- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- Probably the last place Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers needs to be this particular Friday morning is the Mission Valley Starbucks, sipping an extra large chai tea latte.
He's already hyper by nature. He fidgets constantly during conversation. Rivers' many physical skills, apparently, do not include the ability to remain still for any length of time. Every few seconds he leans forward. Then sits back. Adjusts his cap. Removes it. He alternately rubs his legs and massages his five-o'clock shadow. He scratches. He stretches. Again. And again. He checks his watch repeatedly, though he says he's in no rush.
Rivers clearly is uneasy being confined to a chair. Sitting, for him, isn't the most comfortable position.
"We call him antsy," wide receiver Keenan McCardell says. "He's always energetic. He likes to bounce around, keep it moving."
And so, as you might imagine, it has been pure torture for Rivers, having to sit on the bench as a backup to Drew Brees.
"I feel sometimes like I'm -- the word's not useless -- like, 'I didn't do anything today,'" Rivers explains, or rather, attempts to explain. "It's more like, 'How did I benefit the Chargers today?'"
The coffee shop is busy, however none of the customers seems to recognize the player San Diego acquired in a blockbuster draft-day trade with the New York Giants some 17 months ago. So much for the backup QB's being the most popular guy in town.
Conversely, Rivers says he is stopped every five steps or so in the malls of Raleigh, N.C., where he starred at North Carolina State. But here he's just another visitor to Sea World.
This is a whole new world for Rivers, this whole waiting in the wings thing. Rivers came to the Chargers (in exchange for Eli Manning, whom San Diego selected first overall, but who was adamant about not wanting to play there) as the second-leading passer in NCAA history. He was the most valuable player of five bowl games (including the Senior Bowl). At N.C. State, he started an NCAA-record 51 games.
As an NFL rookie, he appeared in two games. He has yet to play this season.
Expected to start as a rookie, Rivers held out of training camp and did not join the Chargers until Aug. 24, 2004. By the time Rivers reported, the opportunity to start was gone. Brees proceeded to lead the Chargers to the AFC West title, make the Pro Bowl and earn the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year Award, leaving San Diego little choice but to bring him back as the starter at the guaranteed, one-year, franchise-tag price of $8.078 million. In March, meanwhile, the Chargers, $21 million under the '05 salary cap, exercised their 2010 option on Rivers, worth $6.625 million.
San Diego is projected to be $16 million under next year's spending limit, and executive vice president and general manager A.J. Smith says the Chargers, while it may seem unlikely, can afford to retain both QBs again in 2006.
"We build a football team one year at a time around here," Smith says. "Our football team has been built for '05. I treat it year by year. Everyone wants to jump ahead. 'What are you going to do with the quarterback situation?' My answer is, I haven't a clue. But I will at the end of the year. 'Well, surely you can't have two quarterbacks here.' We'll do whatever we need to do. I don't know right now what we'll do."
After San Diego lost at Denver to drop to 0-2, and with Manning coming to town the following Sunday, Rivers got another reminder of how far he's fallen behind draft classmates Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and J.P. Losman.
Rivers doesn't know where he'll start, but he knows he will be a starting quarterback next season.
Regardless of what Smith says, Rivers refuses to sit for another season, even if it means forcing a trade.
"I'm not going to sit here forever," Rivers said. "There's an end to it. Do I want to be a Charger in '06? Sure. But more importantly, I want to be a starting NFL quarterback somewhere. As bad as I want to be a Charger, I want to play. I don't want to sacrifice and be a backup to be a Charger. That's not something I want to do or I'm going to do."
Counters Smith, "You need two quarterbacks."
The QBs, for their sake, need a resolution. Rivers knows the better Brees does the more unlikely it is that he is traded or allowed to leave as a free agent. But consider: Say San Diego franchises Brees again and keeps Rivers; the Chargers will have paid more than $34 million in salary and bonuses to quarterbacks -- roughly what Peyton Manning received in guaranteed money when he signed his megadeal in 2004.
If Smith decides to deal Rivers, the quarterback he handpicked to lead the franchise just a year ago, San Diego would have paid him $15.885 million to sit for two seasons, plus the cost of whatever draft picks they acquire in a trade for him.
