Late-30s seasons for quarterbacks have rarely proven consequential for Hall of Fame consideration. Almost every enshrined passer who played into this age range did not need twilight-years success to secure entry.
Through this lens, the Colts are about to embark on a fascinating season. Arguments for and against Philip Rivers’ Hall of Fame induction are valid -– an unusual backdrop to a quarterback’s 17th season. Discarded by the Bolts, Rivers headlines a promising Colts roster that lacked much quarterback upside following Andrew Luck’s retirement.
If Rivers, who turns 39 by season's end, rebounds from a rough 2019 and makes the central difference in another franchise’s resurgence this late into his career, it would represent a unique resume item.
Tom Brady also making a late-career team change will overshadow Rivers’ Colts contributions, but the latter’s work will be both relevant for an atypical Hall of Fame quest and should play a role in arranging the AFC playoff bracket. The Colts, who employ a formidable offensive line and added a top-five defensive tackle via trade (DeForest Buckner), serve as an intriguing vehicle for the brash quarterback to finalize his Hall candidacy -– if he is up to the task.
Despite imminent introduction as the sixth member of the 400-touchdown pass and 60,000-passing-yard clubs, Rivers lacks signature achievements compared to his top peers. He quarterbacked the Chargers to four 10-win seasons in 14 tries as starter and has played in only one conference championship game. However, Rivers has eight Pro Bowl nods – seven coming as an original invitee, which bests Hall of Fame lock Ben Roethlisberger’s six – and his 224 straight starts rank second all time among QBs.
Statistically, Rivers has nothing to prove; he can pass Dan Marino on the TD pass and yardage lists this season. But he came along in a transcendent quarterback era that will see several passers inducted. This pass-crazed period has inflated numbers to the point Matt Ryan already has 21 more touchdown passes than John Elway in four fewer seasons, while Eli Manning retired with 10,000 more yards than Fran Tarkenton –- who held the passing yardage record for over 15 years. As passing frequency and efficiency climb, the clubs Rivers will soon belong to will mean less.
In addition to Roethlisberger, Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are Hall of Fame locks. Each surpasses Rivers’ six seasons ranked in the top 10 in Total QBR. So does Ryan (10). Eli Manning, with just two Pro Bowls as a non-alternate, is not Rivers’ statistical equal and will incite debate when Hall-eligible. But the two-time Super Bowl MVP laps his 2004 trade counterpart in postseason accomplishments -- against a greater degree of difficulty. The QB-wins route should not be overly traversed for Canton consideration, but 21 of the 28 Hall of Fame quarterbacks won championships. Four others qualified for Super Bowls or NFL championship games. Rivers' resume is ... different.
The Chargers finished the 2010s with one 10-win season and two playoff berths, wrapping the decade as innovators in close losses. Three of Rivers’ five playoff victories came against the Vince Young-quarterbacked Titans, the 2013 Bengals and the 2018 Ravens -- in a game that saw then-rookie Lamar Jackson enter the fourth quarter with 25 passing yards. Rivers’ two 300-yard playoff outings (in 11 games) came in double-digit defeats, and because of the way his 30s have gone, the Chargers’ 2006 and ’09 divisional-round home losses to inferior Patriots and Jets teams dock Rivers more than they would had the Bolts not tumbled into mediocrity.
Conversely, boding well for Rivers’ induction chances: Warren Moon and Dan Fouts gained first-ballot HOF access despite no Super Bowl appearances. Both submitted regular-season dominance – in snazzier offensive systems than Rivers was gifted – at their peaks. But Moon’s teams never advanced to a conference championship game in his 15-season starter run. Fouts only quarterbacked in the playoffs in four seasons.
The NFL features few examples of quarterback success after changing teams this late in a career. The list for post-38 production after switching uniforms consists of Brett Favre’s Jets and Vikings debuts – the latter in particular – along with Moon on an 8-8 Seahawks team in 1997 and Earl Morrall’s caretaker relief effort on the ’72 Dolphins. Rivers is poised to join this group.
Although he ranked 22nd in 2019 QBR, Rivers remained a superior deep passer to Jacoby Brissett, the player he is replacing. And the Colts newcomer will have more to work with than Brissett did. Rivers also landed seventh in QBR as recently as 2018, despite being outfitted with a bottom-tier offensive line.
Rated third by Pro Football Focus last season, the Colts’ offensive front returns intact. The quintet should be a staggering upgrade for the immobile Rivers; PFF slotted the past five Charger O-lines 29th, 30th, 24th, 31st and 32nd. In a familiar system –- due to having worked with head coach Frank Reich and Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni with the Chargers –- Rivers has a key shortcut in the COVID-19-marred offseason. The Colts, who used second-round picks on 6-foot-4 USC wideout Michael Pittman Jr. and 6,000-plus-yard Wisconsin rusher Jonathan Taylor, are positioned to provide vital supplementation for a previously top-heavy offense.
While the Colts could use another edge rusher, Buckner’s presence will enhance his teammates’ capabilities. Full seasons from All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and standout slot cornerback Kenny Moore, who each missed chunks of last season, should also help Indianapolis’ defense creep closer to the top-10 DVOA group its playoff-bound 2018 edition deployed.
If Rivers has not done enough to warrant Hall of Fame induction, he is incredibly close. He has a chance to follow Kurt Warner in using a late-30s stretch as a Canton springboard. Warner retired after his age-38 season in Arizona, however, adding uncharted-territory appeal to Rivers’ age-39 campaign.
After three seasons leading a Chargers team that fell off the radar upon relocating to Los Angeles, Rivers is back on the map with tremendous opportunity. Few players in the NFL’s 101-year history have entered a 17th season with more to gain.