INDIANAPOLIS — You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who knows new Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers better than Nick Hardwick, the Indianapolis native who was Rivers' teammate and center with the San Diego Chargers for 11 seasons.
Hardwick — a Purdue product — recently joined Colts.com's Matt Taylor on 1075 The Fan's "The Last Word" to discuss Rivers' signing in Indy.
You can listen to that conversation in its entirety above; here are some highlights:
What was your initial reaction when you heard Rivers was signing with the Colts?
Hardwick: "I thought, 'Hallelujah,' because as a friend and a guy who protected him for nine years of my career, I would do anything for Phil — still do this day, and I think a lot of his teammates would say the exact same thing. We would do anything for that dude. I would throw myself in front of a train for Philip, just because as an offensive lineman it's built into your DNA after so many years that that is the prized possession we've got to protect. He's an unbelievable teammate. But thinking about him this offseason and the places he could've gone, in my head, as a friend and as a guy who's fiercely loyal to Phil, first off, I think of his protection and I think of his success and his happiness, and the only place that I could see him having a great chance at success and winning a division championship, getting into the playoffs and making a good run, was with the Indianapolis Colts. So, for me, it was Indianapolis Colts or perhaps the Monday Night Football broadcast booth, so this worked out fabulously. I can't wait to cheer for him."
Both Rivers and you played under Frank Reich when he was a coach with the Chargers from 2013-14, first as quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator. How much of that offense do you think will look similar to what Reich does now with Rivers again as his QB?
Hardwick: "It's really hard to tell, and I think especially because Frank was really at the beginning of his play-calling career with the Chargers. And then he went to the Eagles and he blossomed under Doug Peterson, and I think he got some really good influence from that offensive system and carried what he learned there over to Indianapolis. So there are gonna be, and there are, as all signal callers have, kind of their bread and butter — I liken it to, like, a guitar player: you can hear their sound in there no matter what they're playing — so you will see Frank Reich go from the Chargers to the Eagles to the Colts and his sound will be familiar, the look of the offense will be familiar, but I have to imagine that it was heavily influenced by the Eagles and that run that they made, and the ability that they had to work that around the group that they had in Philly, and then coming and having a different quarterback in Andrew Luck and then Jacoby Brissett and of that influence. So his learning curve has been a very steep one; it's been very exciting for me as a guy who loved playing for Frank Reich getting to watch him grow into this space, and always had an understanding that he was going to be a great head coach, just 'cause of the way that he deals with people — his demeanor, his leadership qualities, his ability to concisely convey a message in front of a group. So getting to watch all of that, and then see how his system has kind of morphed itself over the years — and it's going to continue to evolve, because that's what the game of football continues to do — so it's going to be fun to see and hear from Phil the differences from those 2013 to 2015 years to now 2020."
For those that don't know, how would you best describe Rivers as a football player?
Hardwick: "He's the toughest human being that I've been around, and I say this all the time: he's an offensive lineman locked in a quarterback's body. If he were 50 pounds heavier he would've been a Hall of Fame offensive lineman — that's how tough that guy is. He's a wild competitor — as are all elite quarterbacks. I mean, these guys — the Tom Bradys, the Drew Breeses, the Peyton Mannings — these guys obviously hate to lose, they're fiercely competitive. I tell you, with all of that, he's a wonderful teammate. He is the best teammate that I have ever had in my entire life, and that goes from youth sports all of the way up through the pros. I've played with some tremendous guys, but there's something about Philip Rivers and his charisma and his energy and the care that he brings to the locker room every single day — there's nobody in that building that will care as much about winning and success and his teammates as much as Philip Rivers."
Do you have any special Rivers stories that help explain the kind of player and teammate he is?
Hardwick "There's so many moments. And so to think of one moment which really sums him up, I guess you would have to go back — and you guys know this story well in Indianapolis — is tearing his ACL in the division game, and going on to play in the AFC Championship Game the following weekend, in New England, on a torn ACL and a repaired meniscus the very next day. The special thing about that is, yes, his toughness, and yes, his willingness to do that, and I think a lot of athletes would say, 'Man, I would do anything to play in an AFC Championship Game,' and Philip fell in line with that. But the special part about all of that was he never once made it about him. We didn't know what he was going through. As teammates, the word had not spread that he had torn his ACL, that it was going to be some heroic feat that he was going to be playing in New England the following weekend. He just kind of assured everybody throughout that entire week that, 'I'm going to be playing this upcoming weekend. I don't know how I'm gonna do it, because I just had surgery — I'm going to be available, I'm going to be ready.' He practiced on Friday and Saturday, and he just had that inner faith that — why would we doubt him? And so he just kind of put us all at ease, that, 'Hey, our quarterback's gonna be ready.' We went about the week business as usual, and sure enough, on Sunday, by watching the film you couldn't really tell that he had torn his ACL. And it just speaks to his toughness and his character, and really his selflessness, and I think that's really one of the greatest character traits that the has as a leader, is of all of the years that he's played, every time there's any acclaim thrown his way, he throws it immediately back at the guys around him and the locker room and the building and the administration — everything. He sheds all of the acclaim, but he really takes as much blame as he possibly can after losses, and even if he had a 110, a 1-whatever rating it would be, just a ridiculous game, he would say, 'What more could I do? Could I have been better during the week? Could I have communicated better on gamely? Could I have given something more?' So it's always about what more can I do, what more can I give? He's just a really special human."