So in that sense (dollars and cents), it might make better sense for the Chargers to move forward with Rivers, in whom they already are committed long term, and part ways with Brees.
"I think of it that way, too," admits Rivers, who can add to his millions through incentives and salary escalators based on performance.
Brees turned in a strong performance of his own Sunday night against Manning and the Giants, completing 19 of 22 attempts.
"Drew's working even harder this year than last year," left tackle Roman Oben says. "And that's impossible."
Brees has proved to be more than a capable quarterback. What happens if he's a Pro Bowler again? If the Chargers go deep into the playoffs? Or if they win the Super Bowl even?
"Constantly," Smith says when asked if he, too, played out those scenarios. "But I don't worry about it until it's decision time."
So have his struggles to cope with inactivity made Rivers replay the holdout that essentially cost him a legitimate shot at the starting job?
"I don't regret the way we [Rivers and agent Jimmy Sexton] handled it," he says. "I never felt any guilt. If we go back and do it again tomorrow, we'd do it the same way. We'd take the same approach."
Backup quarterbacks are trained to approach each week as if it could be their week.
"Easier said than done," Rivers says.
As the calendar turns over and the DNPs pile up, Rivers says he found it increasingly difficult as a rookie to stay late into the night at the team's facility or to devour film the way he knew he should. Rivers may look like Robo-QB with the dark visor in his helmet, but he's still human.
"It's easier now, earlier in the season," Rivers says. "Come Week 9 and 10, if you haven't played
"I'm going to do all I can do to help Drew do well on Sundays, so I don't stand on the sideline thinking, 'What's it going to take for me to get in the game?' It's more, 'Light it up.' I'm the first one to high-five him after a touchdown."
It's the Thursday before the Broncos game, and the practice field has cleared except for Rivers, quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer and Greg Camarillo, a rookie wide receiver on the practice squad. Play after play, Rivers takes snaps from an imaginary center, fakes both ways to a running back who isn't there, and throws different routes to a standing, uncovered receiver, Camarillo.
Rivers ran the scout team last season when Doug Flutie was the primary backup to Brees. The promotion to No. 2 comes with less practice reps during the regular season; the starter sees all the first-team snaps, third-stringer Cleo Lemon directs the scout team, which maybe leaves Rivers the 7-on-7 drills. To make up and more important, to keep up, Rivers spends 20 minutes after Wednesday and Thursday practices going through each play of the game plan.
Rivers played only about six quarters in the preseason and was admittedly "average." Obviously, this isn't what the fourth overall pick envisioned for his second year. Yet he's able to see the big picture: He is but a snap away from being pressed into action. Next year, it very well may be his team, and if he is to stand up in front of his teammates and say, "Jump on my back," as he intends to, then Rivers must go about earning their respect now.
"What I like is that he's staying ready," McCardell says. "He knows he's got to earn it."
Recently inducted Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young serves as Rivers' inspiration.
"I'm going to get my shot at some point," he says. "Whenever it is, I'll get to where I want to go. Whether it's at some point this year or next year, I'm going to be a starter on some team. That's what drives me."
The competition hasn't divided the competitors. They're surprisingly close given the circumstances. Rivers and Brees golf together and even joke with each other about their uncertain futures. They converse about coverages on the sideline during games. Rivers, a classic rah-rah guy, is careful not to overstep his boundaries as the backup and be too outspoken.
"It's [Brees'] team right now," Rivers says.
"He's been first-class the whole time," Brees says.
Simply put, the two have an understanding, if unspoken.
"He's really one of the favorite guys on the team," Rivers says, "and if I were a tight end, it would be a little different. We like each other, and we get along, but one of us wants the other one to be gone."
When his mind is idle, Rivers, 23, begins to wonder. He looks around the league at which teams signed a veteran QB for the short term, which passed on a QB in the draft. And, yes, he imagines the possibilities of playing elsewhere.
Arizona? Dallas? Kansas City? Miami? Oakland? San Diego? Whoever and wherever it is, Rivers says, a team is going to get its leader for the next decade.
"I'm going to be worth where I was picked to any team," he says. "I honestly believe that when I get my shot, whether it's here or not, that I'm not going to play anywhere else."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Philip Rivers was supposed to be the Chargers' man. Now he's a second-year pro wondering when he'll get his first start.