Philip Rivers is retiring from the NFL. The No. 4 pick in the 2004 draft spent 16 seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers — after a draft-night swap with Eli Manning, who spent his career with the New York Giants. Rivers finished his career with a final season on the Indianapolis Colts.
Rivers’ total of 421 career touchdown passes ranks fifth in league history, and his streak of 240 straight starts is second behind only Brett Favre among quarterbacks. Rivers had 12 4,000-yard passing seasons and finished his career with 63,440 passing yards, the fifth most in NFL history.
Rivers, however, never played in a Super Bowl, and his teams had a 5-7 record in the playoffs, including a loss in the wild-card round earlier this month. His most memorable playoff moment was when he played through a torn ACL in the 2007 AFC Championship Game.
We asked our panel of ESPN NFL experts to weigh in on Rivers’ legacy, whether he should make the Hall of Fame and what the Colts could do next at quarterback:
What will you remember most about Philip Rivers’ NFL career?
Mike Clay, fantasy writer: Watching him play a lot despite living on the East Coast. Rivers was the Chargers’ quarterback for 16 years, which meant a majority of his games were during a 4 p.m. ET slate that usually includes only two or three games. At times, Rivers was arguably the league’s best quarterback, and his career wound down with some incredible late-game shootouts. He’ll surely be missed.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: His likability. His trash talk was harmless and fun. Teammates love him. In a game that takes itself far too seriously, Rivers was genuine and approachable. That he gave his retirement story to a longtime local columnist in San Diego, the Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee, is the perfect example.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: The personal interactions with a great player who was always generous with his time and insight. Talking to him a couple of years ago and doing a story on the trash-talking quarterback who never swears, and asking him and those around him what he says instead, was one of the most fun stories I’ve done. He is a genuine individual who gave everything he had physically and emotionally to the game and his teammates.
Eric Karabell, fantasy writer: Rivers was annually underrated by fantasy managers, perhaps due to playing for an oft-overlooked franchise most of his career and enjoying little playoff success, but he was a worthy fantasy starter for more than a decade, until recently of course. Let us remember the big numbers and the consistency.
Jason Reid, The Undefeated senior NFL writer: How spectacularly talented he was. Judging by the comments about Rivers on social media the past few years, many seem to forget that he could once sling it with the game’s best. The fact that he had relatively little success in the postseason provides yet another reminder of how hard it is to win a Super Bowl.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: I’ll always remember how much fun Rivers had playing football. We could see that in his trash-talking, his competitiveness and his decision to seek out another year in Indianapolis after his time with the Chargers came to a natural end. He was the most emotive, expressive player of this generation — and it was awesome.
Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: The entertainment factor. He was never the best quarterback in the league, but he was good and you could bank — with unreasonable certainty — that the game would come down to a fourth-quarter Rivers drive and hinge on whether his risks paid off.
Mike Wells, Colts reporter: That I covered him for a season and never officially got to meet him, never shook his hand and never stood at his locker interviewing him on Wednesdays during the week in the regular season (due to COVID-19 protocols). And his unique throwing motion. It wasn’t ideal for many people, but it was good enough for him to play 17 years in the NFL and finish in the top five in passing yards and touchdown passes in league history.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: I was fortunate to be on the sideline for the 2007 AFC Championship Game while working with the Patriots. Rivers, who had just torn his ACL in the game before, gutted through the game as if his knee were fully intact. Few players personified toughness and competitiveness like Rivers, who was as gracious off the field in conversation as he was impressive on the field.
Should Rivers make the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Clay: Absolutely. As noted earlier, Rivers was one of the league’s best passers at his peak and that peak lasted for roughly a decade. That included a run from 2008 to 2010 in which he led the league in yards per pass attempt in three consecutive seasons. He might be lacking a Super Bowl ring, but he has led his team to nine winning seasons, has thrown for 4,000 yards 12 times and has 421 career passing touchdowns.
Fowler: Yes. The numbers are there, ranking top five in many career passing categories. The toughness is there, playing in every game since 2006 despite a litany of injuries. He doesn’t have a Super Bowl, but his 5-7 playoff record is respectable, and where you play matters. The Chargers were long considered the Bengals of the West Coast. He elevated the franchise.
