New coaches inspiring resurgence for Philip Rivers

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It seemed as though any team needing a franchise quarterback heading into the NFL draft in 2004 could do no wrong. That year, a trio of players – Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger – headed a class that wasn’t necessarily the deepest, but it was certainly the most accomplished in several years.

Manning, originally taken No. 1 overall by the San Diego Chargers, insisted upon being traded and was dealt to the New York Giants, who have won two Super Bowls with Manning as their starter. Roethlisberger, drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the No. 11 overall pick, was the offensive rookie of the year and has since led his team to two Super Bowl victories as well.

Rivers, meanwhile, hasn’t been the savior the franchise thought he would be. But then again, it’s not as if Rivers, the No. 4 pick in that draft, has had the Chargers trolling the basement of the AFC West for the last nine seasons, either.

On Sunday, he’ll face one of the league’s weaker pass defenses when the Chargers face the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field for the first time since 2005.

“He’s an excellent quarterback, and I just smile when people thought his game was going the wrong direction because you can see, just by watching him, that he’s a solid player – more than a solid player,” Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said. “He’s probably playing as good as anybody in the National Football League right now.”

Rivers has led the Chargers to only four playoff appearances since taking over for Drew Brees as the starting quarterback prior to the 2006 season, and he became the first of the three quarterbacks to guide his team to a losing record when San Diego finished 7-9 last year.

Now, Rivers seems revitalized. He enters Sunday with a 73.9 completion percentage, which is currently the best in the league. His 304.6 yards per game rank him sixth among quarterbacks, and he has thrown only five interceptions over seven games.

All that has happened as Rivers lost his top receiver, Malcolm Floyd, to a neck injury in a Week 2 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles and has had to incorporate a host of younger targets, including third-round pick Keenan Allen, into the passing game. He’s also benefited from a comeback year by tight end Antonio Gates, one of the best in the league at the position over the past decade.

“You just try to get into a rhythm and try to keep things going,” said wide receiver Eddie Royal, who has caught 22 passes for 285 yards and a team-high six touchdowns this season. “I really think the key is every guy is so focused on doing his job the right way. If each guy does their job the way that it’s supposed to be done, then we’ll have success over long drives, and we’ve got guys that are paying attention to the little details of each play call, and when you can do that, your offense is going to have success.”

The 6-foot-5, 228-pound Rivers, drafted out of N.C. State, has been selected to play in the Pro Bowl four times and, in 2010, was the league’s top passer when he edged out then-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning by throwing for 4,710 yards.

Somehow, he was expected to do more that season. The Chargers were coming off a 13-3 record and an AFC West title, but a loss to the New York Jets in the divisional round of the playoffs brought a premature end to the team’s postseason hopes.

Instead, San Diego went 9-7, missed the playoffs and hasn’t been back. Norv Turner, the head coach for the last six seasons, was fired in January.

Under new Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, Rivers has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence. McCoy, formerly the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, said Rivers has “done a great job of buying in and executing the system” while working with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach Frank Reich.

“When you have a quarterback like Philip that is going to execute the way he is, good things are going to happen,” McCoy said. “It’s just a matter of trusting the system and taking what the defense is going to give you.”

Shanahan, who faced Rivers twice a year for three seasons as the Broncos’ head coach, has also been struck by the quarterback’s performance.

“When you’re throwing for 74 percent like he is, you know he’s feeling very comfortable with his supporting cast,” Shanahan said. “You know, they did add a few players on the offensive side of the football, which has helped him, but he’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s making throws that he has done throughout his career. I’m very impressed with how he’s played.”

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