Philip Rivers wasn't always quarterback of the San Diego Chargers. He started as an All-Pro receiver.
Well, on paper.
"I made a poster in fifth grade of what I wanted to be when I grew up," Rivers recalled recently, relaxing at a restaurant near his North County home. "I cut out my fifth-grade face and put it on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was [receiver] Cris Carter's face, I believe, because it was a Minnesota Vikings face. Playing in the NFL is what I've always wanted to do."
As he enters the second decade of his pro career — all at quarterback, mind you — Rivers, 32, has become increasingly nostalgic and appreciative of the opportunities he's had. He's coming off a season in which he guided the Chargers to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and saw his statistics bounce back in a big way. It was an impressive debut for rookie Coach Mike McCoy, and a resounding career reboot by the quarterback drafted fourth overall in 2004.
After committing a combined 47 turnovers in the previous two seasons, Rivers finished in the top five in completion percentage (69.5%), yards passing (4,478), touchdown passes (32) and passer rating (105.5). He was named the league's comeback player of the year.
Before the 2013 season, Rivers scoffed at the notion advanced by some that his game needed "fixing." He made his share of good plays in those down years, but his mistakes came at particularly inopportune, high-profile times.
"I guess for me, after going through those rough years, I realized that the difference between rolling along good and not so good is the difference of about that much," he said, pinching his fingers as if holding an imaginary pencil. "I didn't all of a sudden get fixed or learn how to play quarterback again. No, I played stretches of those previous two years like I played last year. I just had those disastrous plays and turnovers at the absolute wrong time, and too many of them."
Each off-season, Rivers picks an area of his game to work on, some aspect that was lacking in the previous season. Two years ago, for instance, he spent extra time on short passes to running backs, because he thought he missed too many of those in 2011. Last off-season, his focus was ball security in the pocket.
This spring, coming off one of the best seasons of his career, there was no glaring shortcoming. Instead, he turned his attention to building relationships with the younger generation of players on the roster, and put extra emphasis on fine-tuning the routine on-field responsibilities that might otherwise allow his attention to drift.
"I don't want to get bored with the little things," he said. "I've been aware of that daily. The same quarterback drills, the same scan drill that we do, the little high-percentage plays that you feel like you can run in your sleep, don't get bored with them. Don't think, 'You know, I'm going to try to get more out of this play.' No, don't get bored with it. Throw it to that guy, he's wide open, and hit him right in the chin."
Rivers said he has made a particular effort in recent months to connect with younger players, even if it only means spending time with them individually to get to know them.
"You know how sometimes they say a younger person has an old soul? Philip's been around and has done so much, and he's got a young soul," said Frank Reich, the Chargers' offensive coordinator. "You've got to maintain that youthful enthusiasm, that uninhibited belief that you can do anything."
Rivers said he intends to keep playing as long as he can, but sometimes he makes it sound as if retirement is right around the corner. It's the enhanced perspective of a player with 10 seasons under his belt.
"I always wanted to be one of the guys, and I always have been," he said. "I don't want to lose my favorite part of the game. That's something I'm going to miss most. I'll miss calling plays and throwing touchdowns, but that's what I'm going to miss most. Because you can't recreate it anywhere else. The locker room after practice, guys cutting up, laughing about something that happened at practice, guys imitating guys.
"As the years have progressed, the sentimental aspect of it has increased."
Two years ago, the Chargers chose a Latin phrase — Nunc Coepi — for their mantra. It's pronounced "noonk CHEPee" and means "Now I begin" and reminded players that a fresh start was always possible. It's a philosophy Rivers embraces, and his performance last season underscored that.
"You can always begin again," he said. "You throw a touchdown, well, now we begin. You throw an interception, you can begin again. It's living your faith. Constantly, you start over, whatever it is. You had a bad test, shoot, I'm starting right now. You didn't study three nights in a row, well, today I'm going to begin again. If you're on defense and give up a big play down to the five? 'Now we begin. We're here now. We can't worry about what happened before. We're starting new.'"
Rivers knows he's almost certainly past the midway point of his career, and he needs no reminders that the quarterbacks selected immediately before and after him in the 2004 draft — No. 1 Eli Manning of the New York Giants and No. 11 Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers — each have two Super Bowl rings. The Chargers have yet to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Regardless, it's Nunc Coepi in San Diego. The running game was vastly improved last season. A defense that broke down frequently last fall is presumably better after the Chargers made that a focal point of the draft. And Rivers is the linchpin, although he's far more workmanlike than impressed with himself.
"He's the top man on the totem pole in this building for sure," center Nick Hardwick said. "But just interacting with teammates, he's just a guy. He's one of your buddies. There's no pretense about him whatsoever."
Kris Dielman, the All-Pro guard for the Chargers who retired after the 2011 season, had a routine before each game. He'd meet with Rivers in the tunnel before the team was announced and tell him two words: "Lead us."
For Rivers, with a decade in the books and another fresh start at hand, that reminder resonates louder by the year.
Twitter: @LATimesfarmerCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times