INDIANAPOLIS – We’re talking about someone who doesn’t need a reason – we’ll call it motivation – to play football, even at his advanced age.
As Philip Rivers has told us once, twice, a dozen times, he’d lace ‘em up and play in the backyard.
“I say humbly I just don’t think I’m externally motivated,’’ he said Wednesday on a Zoom conference call.
A boyish grin flashed across his 38-year-old face.
“It’s an emotional game,’’ he said, “so you can get some external juice, and I guess you call it motivation in terms of the atmosphere you’re in, the challenge or the opponents or the stats you can list of what you haven’t done.’’
We’re not talking about what Rivers has done during his 16-year career with the Chargers. It included seven trips to the playoffs in his 14 seasons as a starter and laid the foundation for serious Hall of Fame consideration.
We’re talking about what he’s attempting to do in his first season with the Indianapolis Colts.
Rivers is attempting to do what few of his ilk have done since the 1970 merger, and that’s take a team to the playoffs . . . at age 38 . . . and in his first year with that team.
The short list:
12-4 as a starter with the 2009 Minnesota Vikings after spending ’08 with the New York Jets. Favre’s Hall of Fame career, obviously, was forged during 16 seasons in Green Bay. In ’09 and at age 40, he posted one of the best years of his career – 4,200 yards, 33 TDs, seven interceptions, a career-best 107.2 passer rating.
9-6 as a 38-year-old starter with, again, the Vikings. Moon, another member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had spent the previous 10 seasons with the Houston Oilers.
After four seasons with the Baltimore Colts, he relocated to Miami in 1972 to serve as Bob Griese’s backup. When an injury sidelined Griese in the fourth game, Morrall, 38, stepped in and finished the regular season 9-0 as the starter. He won the first two playoff games, but was replaced by Griese in their Super Bowl VII win over Washington that completed the Dolphins’ perfect 16-0 run.
That’s it. Three.
Rivers’ challenge – a bit of external motivation – is to make it four in the past half century.
The Chargers decided in February it was time to make a change at their most influential position. They released a quarterback who had been selected to eight Pro Bowls and ranked 4th in NFL history with 123 wins as a starter and 6th with 397 touchdowns and 59,271 yards.
It was fair to wonder if Rivers’ career arc was descending. The Chargers finished 5-11 and Rivers didn’t help matters with one of his worst seasons: 4,615 yards and 23 TDs, but 20 interceptions and a 88.5 passer rating, his worst since ’07.
The Colts looked past the raw numbers and were convinced Rivers, even a Rivers in the twilight of his career, was an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett.
Ballard and Reich studied the video and detected no physical decline, certainly not with Rivers’ arm strength.
Ballard then pulled the trigger on a one-year, $25 million contract. If Rivers is everything the Colts believe he is, he’ll more than likely be back for 2021 on another one-year deal.
But first things first, and that’s 2020. The second phase of Rivers’ career begins Sunday in Jacksonville.
“Obviously, we have a lot of years and history with him,’’ said coordinator Nick Sirianni. “I expect the same Philip Rivers that we had when we were in San Diego together.’’
The Colts didn’t bring in Rivers to be an offensive caretaker. He’s never been a game manager, and that won’t change. When there’s a big play to be made or a tight pass into coverage that must be attempted, Reich and Sirianni will trust Rivers to make it.
“We just want Philip to be himself. I know he will,’’ Reich said. “Great leader, very comfortable in his own skin. Just to be him. Know that he has a good football team around him. Just play good, winning football. Execute what’s called. Use your experience and intelligence to make the checks, to it with confidence.
“Don’t feel like you have to win the game for us every week. We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a good roster.
“But expect big things from him.’’
Rivers also heads into his 17th season with a bounce and optimism, and that has little to do with proving to skeptics he’s still got it at 38. And it certainly has nothing to do with joining a QB1 club whose membership at this point consists of Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Earl Morrall.
“I don’t want to have a great year or help this team win more now after hearing that, if that makes any sense,’’ Rivers said. “The reason I think I’m confident is one, just our team. We’ve got a heckuva group, and I feel personally I can play at a high level.’’
Often, changing teams this late in a career can be difficult. New scheme. New teammates. New environment.
But in this instance, Rivers had a history with Reich and Sirianni, both Chargers’ assistants during his time with the Chargers. He’s yet to throw a pass that counts to T.Y. Hilton or Jack Doyle, but he’s familiar with the scheme that will design those passes.
“I felt comfortable with the play call from the first day of camp,’’ he said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, boy, I think this is how we’re doing it.’ That adds some confidence there, too.
“But most of all because our team and then the personal belief that while there was a lot of negatives last year, (I) still could play winning football and help our team win a bunch of football games.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.