Graziano: Yes, of course he should. He’s top five in yards and touchdowns and started 240 games in a row. It’s a silly question, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting process has done dumber things than make a guy like this wait, so you never know.
Karabell: Definitely. The numbers are clearly there.
I’ll never forget lining up for a play and Phil pointing to one of our linebackers and telling him he was lined up wrong based off the blitz we were about to run and being 100% correct about it haha.
One of the smartest I’ve ever played against and a hell of a competitor. https://t.co/1AZxyvDafu
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) January 20, 2021
Reid: Objectively, yes. Just look at where he ranks in passing yards and passing touchdowns. And for those who would cite all the standard talking points about today’s inflated passing statistics relative to days of yore, save it for someone who’s interested. Now, will he make it? Well, as previously stated, his career lacks a Super Bowl championship punctuation. And with many of my friends who vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, well, you never know how they’ll roll.
Seifert: Yes. The Hall of Fame is for the best players of the generation. Since he became a full-time starter in 2006, Rivers threw for more yards than every quarterback but Drew Brees. He tossed more touchdown passes, and his teams won more of his starts, than everyone except Brees and Tom Brady. Those numbers suggest a clear qualifier.
Walder: I lean yes, but the volume stats don’t do it for me, especially without an era adjustment. And he was worse than a number of his contemporaries: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and arguably Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo. But he did have four top-three QBR seasons, which is probably enough.
Wells: Yes. You can’t skip a player who is top five in passing yards and touchdowns while also starting 240 consecutive games. It shouldn’t take long for the voters to make their decision when Rivers is up for consideration.
Yates: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Rank these QBs from the 2004 class based on who was best in the prime of his career: Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning
Clay: Rivers, Roethlisberger, Manning. Big Ben and Manning have the rings, but I believe Rivers was the best quarterback of the three. It was tough to pick between the first two, but consider this: comparing his career marks to Roethlisberger’s, Rivers has a higher completion rate, a higher touchdown rate, a higher yards per attempt, an almost identical interception rate (seriously) and a higher QB rating (to name a few).
Fowler: Roethlisberger, Rivers, Manning. Winning is my tiebreaker. Roethlisberger never has had a losing season in 17 years, compared with a combined nine for Manning and Rivers as full-time starters. The Steelers organization had five losing seasons in the 17 years before drafting Big Ben. Rivers was a little more prolific than Manning, whose playoff hot streaks keep this close.
Graziano: Roethlisberger, Rivers, Manning. I would say Manning had a better career than Rivers, because of the Super Bowl titles, and Rivers might even agree if you asked him. But I think Rivers was more consistently capable of taking over a game and putting the team on his back, and he did it with less help. Tough to rank. All three tremendous careers.
Karabell: Rivers, Roethlisberger, Manning. Statistically, Rivers gets the slight nod. Unfortunately for him, he lacks the playoff success, but it seems a bit unfair to blame that all on Rivers. Yes, winning matters, but Manning won, and it feels wrong to place Rivers third here, since his regular-season numbers are strong in comparison.
Reid: Manning, Roethlisberger, Rivers. Although I’ll likely (undoubtedly?) take some heat from my co-panelists, I’ve never been afraid to go it alone. Eye-opening statistics are part of it, obviously, and Rivers definitely checks that box. For me, however, the scoreboard is the deciding factor. Manning and Roethlisberger each have two Super Bowl titles. Granted, Roethlisberger has more Pro Bowl selections than Manning. Based on the “eye test,” many would argue Roethlisberger was just better in terms of being an elite signal-caller. I get it. But on the game’s biggest stage, Manning twice was selected the Super Bowl MVP. In that key category, especially for QBs, Big Ben has a doughnut. And Manning did it in New York. Case closed.
Seifert: Roethlisberger, Rivers, Manning. Normally I would say that Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl wins were more a function of having a better team and organization around him than Rivers did. But we can all agree that Roethlisberger has made some exceptional plays — the throw to Santonio Holmes in Super Bowl XLII comes to mind — that spurred those victories. Rivers, on the other hand, developed a late-career habit of inopportune throws in key situations.
