INDIANAPOLIS — As the Indianapolis Colts explored their options at the quarterback position earlier this offseason, Frank Reich just kept going back to one name: Philip Rivers.
With an unprecedented number of quality quarterbacks expected to be available via free agency or trade, and then with the other realistic option of simply retaining Jacoby Brissett as the starter heading into 2020, Reich couldn't help but envision getting the opportunity to once again create dynamic offensive gameplans with Rivers under center.
Turns out Rivers had his sights set on Indy, too.
The "legal tampering period" for free agency began March 16, and almost instantly, Rivers' name was being linked to the Colts. It didn't take long for the two sides to progress from there.
Just one day later, Rivers and the Colts had agreed to terms on a one-year contract, and on March 21, the deal was officially done.
Reich, and the Colts, got their guy.
"This was a crazy, unique opportunity," Reich recalled Tuesday in a video conference call with local reporters, his first media session since the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
The Colts, as Reich explained it, were fully prepared to move on with Brissett as their starter entering the start of free agency. After the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck just two weeks before Week 1 of the 2019 regular season, it was Brissett that helped lead the team to a 5-2 start, highlighted by a Week 5 road victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.
But the Colts weren't able to maintain that pace, and won just two games the rest of the way to finish with a 7-9 record, missing out on a chance at back-to-back postseason berths as two division rivals, the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, both made deep playoff runs. Brissett had his ups and his downs the second half of the season, but after pouring over the film, the Colts were comfortable giving him another shot at the starting job moving forward.
So now with Rivers in the fold, the Colts believe they have two starting-caliber quarterbacks in their arsenal.
"This was a unique opportunity, and it wasn't so much about what Jacoby wasn't doing, it was about an opportunity to get someone who we feel is an elite quarterback who can help our team," Reich said.
An eight-time Pro Bowler, Rivers boasts some of the best production ever seen at the quarterback position; in all, he comes to Indy having completed 4,908-of-7,591 passes (64.7 percent) for 59,271 yards and 397 touchdowns in his first 16 seasons, all with the Chargers.
In NFL history, Rivers ranks in the top 10 in several categories, including passing attempts (seventh), completions (sixth), completion percentage (ninth), passing yards (sixth), passing touchdowns (sixth), passer rating (10th), first down completions (fifth – 2,913), completions of 25 yards or more (fifth – 455) and 300-yard passing games (fourth – 70). Additionally, his 123 career regular season victories as a starter rank ninth in league history.
But some outsiders looked at Rivers' 2019 season and wondered if Father Time might've been catching up with the 38-year-old North Carolina State product. In 16 games, Rivers completed 390-of-591 passes (66 percent) for 4,615 yards — numbers any quarterback would love to have — but he had 23 passing touchdowns to 20 interceptions. In all, Rivers' passer rating of 88.5 was the third-lowest of his career as a full-time starter.
But all statistics need the proper context, and what Reich saw when he popped in Rivers' 2019 game film was a quarterback still perfectly capable of making all the throws and playing at an extremely high level.
"Obviously, when it came out that Philip was going to be available, it was an easy discussion to see that it was a fit with us," Reich said. "Does he still have it all left in the tank at 38? What does he have left in the tank at 38? Just having been there on the inside for the three years I was and knowing the quarterback position like I do, I was so confident that physically he was the right player and that he had not lost anything. All of the throws I saw on film and as I go back and studied him compared to previous throws, I really didn't notice any physical gifts diminishing at all. I really didn't."
But when it came down to brass tax, what really set Rivers apart from the others was that aforementioned familiarity with Reich, as well as Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and tight ends coach Jason Michael — all of whom spent at least three seasons on the Chargers' coaching staff with Rivers at quarterback.
Reich spent the 2013-15 seasons as Rivers' quarterbacks coach, and then as offensive coordinator; Sirianni was with the Chargers from 2013-17 as an offensive assistant and then quarterbacks and wide receivers coach; and Michael was the Chargers' tight ends coach from 2011-13.
Rivers flourished under Reich and Sirianni's guidance, particularly. He had one of his best-overall seasons as a pro in 2013, throwing for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns; he led the NFL in completion percentage (69.5) and was fifth in yards per pass attempt (8.2) and fourth in passer rating (105.5) and was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.
In total in Rivers' three seasons under Reich and Sirianni with the Chargers, he ranked, on average, second in the NFL in completion percentage, fifth in passing yards, fifth in touchdown passes, sixth in passer rating, seventh in fewest interceptions and ninth in yards per pass attempt.
The major advantage for Rivers and the Colts is the fact he comes in already having mastered a majority of the playbook; Reich estimated Rivers knows "80 or 85 percent of the offense — maybe more."
So as soon as Rivers is able to officially join the team and the coaching staff in a more official capacity — the COVID-19 health emergency has all offseason workout program plans on hold for the time being — he can hit the ground running.
"When I tell you he is elite intellectually, he's just at the top," Reich said of Rivers. "There's a rare group of guys in the football world who I would put in that category. Not everybody gets those gifts. He has them and so that'll be to his advantage and to our advantage.
"As far as teaching him more, when we are able to send him stuff and get him materials he'll pick it up quickly," Reich continued. "As soon as we are able to communicate with him where we can talk football and really get into teaching mode, it won't take long."