Commentary

Luck, circumstances helped Rivers become a hero

Originally Published: December 15, 2008
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

The idea that a quarterback "leads" his team to victory or defeat is an antiquated notion that applies to a small minority of cases and doesn't stand up to any sort of actual logical scrutiny.

Take Philip Rivers this week, for example. The game recap from The Associated Press starts: "The San Diego Chargers got lucky. Even better, they've got Philip Rivers."

Rivers is a great quarterback. This week, though? He was the one who got lucky, and the idea that he led the team anywhere but to a sure defeat is ignoring how and why the game got to the point where the Chargers needed an onside kick and a good drive from Rivers to win.

The Kansas City pass defense that Rivers faced on Sunday is putrid. Vile. Dilapidated. Pick your favorite adjective for "poor." The Chiefs are 27th in the league against the pass. They had, before Sunday, six sacks in 13 games. By comparison, the Cowboys had eight sacks against the best offensive line in the league on Sunday. The late Derrick Thomas had seven sacks … in one game. When the Chiefs sacked Rivers three times Sunday, they matched their entire total since Week 5.

Now, before you go blaming that on the offensive line, it has to go both ways. If you want to reward Rivers for his clutch performance on the game's final drive, you also have to give the offensive line credit for not allowing the Chiefs to sack Rivers on the Chargers' final two drives. Solely saying "Rivers led the team to victory" is inaccurate.

WK 15: Calls of the day

NFL.com Video

Relive the most exciting moments of Week 15

As for the performance of the Chargers' quarterback, well, it wasn't pretty in the slightest. Against that awful pass defense with the comically bad rush, Rivers wasn't effective. It seems strange to say that when Rivers was 34-of-48 for 346 yards, but just putting up raw stats belies the context of how they were gained and what they actually meant to the team's chances of winning the game.

First, there's the turnover situation. Rivers threw only one pick (against two touchdowns), but he lost a fumble on his first sack. He also fumbled again on his next sack, but the Chargers were able to recover it. Because our research has shown that fumble recoveries are random chance, Rivers gets an equal amount of blame for both fumbles, regardless of what happened after the ball left his grasp.

Rivers' biggest problem, though, was his performance on third down. Obviously, what a player does on third down has a disproportionate impact on how valuable his game was relative to other downs; if you throw an incomplete pass on second down, well, there's always third down. If you fail on third down, you're essentially turning the ball over to the other team. If you do convert, it's like giving your team three extra outs in the middle of an inning in baseball. Before those final two drives on Sunday, Rivers converted one of the 10 third downs he faced. He was sacked twice and threw an interception. He also failed on a fourth-down attempt in the fourth quarter.

Of course, on the game's final two drives, Rivers converted on both of the third-down attempts he faced. That's valuable, and our system knows it, but points in the fourth quarter don't count any more than points in the first three quarters do. If Rivers had been more effective in the first 55 minutes of the game, he wouldn't have needed the Chargers to recover an onside kick to give the team a chance at winning. Rivers is normally a great quarterback, but on Sunday, he led the Chargers to the brink of defeat.

Here are the rest of the best and worst players of Week 15, according to the Football Outsiders DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) statistics.

Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
1.
David Garrard JAC
21/33
238
2
0
151
150
1
395
Teams continue to take advantage of a Packers secondary that's missing, ironically, its weakest starter (Atari Bigby). When Packers GM Ted Thompson looks back on the roster construction of his 2008 team, the Packers' lack of depth at safety is going to be his biggest disappointment.
2.
Peyton Manning IND
28/37
318
1
0
134
135
-2
414
The game was closer than expected, but it wasn't Manning's fault. He was 6-of-11 on third and fourth down.
3.
Matt Cassel NE
18/30
218
4
1
132
133
-1
361
Not only did Cassel have a good day, he even threw at Nnamdi Asomugha and found success. With Asomugha hiring a new agent this week, it's pretty clear to see that even he's given up on the 2008 Raiders.
4.
Ben Roethlisberger PIT
22/39
246
1
0
126
112
13
416
The best part about Roethlisberger's day isn't captured above: He was sacked only three times (albeit fumbling once), a huge coup against a fearsome Ravens rush.
5.
Tony Romo DAL
20/30
244
2
0
109
117
-8
308
Five passes to Terrell Owens, nine passes to Jason Witten. Owens turned those five passes into only 38 yards, though, which is the bigger problem -- outside of his huge game against the 49ers, Owens simply hasn't been all that great this year.
6.
Matt Schaub HOU
24/39
284
1
0
105
100
6
380
Schaub becomes the only quarterback this year to play an entire game against the Titans and not throw an interception.
7.
Dan Orlovsky DET
23/34
233
1
0
100
100
0
325
While Daunte Culpepper gets rushed from the pocket at the first sign of danger and surrenders himself into the bizarro-Jeff Garcia bobbing and weaving routine, Orlovsky looked more assured in the pocket on Sunday despite playing the vaunted Colts front four. He wasn't sacked, and after a string of five straight incompletions in the first quarter, was 21-of-27 for 227 yards the rest of the way.
8.
Tarvaris Jackson MIN
11/17
163
4
0
97
97
1
234
Where was this guy earlier this year?! Sure, the Cardinals have only an average pass defense, but Jackson was incredibly efficient in his 17 passes, converting four of the seven third downs he faced, including three touchdowns.
9.
Ryan Fitzpatrick CIN
16/29
209
1
0
79
64
15
306
10.
Chad Pennington MIA
12/19
156
2
0
77
76
1
204
The 49ers, before Sunday, gave up the fewest yards per game to tight ends of any team in the league, a minuscule 20.8. One lob over a turned defender to David Martin later, that's not the case anymore.
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
11.
Jake Delhomme CAR
17/26
253
1
1
74
74
0
226
12.
Tyler Thigpen KC
19/27
171
1
1
60
43
17
295
If you can, you owe it to yourself as a fan to watch Thigpen run the Pistol offense before the season ends. There's no guarantee that Thigpen or the scheme will be back in Kansas City next year, but seeing Tony Gonzalez as a wide receiver 90 percent of the time never fails to be strange. And, unlike the Wildcat, the Pistol isn't leaguewide.
13.
Brett Favre NYJ
17/30
207
1
2
48
37
11
247
We're pretty sure that if you try to do that stutter-step/shimmy Favre did on his 27-yard run in a video game, the virtual Favre tears every muscle below his waist and is out for the year.
14.
Matt Ryan ATL
15/23
206
0
2
42
59
-16
185
Ryan had a watered-down version of Rivers' day. He threw two picks and fumbled on a sack, but he was 4-of-9 on third down and didn't have a touchdown because a guy making his first NFL catch fumbled on the 2-inch line. The Buccaneers' defense is also significantly more of a challenge to throw on than the Chiefs'.
15.
Shaun Hill SF
30/45
233
0
0
42
37
5
339
Without Frank Gore, offensive coordinator Mike Martz returned to, well, the Mike Martz offensive scheme. And 5.2 yards an attempt, five sacks and nine points later, we can safely say that Hill isn't ready to run the Martz offensive scheme.
16.
Jason Campbell WAS
17/28
167
1
0
40
33
8
226
Campbell was 2-of-5 on short passes to the left, and 8-of-14 on short passes to the right, but 5-of-6 on short passes up the middle.
17.
Kerry Collins TEN
15/33
181
0
1
35
41
-6
217
18.
Marc Bulger STL
19/32
208
1
0
26
26
0
201
Stick with your studs. On passes intended for guys not named Jackson, Avery or Holt, Bulger was 5-of-12 for 47 yards.
19.
Drew Brees NO
24/42
232
2
2
21
17
5
262
Brees was 2-of-10 on third down in the first half, but 5-of-7 on third down in the second half. The Saints scored 17 of their 24 points in the second half. That is not a coincidence.
20.
Kurt Warner ARI
29/45
270
1
1
21
21
0
274
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
21.
Brian Griese TB
26/37
269
1
1
18
18
0
238
Warrick Dunn caught all seven of the passes thrown to him for a total of 50 yards, almost exclusively on angle routes. Think the Buccaneers saw something on film?
22.
Aaron Rodgers GB
20/32
278
1
1
15
8
7
242
23.
Philip Rivers SD
34/48
352
2
1
12
8
4
291
Nine of Rivers' 34 completions (26 percent) didn't push the Chargers enough toward a first down to be considered a "successful" play.
24.
Jay Cutler DEN
22/34
171
1
1
11
11
1
212
25.
Seneca Wallace SEA
15/25
226
0
0
-18
-6
-12
115
Wallace was 10-of-12 to John Carlson and Deion Branch, 5-of-13 to everyone else. Is this really what the Seahawks have been waiting all this time for? Can't he just be a really good slot receiver next year?
26.
JaMarcus Russell OAK
17/31
242
2
1
-21
-21
0
150
Russell also outran Mike Vrabel on a pass from Darren McFadden, only to drop it. Being outrun by Russell might be a sign that you've lost a step.