Walder: Roethlisberger, Rivers … big gap … Manning. The first two are very close, and I’d be very open to arguments flipping them. I can’t shake the Super Bowl runs for Roethlisberger if I’m splitting hairs between them, though believe it or not Rivers had a vastly superior postseason QBR to Roethlisberger’s over the course of both careers. Manning earned the rings but was not on the same level as the former two.
Wells: Roethlisberger, Rivers, Manning. This isn’t an easy decision because Manning has more Super Bowl titles, but he’s coming in third on this list. We know where Rivers ranks on the list of passing yards and passing touchdowns, but Roethlisberger is not far behind him in those categories and he has two Super Bowl titles, which is something Rivers never accomplished. The reality is, you can’t go wrong with any of those three as your quarterback.
Yates: Roethlisberger, Rivers, Manning. There isn’t a perfect answer here, and there’s a case for Manning having the highest peaks with his two separate Super Bowl MVP awards. It feels almost unfair to have to rank one third, but in terms of consistent level of play, I’ll rank Big Ben first, Rivers second and Eli third, understanding that the answer might be perceived by many as imperfect.
Whom should the Colts target as their 2021 QB starter?
Clay: Carson Wentz. It might not be fiscally reasonable for the Eagles to move on from Wentz this offseason, especially considering their terrible cap situation, but I’m in the camp that they should be in the market for a potential franchise quarterback. That said, finding a way to get Wentz back with Colts coach Frank Reich, who helped him to his best season in 2017, makes a ton of sense.
Fowler: Matthew Stafford. That’s the guy some people around the league targeted as a Colts fit long before Rivers retired. He turns 33 next month; his contract is reasonable ($20 million in cash owed in 2021); and he’s still a top-10 talent. He’s more of a sure thing than Carson Wentz at this stage. But general manager Chris Ballard staying patient and taking a swing in the draft is hardly off the table.
Graziano: Every team but about four or five should be targeting Deshaun Watson, but I don’t see any way Houston would trade him to a division team, so let’s cross that one off. I like Stafford as the Rivers-type move for the Colts this offseason. He’s going to be available, comes cheap salary-wise and would be the perfect veteran fit for a team that’s otherwise ready-made to contend.
Karabell: Eagles fans might want Wentz anywhere else, and to reunite with Reich, but oh, that cap hit. Forget it. The Colts already went the veteran route once with Rivers, and they could certainly do it again with another fellow who boasts solid regular-season numbers sans January success — Stafford.
Reid: Well, now that Rivers has moved from his playing days, a Wentz-Frank Reich reunion would make sense. Well, at least for Indianapolis. Still not sure if that’s necessarily the route the Eagles are interested in taking.
Seifert: Wentz. Yes, he has had a few rough years. But it’s not as if he has never shown us that he can be an elite NFL quarterback. He did, in 2017, with Reich as one of his coaches. It would be a commitment, but the Colts could support it. Also, this question isn’t fun if everyone picks Stafford.
Walder: Dak Prescott. If Prescott became available, he should be Plan A for Indianapolis (assuming Watson is off the table). We’re talking about a player who ranks sixth in QBR — just fractions of a point behind Watson — since he entered the league, and would make the Colts, in my view, the AFC South favorites immediately.
Wells: Sorry to those who want a Wentz-Reich reunion. I’m taking a hard pass on that and going with Stafford. He’s only 33 years old and still has plenty of good years of football left for a roster in Indy that has talent on both sides of the ball, most notably in linebacker Darius Leonard and offensive lineman Quenton Nelson. And his price tag isn’t steep, as he is due only $9.5 million in base salary next season. That also allows for Jacob Eason, the Colts’ fourth-round pick last spring, to continue to learn and develop.
Yates: Stafford. While new Lions general manager Brad Holmes might not be intent on dealing Stafford, the Lions are a team that does profile as a potential rebuild with the No. 7 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Where Stafford would make most sense is with a franchise in which he can be a ceiling raiser, and we know that Indy’s roster is plenty good enough to make a postseason run. If Detroit were inclined to move Stafford, dealing a star to an AFC foe is always preferred to a team you might see soon (the Colts and Lions don’t play again until 2024) and would likely be alluring to Stafford himself.