a news conference in Indianapolis that Rivers called "first class" to Manning's arrival in Denver – the home of the archrival Broncos – Rivers was glued to it.
And amped by it.
"I was thinking, 'This is awesome,' " Rivers said.
Wait a second, a reporter interjects. You wanted Manning in Denver?
"Here's why," Rivers said, speaking so rapidly and excitedly that he couldn't have been faking it. "Two things: One, as a competitor, you want to go against the best. Two, he's my favorite. I know I'm not playing him, I'm playing their defense, which presents enough problems. But to face a quarterback like that on the other side twice a year in the same division … if you had told me when I was 17 or 18 years old that I was going to be in the same division playing against Peyton Manning, I would have been, 'Come on, you're kidding me?'
"Does it make it more difficult? Sure, but we didn't win the division the last two years and he wasn't even there. The division as a whole has gotten better with what Denver is doing, Kansas City getting healthy and Oakland with [quarterback] Carson [Palmer]. So it's going to be hard. In the past, people looked at the AFC West and were like, 'Whoever comes out of that division isn't going to do anything.' Now, it's a more intriguing thing."
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"Intriguing" is a good word. Last season, the entire division was separated by a game, the Broncos getting into the playoffs on the last weekend. It marked the second straight year the Chargers, a team that had dominated the division from 2004 to 2009, were out of the playoffs. There were expectations of massive changes in the aftermath, including the firing of coach Norv Turner. That didn't happen. Team owner Dean Spanos stood pat. His decision to remain "status quo" was reviled by many. Rivers was among those who encouraged Spanos to keep Turner and even had to answer for that publicly.
"Anytime you have conviction and you know deep down in your heart and gut that this is what is best for your team, you can defend it to the end," Rivers said.
Turner is an easy target. He is entering his 15th season as a head coach and has made it to a conference championship game just once. For his well-earned reputation as a strong offensive play-caller, he has never come across as a strong leader.
At the same time, Rivers is coming off a career-worst 20 interceptions (not to mention five lost fumbles). A lost fumble late at Kansas City was the defining moment of last season. That game was one of six consecutive losses, five of them by a touchdown or less.
Yet amid all the fretting and cold-water-in-the-face moments, Rivers remains optimistic. Despite Dielman quitting and wide receiver Vincent Jackson leaving in free agency, the Chargers were the most active they have been in free agency since Rivers arrived, moves highlighted by the signings of wide receiver Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal.
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Moreover, Rivers sees the Chargers as having been a lot closer to success than failure.
"I look at the previous year to draw from and the Giants are a perfect example of where we were," Rivers said. "They lost five in a row in the middle. We lost six. We both found a way to get to 7-7. We won one of the last two. They won both of them and then they win it all. Nobody was picking then to win it when they were 7-7.
"All that tells me is, that's how close you are in this league to winning it all. So you have to stay the course, keep believing, keep playing."
But, he said, as Tomlinson and Dielman came to mind …
"Those were two guys I played with a long time – that told me that this thing doesn't last forever."
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