Over the last decade, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has ranked among the NFL’s top 10 in passing yards nine times. Posting consistently prolific numbers, the 37-year-old’s résumé has warranted talk of a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Yet for those who don’t watch many Chargers games, discussion of Rivers often falls back on a familiar topic.
Rivers’s throwing motion is, quite simply, different. It doesn’t resemble the normal overhead arm angle of most other quarterbacks. It is, as Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter once described, a “quirky shot-put throwing motion.”
Of course, the other thing that’s undeniable about Rivers’s throwing style is that it’s effective. Guiding the Chargers to a 12-4 record this season and into a divisional-round matchup with the Patriots, the 15-year NFL veteran has helped to coax the best out of his team’s offense.
Earlier in the season, Rivers tied the NFL record for most consecutive completions to start a game with 25 in a win over the Cardinals.
For those wondering, there’s a reason why the quarterback throws the way he does.
Football was too big for his hand
Rivers grew up in Alabama, where his father, Steve, was the head coach of the Decatur High School football team.
At a young age, Rivers was a ball boy for his dad’s team. He would retrieve footballs and throw them back. In this his unorthodox throwing style was born — from the necessity of having to throw a full-sized football despite being a child.
“We got to thinking about it, and one of the reasons he has such an odd throwing motion, especially when he was younger, was he’d have to throw that big varsity football around,” Steve Rivers said in a 2017 interview. “There was only one sized ball, and he’d throw it when the kids would play.
“He was throwing the regulation football that was too big for his hand for him to throw, so that’s why he would push it. They used to say it looked like he was throwing a shot put. So that is probably where that motion comes from.”
Rivers kept the same sidearm style through high school in Athens, Ala. He was highlighted on more than one occasion as a standout player in a football-rich state.
For several reasons, Rivers didn’t end up going to college close to home. The most striking explanation for why the eventual first-round pick didn’t attend Auburn was that then-coach Tommy Tuberville wanted Rivers to play tight end, not quarterback.
The school that ended up getting Rivers, North Carolina State, was the first to actually offer him a scholarship, as well as a chance to play as a freshman.
‘Why mess with it?’
Rivers graduated high school early and immediately moved to N.C. State to help his chances of winning the starting quarterback job in January 2000. His throwing motion was quickly called out by offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
“No one really said anything until I got to N.C. State,” Rivers recalled. “I remember Norm Chow telling me he was watching us off the balcony, seeing me throw. He asked if I was OK. He hadn’t recruited me. He was hired after, so he had never seen me play a snap. So he asked if I was all right or if I was hurt or something.”
Chow, who took to calling Rivers the “javelin thrower,” was initially worried enough that he contacted then-Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren for advice.
“Mike said, ‘Does he throw completions?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Chow told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “He said, ‘Well, then leave him alone.’
“He just reconfirmed what I already had known,” Chow continued. “You’re not going to change a young man’s motion when he’s 19 years old. Maybe when he’s 7 or 8. But when he’s 19 and had the success that he’s had, I don’t think you worry too much about it.
“His timing was terrific. The accuracy was terrific. Why mess with it?”
Rivers became N.C. State’s starter as a freshman, setting both school and Atlantic Coast Conference records in his four years. By his senior season, the “javelin thrower” had moved up NFL Draft boards.
Getting it to the right guy
After getting drafted by the Giants fourth overall in 2004, Rivers was instantly dealt to the Chargers as part of a deal that sent Eli Manning to New York. Finding himself behind Drew Brees on the Chargers’ depth chart, Rivers waited two seasons to become a starter.
Following Brees’s 2006 departure in free agency, Rivers took the reins. While Chargers quarterbacks coach John Ramsdell made small adjustments to Rivers’s mechanics, the overall style remained.
In a 2010 appearance on NFL Total Access, Rivers offered an explanation.
“For the most part, it was, ‘Stick with what got me here,’ ” he said. “But you want to do whatever gave you the best chance to get your shot in the NFL, so I tweaked things here and there, mainly just to tighten it up.
“One thing I’ve always tried to live by is be quick and accurate with [the football]. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, as long as it’s getting to the right guy.”
More than a decade after becoming a starting quarterback, his position has never come under threat. And he has earned the respect of his opposition.
“He’s very accurate on the deep ball,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick in Tuesday’s news conference. “Sees coverages well, sees matchups well, goes to the right place, throws the ball accurately.”
“I remember we played him in ,” Tom Brady recalled during a WEEI interview. “I mean, the guy played on a torn ACL, and we played in 10-degree weather and he was still firing dimes out there.”
Rivers, now 37, has acknowledged that he’s on the “back nine” of his career. But his unique throwing style might live on after he retires. Gunner, one of Rivers’s eight children, has already developed an eerily similar throwing motion.
“It’s crazy,” Rivers said. “You heard my story a million times, growing up trying to throw a high school football from a young age. He’s had the youth football from a young age, but it’s the same.
“I remember earlier saying to him, ‘Hey, just raise it up a little bit.’ But he was like, ‘That’s how you do it,’ so I’ve got no problem with it. He’s doing just fine.”