Retirement thoughts were running through his mind, Philip Rivers recently admitted. Almost everyone who watched him play last year probably thought the same. After leading the Los Angeles Chargers to the bottom of the AFC West, he became their former quarterback.
The Chargers decided it was better to move on from old man Rivers and, like most NFL teams, start the search for their quarterback of the future.
But it’s also a win-now league, and a player past his prime still can be the best option for the present. That’s why Tom Brady was courted by Tampa Bay and Drew Brees was re-signed by New Orleans. In their early 40s, Brady and Brees are legitimately chasing their last shots at another Super Bowl.
The Indianapolis Colts’ hot pursuit of Rivers, 38, was the most curious move of an active free-agent market for quarterbacks. Are the Colts chasing a ghost, or were they wise to make a $25 million bet on a new-look Rivers in 2020?
“Rivers is going from one of the worst offensive lines in the league to one of the best, and that can make a quarterback look good,” said Ed Salmons, the Westgate SuperBook’s top NFL oddsmaker. “The Colts are a team I have liked. I would not be surprised if Rivers had success this year.”
It might be a surprise if the NFL season kicks off as scheduled, but that’s another story.
After last week’s quarterback shuffle, the SuperBook improved the Super Bowl odds on only two teams — the Buccaneers, who went from 40/1 to 14/1, and Colts, who went from 30/1 to 20/1.
In Brady, the Buccaneers believe they have found Mr. Right. The Colts view Rivers as Mr. Right Now, a short-term fling and a riskier proposition.
No other quarterback transactions have moved the needle on Super Bowl odds.
Tennessee extended Ryan Tannehill’s contract instead of making a run at Brady. Dallas tagged Dak Prescott, Minnesota threw a raise at Kirk Cousins and Carolina signed free agent Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal to replace Cam Newton, who will be traded or released. Newton, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston are the leftovers.
Aside from the Buccaneers and Colts, the Bears made the biggest perceived splash by trading a fourth-round pick to Jacksonville for Nick Foles, a Super Bowl MVP two years ago for Philadelphia. Foles will compete with Mitchell Trubisky for Chicago’s top job.
“I still think it’s Trubisky’s job,” Salmons said. “Foles is terrible.”
Salmons said he was also unimpressed by the Raiders’ free-agent signing of Marcus Mariota, who lost his job to Tannehill in Tennessee. It’s presumed Mariota will compete with Derek Carr, yet rumors persist Las Vegas coach Jon Gruden wants to dump Carr and has an eye on Winston, who threw a league-high 30 interceptions and lost five fumbles as the Buccaneers finished 7-9.
Opponents turned Winston’s turnovers into 112 points. The Buccaneers lost five games by six points or fewer. Brady threw only eight interceptions last season, when New England coach Bill Belichick tried and failed to supply him with big-play weapons, such as Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon.
“Tampa has been a team on the rise,” Salmons said. “I lean to the Bucs being better just because Brady’s not going to turn the ball over and that team has weapons all over the field. When you have that experience, Brady knows where the ball needs to go. But can he get it there?
“I was sure Brady was going to stay with the Patriots. It’s hard to walk away from Brady. Belichick is not dumb. He’s usually ahead of the curve on these things.”
Brady’s move tightened the NFC South odds at the top. At Circa Sports, the Saints are -105 favorites, followed by the Buccaneers (+ 125). I will bet on Brady and play Tampa Bay’s win total over 8.5 (Over -140) at Circa before it moves to nine across the board.
According to a story in the Tampa Bay Times that reinforces a belief in Brady’s motivation and next-level preparation, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians studied tape and saw a lot of life in Brady’s right arm and little deterioration in his skills.
Rivers is younger yet looks much older. While displaying fading arm strength and only slightly more mobility than a mannequin, Rivers appeared to be shot last season. He passed for 23 touchdowns with 20 interceptions, the third-highest total in the league, as the Chargers finished 5-11 and 0-6 in the division.
Instead of writing off Rivers, there are reasons to take a wait-and-see approach before racing to the window to bet against him. Indianapolis has built a solid roster infrastructure, and coach Frank Reich has a reputation for getting the most out of quarterbacks. Reich was Rivers’ offensive coordinator for two seasons with the Chargers, so their chemistry and familiarity will be keys to success.
Andrew Luck’s stunning retirement in August dramatically changed the Colts’ future. Jacoby Brissett, a New England castoff, was the backup plan last year. Indianapolis finished 7-9, losing four games by four points or fewer and another in overtime.
“I do think Rivers is an upgrade,” said Michael Lombardi, a VSiN analyst and former NFL executive. “His offensive line (in L.A.) was atrocious and couldn’t block you or me. But Rivers has got to cut down his turnovers, and I think he will.”
Brissett went 7-8 as the starter, but his record was 6-4 with top wide receiver T.Y. Hilton in the lineup. The Colts were sabotaged by Adam Vinatieri’s kicking woes and a season riddled by injuries, with Hilton’s absence hurting the most.
“One thing that always concerns me with the Colts is their offense stops producing when Hilton is out,” Salmons said.
Rivers was not the sole reason the SuperBook lowered the Colts’ odds. Salmons said he raised the odds on the defending AFC South champion Houston Texans after coach Bill O’Brien made the baffling move to trade star wideout DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona.
“I don’t think it’s going to take much for the Colts to win that division,” Salmons said.
An argument can be made the deck was stacked against Brissett. Rivers is joining a team that appears ready to win now. Circa Sports lists the Colts as the AFC South favorites at + 135, followed by the Titans (+ 195) and Texans (+ 210). Indianapolis’ win total is 8.5 (Over -125) at William Hill.
“I do think the Colts will be better than 8.5 wins,” Lombardi said. “I think Rivers will make them a little bit better.”
A little better would be enough because the Colts were better than their record showed. The same was true for the Buccaneers. Both teams have top-tier defenses and smart head coaches who will add offensive talent around their new quarterbacks.
Brady is a better bet to succeed in 2020. I was ready to write off Rivers but will call an audible on that play. Each veteran quarterback found the right fit in free agency.