There is a man out there, buried beneath the headliners of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning, that is quietly putting together a Hall of Fame career. A man that is often not even mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned Pro Bowl quarterbacks that receive most of the accolades.
This man is not as flashy as most quarterbacks, though he is probably the most passionate and loudest of them all. He does not physically have any Super Bowl rings but if Super Bowls were measured by heart, he'd have a handful of them.
Now in his tenth season as starting quarterback for the Chargers, Rivers is once again re-writing record books. He is coming off a 503-yard performance last weekend, throwing 43 completions in a 27-20 loss against the Green Bay Packers. All of this despite playing behind a makeshift offensive line, no running game to speak of and without wide receivers Keenan Allen (for most of the fourth quarter) and Steve Johnson (game).
These gritty and spectacular performances are nothing new for Rivers. He has been doing this in the NFL since his first season as a starter. In fact, in his second season as a starter, Rivers played on a torn ACL in the 2008 AFC Championship game, nearly leading the Chargers to a victory over the undefeated New England Patriots before ultimately losing 21-12. Rivers did this without the help of an injured LaDainian Tomlinson.
Rivers was handed the key to the Chargers kingdom in 2006 when the team allowed Drew Brees to leave in free agency. Rivers was surrounded by an excellent defense and weapons on offense, led by Tomlinson, that would allow Rivers to learn on the job.
The result was a 14-2 regular season but a flame out in the playoffs led to the end of the Marty Schottenheimer era in San Diego. Norv Turner was ushered in as the new Head Coach, in turn adding an emphasis to the passing game.
2006 was the first of four straight first-place finishes in the AFC West and Rivers was a key factor during that streak. Aside from that AFC Championship loss, though, the Chargers bowed out in the Divisional round of the playoffs each year, including after a 13-3 finish in 2009.
Things have slid down hill for the Chargers since the last of those first-place finishes. The Chargers, with a lack of a consistent running game and a middling defense, have struggled to three second-place finishes and two third-place finishes, making the playoffs in 2013. They won their Wildcard game then narrowly lost to the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round.
Rivers, aside from one down year in 2012, has been a constant force for the Chargers. He is playing for his third Head Coach, Mike McCoy and is once again dealing with a lack of running game. Through it all, though, Rivers has thrown for 38,771 yards in his career. He has added 264 touchdown passes and has completed 64.9% of his passes. Pretty good numbers for a quarterback in any era.
Unfortunately, Rivers has been saddled with some pretty stiff competition when it comes to All-Pro quarterbacks. Not only have Manning and Brady been thorns in his side but Rivers also has to fight comparisons with two other quarterbacks that were drafted in the 2004 draft: Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
Eli Manning is the quarterback most compared to Rivers, mostly because he famously said he'd refuse to play for San Diego if they drafted him with the first pick. The Chargers, still feeling the sting of the Ryan Leaf debacle, decided Eli was not worth the hassle. They traded their pick to the New York Giants and eventually picked Rivers, even though they had Brees.
Eli Manning would eventually win two Super Bowls with the Giants. In many circles, he's an obvious choice as the best quarterback of the '04 class. He has the most yards of the three quarterbacks (41,361) and has thrown for 270 touchdowns. Eli Manning also has 173 career starts, 23 more than Rivers and 12 more than Roethlisberger. He also has a lower completion percentage (59%) than the both of them.
Roethlisberger has faced a career of controversy and occasional injuries but he, too, is the owner of a Super Bowl ring. He has also been surrounded by a pretty stellar defense throughout most of his career and a pretty accomplished running game. He has the most wins of the three quarterbacks (108. Manning has 94 and Rivers 90). Roethlisberger has 255 touchdown passes and a completion percentage similar to Rivers at 63.9%.
Just like Marino, Rivers will always be compared to the other top quarterbacks from his draft class. The 1983 class featured Marino, Jim Kelly, and John Elway (among others) and is often regarded as the best in history.
Marino threw for 61,361 career yards and 420 touchdowns, yet for a long time he was simply known as a great quarterback that failed to win the big game. Marino made one Super Bowl, losing to San Francisco in his second season, and generally failed to advance in the playoffs throughout his career.
And sure, Kelly lost all four Super Bowls he made it to but the Buffalo Bills had one of the most prolific offenses of the early 1990's. He was surrounded by Pro Bowl talent, something that Marino's Miami Dolphins only had occasionally in his 17-season career.
Elway, like Manning, won two Super Bowls. Also like Manning, Elway threatened to not play for a team if said team drafted him. Until Elway won those Super Bowls (in his last two seasons, nonetheless) Marino was often seen as the greatest quarterback of the 1983 draft class. Probably because Elway was a loser of three Super Bowls himself and not by pretty scores.
Rivers, as it stands now, is in a very similar boat to the one that Marino was in. He has not been past the AFC title game since his second year as a starter. Both men had divisional opponents with equal quarterbacks: Rivers has had to deal with Peyton Manning the last three years. Marino had Kelly.
When it's all said and done, Rivers may end up with the best stats of the quarterbacks from the '04 class. He has already re-written much of the Chargers record book and is a five-time Pro Bowl selection. He has done all this with a Hall of Fame tight end and often times, little else. Good receivers have come and gone but over the last five years Rivers has been the one constant on an inconsistent offense.
Hard luck? Maybe. Rivers will be the first one to tell you he has a very blessed career and lucky to have succeeded in the NFL for ten years. It would just be nice to see his team put it all together and give him at least one chance in the Super Bowl.
If not, he can take solace in this: Marino, Kelly, and Elway, the prizes of the '83 draft class, are lumped together to this day. It turns out, through all the games, stats, and Super Bowls, these three quarterbacks all ended up with one more thing in common: they are now all Hall of Famers.
Let's hope that one more thing that Rivers and Marino will one day have in common.