As the Chargers and Titans prepare for their game in London this week, what better time to reflect on the biggest “almost” trade between these teams. The year was 2015. Snapchat was just becoming a big thing. Caitlyn Jenner was still Bruce Jenner. Donald Trump was just a regular old billionaire that occasionally enjoyed a good Twitter tirade. Simpler times. The trade itself made so much sense at the time. Rivers, an aging veteran, was tired of putting up great statistics on an underperforming team. Coming off an underwhelming 9-7 season, Rivers could see the end of the tunnel and was no closer to winning an elusive Super Bowl title. To top it off, the team was all but set on its move to Los Angeles, a sinful place that Rivers had no desire to move to (and still hasn’t).
Enter, Tennessee, and the 2nd overall pick of the 2017 draft. Phil grew up in Alabama, went to college in North Carolina, and probably never would have left the south if not for being drafted by the Chargers. Nashville seemed like an ideal “coming home” story for the man that still wears bolo ties in his press conferences and is basically the personification of “aw, shucks.” With Jameis Winston the consensus number 1 pick of the draft, the Titans had all but told the world they were taking Heisman winner and Oregon prodigy Marcus Mariota next. Mariota, a young and raw talent, could be the quarterback of the future for the Chargers. It would give them a chance to rebuild, rather than pushing forward with a flawed team and overqualified quarterback.
Add to it that the Titans had named Ken Whisenhunt as their head coach the year prior. Whisenhunt, now back as the offensive coordinator for the Chargers, had been a raving success paired with Rivers in 2013. As we’re seeing again this year, the two have an amazing rapport and he’s gotten more out of Phil than anyone. In contrast, Whisenhunt’s first year in Tennessee was a complete offensive failure. With Zach Mettenberger (now listed in Wikipedia as “an American football quarterback for the Memphis Express of the Alliance of American Football”) leading the way, Whisenhunt didn’t stand a fucking chance. They went 2-14 that season (hence the early draft pick), and the pressure was mounting on him to turn things around. What better player could have immediately flipped their fortunes overnight than Rivers?
It was the perfect trade at the perfect time, and yet never happened. The Titans took Mariota, the Chargers held on to Rivers, and the two sides went their separate ways. Early on, it seemed to be a smart move, with Mariota throwing 4 touchdowns in his first start for the Titans. People talked about him with some of the same fervor they do for Patrick Mahomes today. By the middle of that season, however, the Titans fired Whisenhunt and ended up 3-13 for the year. Though he’s shown flashes, injuries and inconsistent play have plagued Mariota ever since. There’s still hope, but it’s not controversial to call him a bust at this point.
I bring this up because now, 4 years later, the strangest thing has happened. One sides quarterback is playing the best football of his career, not slowing down in the slightest. He’s in the MVP consideration and boasts the 3rd best offensive in the league, under the leadership Ken Whisenhunt. The other quarterback is regressing, and it wouldn’t be a total surprise if he was a backup or even out of the league in the next few years. Articles titled “Marcus Mariota was the Next Big Thing, What Went Wrong” are written about him. The kicker? It’s exactly the opposite of where most people would have assumed we’d be, 4 years later. Rivers looks like a 4th year player in the peak of his prime, with Mariota playing the “older player on the decline” role. It only starts to make sense if you consider that 41 year old Tom Brady and 39 year old Drew Brees are also still among the elite quarterbacks in the league. As the NFL is transitioning into flag football for quarterbacks, it’s no wonder you’re seeing these veterans flourish, regardless of age.
After the fact, it’s clear the Chargers won this non-trade. The career arc of these two quarterbacks will be on full display in London Sunday. The oft-injured Mariota will likely battle injuries and get the start for the Titans. He comes into the game with 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions through 5 games (in 4 of those, he didn’t throw a single touchdown). He was sacked 11 (ELEVEN!!) times in their game against the Ravens last week. They were unsurprisingly shut out. The never-injured Rivers will start his 199th game in a row, good for 4th on the all time list of consecutive starts. Phil has thrown 15 touchdowns, with 3 interceptions for the year. He’s on track for career numbers, even with the consistently great statistics he’s put up over the years. Bolo Phil looks like he could go another 5 years at this level. For Mariota, the same can’t be said. Unless he turns things around quickly, the Titans will likely cut ties with him after this season. It’s a shame for a guy that has shown flashes of promise.
All I can say is, thank God the Chargers didn’t make this trade.