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In Rivers we trust
SAN DIEGO – Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, the saying goes.
Thus, when the Chargers missed postseason by one game the last two years, San Diego got no consolation prize.
But the near misses are a source of confidence for the organization. Team president Dean Spanos believes the roster needs work in the next two months, but views returning to contender status as viable with a strong offseason.
San Diego’s talk isn’t pageantry or wishful thinking – the Chargers are set at quarterback, perhaps the most important element of any championship football team in the 21st century.
Philip Rivers didn’t play his best in 2011, but earned his fourth Pro Bowl selection. In the midst of his physical prime, Rivers threw for 17,597 yards and 119 touchdowns the last four seasons, completing 64.8 percent of his passes.
“I think he’s one of the great NFL quarterbacks in this league,” General Manager A.J. Smith said. “I think a lot of people in the National Football League have said that. I think a lot of fans in general and football people know that he’s one of the marquee quarterbacks in this league.”
Rivers leads the NFL with 8.4 yards per pass attempt since 2008, one of the best four-year stretches of any quarterback in league history. He ranks in the top five in almost every major category in that span.
The quarterback’s production fits well with recent Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Several media outlets have named Rivers the best active quarterback without a championship ring, and his presence is a luxury many teams don’t enjoy.
“I think he has all the ability to lead us to a world championship, but he cannot do it alone. No one can do it alone,” Smith said. “Teams win championships, not individual players. But I’m happy that he’s here. His leadership is phenomenal.
“We just need to do a better job of getting a more balanced team. If you check historically any Super Bowl, including this one, and work your way back through history, obviously they’re good teams because they’re there, but look at the quarterbacks. A high percentage of the time, you’ll find yourself one of the marquee, elite quarterbacks in those games whether you win the Super Bowl or lose it. I think we have one and I’m happy we have one.
“Now we need to pick up the pieces and in particular myself, along with others, and make this thing happen while we have Philip Rivers. And he’s got a lot of football left.”
Rivers threw a career-high 582 passes in 2011 and watched his interception percentage climb from 2.4 to 3.4 percent. But he collected himself behind a reinforced offensive line and his passer rating surpassed 120 in four of the last five games.
The quarterback wants to return to single-digit interceptions next season, something he accomplished in 2009.
“If I don’t turn it over and get guys the ball, our percentage of winning is really high,” Rivers said. “That’s why I feel a great deal of responsibility, because I turned the football over and put us in tough spots.”
San Diego’s special teams endured a rough 2010 season and showed improvement in Rich Bisaccia’s first year with the Chargers. Smith believes the personnel and play of the kicking teams will be even better in 2012.
The Chargers’ defense needs to improve to ensure a return to the postseason next January, a sentiment echoed throughout the top levels of the organization early this offseason.
Rivers showed in 2010 he can carry the offense, completing passes to 13 different receivers and staying in the MVP discussion for much of the year despite numerous injuries and absences. The Chargers haven’t lacked talent at skill positions either, averaging more than 25 points per game for an NFL-record eight consecutive seasons.
Fellow Pro Bowlers Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews remain under contract, and the Chargers hope to re-sign some of their free agents as well.
As long as Rivers, 30, continues to wear No. 17 in Bolts colors, San Diego will be considered a factor in the AFC West by many observers. Those inside Chargers Park have similar outlooks.
“Expectations should be high,” Head Coach Norv Turner said. “The hardest thing is at times this team, this organization, has been so close. I think that adds to the sentiment that’s out there.
“But if you start training camp and you have a player like Philip Rivers, you have a talented group. You want to win your division and have the opportunity to get in the playoffs.”