Rivers in 2018 had one of his better seasons in recent memory, and last season the numbers fell off a bit. Do you think he'll be able to revert to that 2018 form now with Reich and the Colts and this offense?
Hardwick: "Yeah, he's not going to be far off from that  season. And I think when people look from the outside — and the expectations around the Los Angeles Chargers were astronomically high. I thought they were falsely elevated, coming off of a 12-4 season. And I do sports talk radio out in San Diego, and we had talked to Phil after that season and said, 'What are you working on next year?' He goes, you know, 'We have to be really cognizant of the fact that, yes we were 12-4 in 2018;' he said, 'A lot of those games were come-from-behind victories, really close contests.' He said, 'We very easily could've been 6-10 that year. So we've got to be really concerned with (not) buying into the hype too much.' So you had that kind of component — expectations, people had them in the Super Bowl preseason before the 2019 season. And then you had the running back, Melvin Gordon, holding out for the entire offseason, you had their left tackle out with pulmonary embolism — nothing he could really do there — he had Derwin James break his foot in the middle of a training camp and miss so much time. They started off poorly, the confidence really waned early, they never got it back, the offensive line continued to fall apart throughout the year, there wasn't the protection around him and they just weren't the team that the expectations coming into the season had set for them. And it was a really disappointing season, and it was disappointing for Phil, too. He'll tell you the same. But the one characteristic that Phil has that is kind of the double-edged sword with him is that he's going to go down swinging. And the old saying would be, 'You might kick my butt, you ain't gonna like it.' Like, he's going to go down and he's gonna throw balls at the end of games when they're down by two touchdowns because, why not? Because, what am I gonna hold this ball and I'm gonna protect my own statistics? He's going to go down swinging every single time, and, you know, that's at times to his detriment, of course, statistically, and then the naysayers can jump on top of those negative statistics — 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions — and so people can do that. But on the positive light of that is, like, you've got a dude who is going to play through the last second of every single game, and he doesn't care about his personal acclaim, he doesn't care about the statistics at the end of the season. All he cares about is competing until the end. And I do believe, you know, he's going to have a much better year in 2020 than he had in 2019. I talked about Russell Okung, their left tackle for the Chargers, being out for the beginning of the year; when he came back he was spotty because he had some soft tissue injuries; Mike Pouncey, their Pro Bowl center, went out midway through the season due to a neck injury, not sure if he's going to return; they had a third-round left tackle that they had drafted as a project to sit behind Russell Okung who was starting later who's out of Sioux Falls, Iowa, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota — I mean, there was not a good protection unit in front of Phillip. And, as you know, Philip is rather immobile, he's an old-school, traditional pocket quarterback, and he requires an offensive line a lot like the offensive line that the Colts have built, which is why I said at the beginning, when I'm thinking of Phil as a teammate and where he can go have success, Indy is the place because of that offensive line."
The Colts had one of the better rushing attacks in the league in 2019. How much can that help Rivers and the way he likes to run the show?
Hardwick: "As I was thinking about Philip and the Indianapolis Colts, I was thinking about, 'OK, who do they have to be? Who's it going to come down to?' And you immediately go back to the Kansas City Chiefs (Week 5 last season), and you go, 'OK, how about that ground-and-pound game? That old-school football game where the Colts just ran it down their throats and the Chiefs couldn't stop 'em.' It may end up coming to that in 2020, which could be super fun. But what the run game does, one, it wears out the pass rushers, so when you're late in the game and you need a two-minute drive to score a touchdown or put yourself in position for a field goal, it makes it a lot easier on the offensive line to pass protect because you've drained the energy reserves of the defensive line. But, two, it draws the safety up into the box, which opens up all the passing lanes. If there is a fear of a legitimate run game that they're having a difficult time stopping, you've gotta load that box up, you've gotta put eight men in there, which makes passing the ball so much easier. Which is another point about Philip's season last year: there was zero threat from the Chargers to be able to run the ball. They just couldn't get it going. Melvin Gordon was out, the offensive line fell apart; they could not get the run game up to speed, really all year long, when allowed defenses to just play coverage. And there was no speed to stretch the field vertically, so everything they were doing was these underneath routes, 12-, 13-play touchdown drives, which was painful to watch. I mean, every single scoring drive was this arduous, long, painful drive, which, as you know, when you start getting up in 10-, 11- and 12-play drives, oftentimes at the end of those drives there's a penalty that sets you back so you don't score the touchdown. … That's exactly how it works. And so I think if they can get the run game going, match it up with a good quarterback who can find the open receivers, it's a really dynamic offense, and I think it's going to set both the Colts and Philip up individually for success."
See the best images of quarterback Philip Rivers following his signing with the Indianapolis Colts.