27.
Kyle Orton CHI
24/40
172
0
2
-25
-26
1
208
Orton's struggles are now moving from the "He hasn't healed yet" level to the "He sold his soul to the devil for that early-season stretch" pantheon of performance. Our numbers even include the 77 yards Orton picked up on two pass interference penalties drawn by Devin Hester. If you started Hester in your fantasy league and lost because he "had" only 38 yards, well, you'll be with us when we keep complaining about pass interference penalties not counting as yardage accrued.
28.
Joe Flacco BAL
11/28
115
0
2
-34
-39
5
119
An underreported reason why the Ravens lost: Flacco's sack and subsequent fumble on third-and-8 from the Steelers' 27 with 4:28 left. If Flacco had thrown an incomplete pass, the Ravens would have been attempting a 44-yard field goal instead of punting. That would've made it 12-6. Even if the Steelers came back and scored a touchdown, Flacco and his team would have needed only to drive for a game-winning field goal, not a touchdown.
29.
Eli Manning NYG
18/35
191
0
2
-106
-106
0
68
Losing Plaxico was bad; losing Kareem McKenzie, as the Cowboys' pass rush pointed out on Sunday night, could be even worse.
30.
J.P. Losman BUF
25/37
152
1
3
-128
-143
16
69
We don't punish him very much for the Hail Mary that was picked off, but Losman threw two other picks, fumbled twice and had an intentional grounding and three sacks, one of which was returned for the game-winning score. He's simply not an NFL quarterback.
Five most valuable running backs
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Kevin Faulk NE
45
0
66
1
58
7
51
167
Oakland had no answer for Faulk in the passing game. Faulk picked up four first downs and a touchdown in the air, picking up 74 yards after the catch.
2.
Darren McFadden OAK
46
1
68
0
57
21
36
160
Likewise, the Patriots' linebackers were predictably too slow to handle McFadden. His three receptions went for 77 yards after the catch.
3.
Tashard Choice DAL
91
1
52
0
46
33
13
129
Is Marion Barber going to get Wally Pipp'd? Choice has looked fantastic the past two weeks as the full-time back, albeit really only doing very much in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's game. Keep in mind that he's going to be the Cowboys' third-string running back next year. The Cowboys might be hard-pressed to turn down a second- or third-round pick for their rookie back if it nets them some needed depth on the offensive line or a backup quarterback. Choice for Sage Rosenfels?
4.
Michael Turner ATL
152
1
30
0
45
27
18
203
Fantasy alert: Turner's 32 carries put him at 332 for the year. With two games to go, Turner's on pace to be afflicted by the vaunted Curse of 370, which would dramatically decrease his value in keeper leagues.
5.
Pierre Thomas NO
87
1
59
1
42
9
33
200
If Thomas is a better rusher than Reggie Bush, and he can do this much in the passing game … what do the Saints need Bush for, again? Can't they just sell his jersey and not play him?
Least valuable running back
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Adrian Peterson CHI
15
0
8
0
-21
-8
-13
-11
Note the team there -- we're not picking on AD. Although we've been fond of the other Adrian Peterson as a part-time back in the past, those days are gone. Peterson's day cratered by being the intended receiver on back-to-back incomplete passes from Orton and Brad Maynard on third and fourth down, respectively, in the fourth quarter.
Five most valuable wide receivers and tight ends
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
Andre Johnson HOU
11
15
207
18.8
1
86
224
Do you think Johnson goes home at night, fires up a video game and trades himself to other teams?
2.
Steve Smith CAR
9
11
165
18.3
1
82
196
Even the two incomplete passes thrown to Smith were a combined 57 yards downfield. It's amazing how Smith manages to get open downfield, week after week.
3.
James Jones GB
4
5
132
33.0
0
59
121
The battle between Jones and Jordy Nelson to see who will be the Packers' third receiver in 2009 is fierce. Nelson's better after the catch, but Jones is better at getting downfield. This week, Jones wins thanks to three receptions of 34 yards or more.
4.
Dallas Clark IND
12
13
142
11.8
1
57
204
You have to wonder whether the Lions' game planning session this week got through covering Wayne, Harrison and Gonzalez, but somehow forgot about Clark. Did they have only an hour to meet and got bogged down in discussing whether Harrison had lost five steps or six or something? Did the delivery guy show up before they were expecting and they ended the meeting 15 minutes early? Do they have game planning sessions?
5.
Dennis Northcutt JAC
5
8
127
25.4
1
56
127
Another guy making his way downfield this week, Northcutt had three receptions of 30 yards or more. He also had a 17-yard reception on third-and-18, the eighth-longest completion of the year that didn't go for a first down. Incredibly, Jaguars tight end Greg Estandia had a 23-yard catch that came up 3 yards short of a first down in Week 12.
Least valuable wide receiver or tight end
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
5.
Justin McCareins TEN
3
13
36
12.0
0
-66
-13
The Texans decided to double-team Chris Johnson on many pass plays, leaving the Titans' receivers in man coverage against one of the league's worst pass defenses. As you can see, McCareins was unable to exploit it. He also fumbled on one of his three receptions.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.