Rivers is fifth in career passing yards and touchdown passes
Quarterback Philip Rivers called it a career on Wednesday, wrapping up a historic 17-season run — the first 16 of which came with the Chargers — that involved eight Pro Bowl nods, 240 consecutive starts, and some impressive statistics.
While there are immediate implications for the Indianapolis Colts, who will need to find his replacement for the 2021 season, one large question looms: Will Rivers be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Despite landing in the top 10 of many career passing leaderboards, Rivers does not have a slam-dunk case either way. The longevity and production are extraordinary, although there's no doubt that the high-flying offensive era of the present helped him surpass other legends like Dan Marino, John Elway, and Joe Montana statistically. And, of course, his lack of big wins sticks out like a sore thumb.
Hall of Fame credentials mean different things to different voters. Some prefer a small Hall of Fame and others are more inclusive. But considering there have only been 26 quarterbacks inducted in the Super Bowl era, that generally has meant that the player must have been a top-10 — if not top-5 — quarterback for an extended period of time.
Let's take a look at why Rivers may or may not belong in Canton when he's up for a vote in five years.
Philip Rivers by the numbers
We can start with the top-line numbers. Rivers ranks fifth all-time — behind Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Brett Favre — in passing yards (63,440) and touchdown passes (421). You have to go down to 15th on the yardage list and 17th on the touchdowns leaderboard to find a Hall of Fame-eligible quarterback who has not been enshrined (Vinny Testaverde).
Sure, starting every game for 15 straight seasons will help accumulate those gaudy numbers, but it takes a quality quarterback to keep a starting job for that long.
If you need any proof as to how Rivers stacked up against his competition, his eight Pro Bowl nods are wildly remarkable when you consider that he shared a conference for most of his career with Brady, Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger, among others. Only 11 quarterbacks have more Pro Bowl nods than him, and all are in the Hall of Fame or on that path.
Compare that to fellow gunslinging first-rounder Matthew Stafford, who is on pace to break the all-time passing record but has just one Pro Bowl to his name — despite numerous dropouts every year due to a Super Bowl appearance, injury, or lack of interest.
Rivers does have an obvious black mark when it comes to interceptions. He twice led the league in picks, threw 20-plus interceptions in three seasons, and is tied for the 23rd (209) in NFL history. However, his other passing totals and longevity make up for that deficiency, as seen with other luminaries such as Elway, Brees, Marino, and Favre giving the ball away more often.
How much should this pass-happy era matter?
Rivers' rate stats aren't quite at the top-5 level, but that's nothing to sneeze at. His passer rating (95.2) ranks 12th, his completion rate (64.9 percent) ranks 14th, and his yards per attempt (7.8) is tied for 10th. However, if you look at the names above him, what sticks out is they're almost all active players.
The top eight players in career passer rate (including Brees, who has not officially retired) are all active, and three (Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Dak Prescott) debuted in the last five years. Likewise, nine of the players with a better completion rate than Rivers are still playing.
Playing in today's NFL has meant more dependence on the pass and less establishing the run, resulting in all kinds of broken passing records. Elway's career 220.0 yards per game rank behind 22 active players, including Blake Bortles, Andy Dalton, and Baker Mayfield.
That's not to say that Rivers' numbers are meaningless when compared to players a generation ago. Far from it. But it's important to keep things in context because retiring fifth in passing yards isn't a golden ticket into the Hall of Fame.
Compared to his generation, Rivers still sticks out. He has 13 top-10 finishes in passing yards, with seven top-5 finishes and he led the league in the category in 2010. Rivers has 11 top-10 finishes in touchdown passes, was top-5 in five seasons and he led the league in 2008. He has seven top-10 finishes in passer rating, with five top-5 finishes and one league-leading season (2008). Rivers has 11 top-10 finishes in yards per attempt, with six top-5 finishes and three league-leading campaigns (2008-10). And finally, he has 11 top-10 finishes in completion rate, with three top-5 finishes and he was the best in the NFL in that category in 2013.
How much does his lack of rings matter?
Passing totals are incredibly meaningful, but sports can be largely about narratives, even if no one player — even a quarterback — can be solely responsible for a team's success. Not only did Rivers never win a Super Bowl, he only made it to one conference championship game, in 2008 when he admirably lost to the Patriots while playing with a torn ACL.
Winning has been a big part of nearly every Hall of Fame quarterback's story. Of the 26 inducted in the Super Bowl era, only five never won a title. And even then, Jim Kelly made it to four Super Bowls, Fran Tarkenton made it to three, and Dan Marino made it to one. Rivers would join Warren Moon and Dan Fouts as the only to never appear in a Super Bowl.
The Chargers have had rotten playoff luck for a long time now, and that has continued into this season when rookie Justin Herbert took over for the franchise. But is it Rivers' fault if Marlon McCree fumbles the ball or a kicker shanks a makeable kick? The Chargers may consistently underperform their point differential, but that cannot all fall on Rivers' shoulders.
The former NC State star may only have a 5-7 record in the postseason, but that doesn't negate his excellent regular seasons over a much larger sample. His 134-106 regular-season record still stands out, especially compared to ringless Hall of Famers like Moon (102-101), Fouts, (86-84-1), and Tarkenton (124-109-6).
Ultimately, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's selection committee will have five more years to mull over Rivers' resume, and it will come down to this: How high of a bar does a quarterback have to clear if he never wins a Super Bowl.
This new era of extreme passing totals will test the committee's limits as passers like Stafford and Matt Ryan — should they remain ringless — retire, but Rivers has a strong case based on career totals and averages. His consistent accolades in a loaded conference, even though he never won an MVP, are a testament to how special a quarterback he's been over his 17-year career.
As we head into an NFL draft season with potentially four quarterbacks going in the top 10, it's important to remember how rare it is to hit a draft pick on the head. Super Bowl or not, the Chargers were thrilled to have had Rivers for 16 seasons after their eventful draft day, and any team picking today would be lucky to have a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback like him leading their franchise.