- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Philip Rivers has been the best quarterback in the NFL much of this season. And yet, we can see the future for Rivers from here, and it's not going to be cozy warm and pretty if he continues this career pattern of his. See, Rivers has a December problem. That's right -- problem. He wins all the time in December, which at first glance sounds fantastic because Rivers looks like the second coming of John Elway as he's piling up passing yards and AFC West titles while leading the Chargers on all these dramatic late-season surges that send them winging into the playoffs.
Then Rivers gets to January -- or playoff time -- and turns into Dan Marino. But not Dan the Younger.
Rivers becomes more like Dan in the December of his career, back when Marino and his Dolphins teams could never get back to the Super Bowl despite Marino's undeniable brilliance. Late in his career, all Marino heard was he never won the big one, until lacking a Super Bowl ring became a millstone padlocked around his neck with eight words chiseled into it that shadow him to this day: Greatest Quarterback Never to Win a Super Bowl.
At 29, Rivers would seem to have a lot of time to avoid a similar fate. And Rivers isn't at Marino's Hall of Fame level yet.
But he still conjures up parallels.
Rivers heard the Marino comparisons this season when he was on pace until the past two games to break one of the most venerable marks in the NFL record book -- Marino's 26-year-old, single-season passing record of 5,084 yards. He heard the Marino comparisons from quarterback connoisseurs such as just-fired Denver rival Josh McDaniels, who has said Rivers throws the deep ball better than anyone he's ever seen, and Super Bowl winning quarterback-turned-ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who has praised the way Rivers can move in the pocket and scan the entire field, running each play and ruing every last annoying incompletion with the sort of seething determination that Marino displayed.
It seems laughable now that pro scouts griped about the aesthetics of Rivers' sidearm throwing motion when he was coming out of college instead of just swooning about his 70 percent plus completion rates, or his obvious leadership qualities, or that lightning quick release of his that reminds so many people of ...
Still, nothing kicks up the Marino comparisons like the fact that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and the Giants' Eli Manning, whom Rivers was traded to San Diego for in a 2004 draft day deal, quickly left Rivers as the only star quarterback from their first-round draft class not to win a Super Bowl. The topic only picked up more steam after Drew Brees, whom San Diego let go after a Pro Bowl season (and a torn labrum) to make room for Rivers, won it all with the New Orleans Saints last season.
Brees' denouement in San Diego only highlights another complication in Rivers' Super Bowl quest.
Rivers works for brazen, sometimes combative Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, who not only let Brees go but also had the onions to fire Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season, and tangle with Shawne Merriman years before physical problems limited him, though pass rushers are often as hard to find as decent quarterbacks.
Most recently, Smith was so dead-set against giving Rivers' best receiver, Vincent Jackson, a long-term contract after Jackson was arrested for DUI and later, driving with a suspended license. The two were squabbling even before Jackson was suspended. He didn't play until the 11th game or make a catch until the Chargers' 13th game of this season, Sunday in the Chargers' must-win victory over Kansas City.
Smith often reminds reporters that he's long said the Chargers need to help Rivers by giving him the sort of defense that helped Manning and Roethlisberger win their Super Bowls.
But look: The Chargers have the league's top-ranked defense, and Rivers was earning MVP mention long before New England's Tom Brady started connecting with his Smurf receivers or both Manning brothers started heaving interceptions as if some genetic time bomb simultaneously clicked on in both of them. Yet the Chargers started the season 3-5 -- another trademark dwaddle out of the gate that left the contrarian Smith still insisting that the Chargers' Norv Turner is a "brilliant" head coach rather than, say, just an undeniably brilliant offensive coordinator who's been miscast as a head coach three times now and often seems slow to tourniquet problems like the special teams disasters that killed San Diego at times this year.
Or so Norv's critics bleat.
Rivers has brought the ever-streaky Chargers roaring back to 7-6 by throwing to the unknowns and backups that've had to play because Jackson was missing and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates has been among the many Chargers playmakers who were hurt this season. Gates is his leading receiver despite missing three games.
The offense's success is yet another testament to how terrific and driven Rivers is. But other than his decision to play the 2007 Chargers' AFC title game despite a torn ACL that later required surgery, the folklore hasn't kept up with Rivers' play in the same way it's sprung up Brady and Peyton Manning. And that's too bad, too.
Rivers is every bit the demanding, obsessive-compulsive, hotly competitive workaholic that Brady and Manning are. And the super brat antics that used to make some people dislike Rivers are largely gone now, too, though there was a harmless relapse Sunday when Rivers was seen jawing with Kansas City defensive tackle Shaun Smith before the Chargers commenced to pound the wobbling AFC West leaders into scallopine with a 31-0 win.
Rivers laughed when asked about it later, and protested that exchange was all in fun. Anyway, Rivers added, he never says anything in those moments that he couldn't repeat to his mother or wife. And teammates say that's true. They've never heard Rivers swear even once. He's a down-home Alabama boy who drives a pickup to work and his favorite expression remains "Goll-ly" -- which, uh, might give Gomer Pyle fans a rise, but is not quite the same as hearing Patriots halfback Fred Taylor's story the other day of how he entered the huddle for the first time late in the Pats' beat down of the Jets two Mondays ago, only to have the insatiable Brady immediately jump in his grill screaming, "Take it to the [expletive] house now, Freddy! C'mon! Let's GO!"
But teammates like Rivers' quirks and -- oh yeah -- the fact that he can really, really play.
Rivers just might want to hurry up and get over this December/January problem. He knows his career record in December is 18-1. His postseason record? Just 3-4.
"Now you guys might say, 'Why haven't you done the same in the playoffs?" Rivers acknowledged recently at a press conference. And he was right.
People do say that.
It's hard to see what he can do better. Yet it's equally hard to resist the temptation to remind Rivers of Marino and urge Rivers to get on with it already.
He should get that Super Bowl ring before the "can't-win-the-Super Bowl" talk gets him too.
Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers is almost perfect in December. Then he gets to January -- or playoff time -- and turns into Dan Marino. But not Dan the Younger.