SAN DIEGO -- After having been Jim Kelly's backup in the Bills' heyday and Peyton Manning's position coach in Indianapolis, Frank Reich came to the Chargers in 2013 with an understanding of greatness at the quarterback position. One of the qualities that distinguishes the truly special in his opinion is what he calls "accelerated vision," which is kind of like speed reading on a football field. "It's when your brain can process so quickly that it seems like things are happening in slow motion," Reich said.
Accelerated vision is uncommon, but Reich had witnessed it in Kelly and Manning. He also found it in Philip Rivers. Rivers has arm strength, foot quickness, size and other important physical traits. But what stands out most to Reich is Rivers' beautiful mind.
"I knew he was an elite passer, but I didn't realize this was one of the smartest football guys in NFL, bar none," said Reich, who was the Chargers' quarterbacks coach last year and now is the offensive coordinator.
"If there is a top ten list of smartest guys in the league, he's on it, promise you. I would watch him in practice, hear the calls he would make, how fast he would process things. He's dropping back, talking to the backs as he's moving, telling them who to block, calling out code names for blitzes. He just sees it faster than anybody else."
At 32, 11 years into his NFL career, Rivers is in rare air in terms of his understanding of the game. Go ahead, try to fool him. It won't be easy. Chargers head coach Mike McCoy recalls instances when coaches have questioned Rivers for changing a play as he came off the field, thinking he had made a mistake. But McCoy said Rivers always had a good reason -- for instance, he might have seen a defender tipping off that he would be playing a certain technique. "It's amazing what he picks up," McCoy said. "He sees things, hears things. Those are things you can't coach."
Part of this is Rivers' gift. Part of it is Rivers' dedication. And part of it is Rivers' experience.
To understand how Rivers got this way, you have to know his background. The son of a high school football coach, he was hanging around dad's office and watching tape when he was just a tadpole. Having Steve Rivers as a father and mentor back in Decatur, Ala., was a clear advantage. Then, being taught by Norm Chow during his freshman year at North Carolina State gave him a mental turbo charge. "That was big," Rivers said. "He was way ahead of his time." Former Chargers head coach Norv Turner was another progressive force, as Rivers' never stagnated mentally in the six seasons they were together. And now, he says, Reich has helped him process the game even more. "He played quarterback in this league for 14 years and was in a similar offense and coached a similar offense," Rivers said. "His knowledge is way up there. He can understand what I am seeing and why I feel the way I feel."
Rivers acknowledges he sees things faster than he did a few years back. "A lot of that is just playing," said Rivers, who now has passed 4,108 times in the NFL and thrown for 32,369 yards. "When you've played a hundred and some games as opposed to 30, you are a different player."
Rivers clearly was a different player in 2013 than he was in 2012. His passer rating improved from 88.6 to 105.5. His completion percentage went from 64.1 to 69.5. His average per completion went from 6.8 to 8.2. For this, he was voted Comeback Player of the Year.
As he has aged, the wisdom of Rivers' experience has become more evident in his play. "He absorbs everything," Chargers veteran center Nick Hardwick said. "After 11 years he has an encyclopedia up there of football knowledge. He knows what the D-line is doing. He knows what the linebackers are doing. He knows techniques we are using, how we are supposed to be blocking. He knows all of our line calls. He loves football. It's his life. So he's taken it on himself to know everything he possibly can about the game."
Rivers and Hardwick have a special connection. As the two players most responsible for the Chargers' protection adjustments, they work to be in sync with one another like dance partners preparing for a ballroom competition. On Monday and Tuesday during the season as they watch tape separately, the two are texting continuously. Sometimes, one will phone the other. They go back and forth all week.
On Wednesday after practice, Rivers and Hardwick gather offensive linemen, tight ends and running backs for a sub pass protection meeting to prepare for nickel and dime defenses. The meeting is not required by coaches, and coaches do not participate. Rivers puts a tape together and runs the show. With help from Hardwick, Rivers lets each of the players know how he is supposed to react in every potential blitz situation. "It's my favorite part of the preparation," Rivers said. "When we get a pressure figured out and pick it up, those are the plays that fire me up the most."
Reich calls Rivers a "savant" when it comes to protections. After being sacked 49 times in 2012, Rivers dedicated himself to improving his pocket presence last season. He was sacked 19 fewer times. Rivers' 105.1 passer rating against the blitz was second best in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. "If you watch our film from last year, it was a clinic reel on how quarterbacks should play in the pocket," Reich said. "I can show you play after play after play where everything is caving in around him and he's standing strong in the pocket."
Against the Eagles last September, Rivers twice recognized a defensive vulnerability at the line of scrimmage and called audibles for passes to Eddie Royal, and twice the Chargers scored touchdowns. Rivers' understanding of protections and level-headedness under pressure early in the season encouraged McCoy and Reich to give him autonomy, play no huddle and go up-tempo more frequently.
Now, the Chargers have a pretty encompassing audible system and have the potential to be one of the most dangerous no-huddle teams in the league. McCoy said Rivers gives the Chargers the flexibility to call any play at any time because coaches are confident if the call won't work, Rivers can adjust. Sometimes Rivers goes to the line with two plays and he decides which to run based on the defensive look. Other times, he calls a play and can dial up a completely different one if the circumstance dictates.
McCoy brought some ambitious ideas from Denver, where he worked with Manning. Reich is a big proponent of quarterback freedom based on his history as a quarterback in Marv Levy's K-Gun and his work with Manning.
Rivers played most of his career in an offense that did not allow him to change plays much, so he is like a colt that has been let out of the barn. "The no huddle, up-tempo stuff, I really feel like that is what I'm supposed to be doing," he said. "I'm able to get into a rhythm, I'm able to see the defense at all times. The fun part of being a quarterback is giving signals, calls, directing traffic."
There is a creative element in what Rivers does at the line. Reich notes Rivers is not always following a script. "That's what we love," Reich said. "We don't need somebody who is always going to play by the book. We want him to be disciplined, but we don't want a robot. If the coach has to run it from the sideline and the quarterback is a robot, it does not work. The no huddle comes naturally to him."
Rivers can see more no huddle, more long gains and more touchdowns in his future. And he can see it all faster than almost anyone.