One snap changed everything for Philip Rivers’ already dinged up reputation. Now he has the rest of his career to live up to it, or let it define him
All Philip Rivers had to do was protect the ball. The Chargers and Chiefs were deadlocked at 20 in a critical AFC West showdown on a cool Halloween night at Arrowhead Stadium. A raucous crowd had propelled Kansas City to leads of 13-3 and 20-12, but it finally appeared that the Bolts were ready to put the Cinderella story West winners of a year ago in their rightful place.
Behind an unheralded running back who no one had ever heard of before the game and a spirited 4th quarter effort from oft-scrutinized quarterback Rivers, the Chargers were knocking on the door for the winning score, and a much needed vengeance of their debacle in K.C. last year. All Rivers had to do was protect the damn ball.
And then, with 48 seconds left (and the Chiefs unable to stop the clock), something spooky, and completely unexpected happened. Rivers mishandled Nick Hardwick’s snap, sending San Diego’s football into the depths of a crazy dog-pile, and just when it looked like the Chargers had it all wrapped up, Kansas City’s Andy Studebaker emerged with the pigskin.
It was just another regular season game. 256 of them are played each year. Most of them are forgettable. Like nearly all of week 7 for example. But sports have a funny way of immortalizing moments. A sloppy albeit rather forgettable 7 turnover game, turned unforgettable when Rivers’ botched snap resulted in a very unlucky number 8. But no one will talk about the other 7 takeaways. For the center of the mistake-ridden epicenter of sports will now be cast darkly on Rivers’ simple, but untimely failure.
His failure to safely execute the most basic play in football – the center to QB exchange – came at the worst possible time and in a critical meaningful division game, in a nationally televised contest, coming off a disastrous previous effort against the Jets. His golden boy image took a brutal hit after that one, and it was Tony Romo-like decimated after this one.
A simple snap.
A ball through the legs.
A puck five hole.
A misplayed fly-ball.
A ball that never finds the hole.
The simplest of plays, turned horrifyingly seared into our brains. No one shakes your hand when you do what you’re supposed to. It’s assumed. These are the worlds best we’re talking about. But when the men who make absurd amounts of money to play a child’s game, and get more publicity than most of us could ever dream of getting in six lifetimes, screw up, it’s only human to focus on that epic mistake, over their full body of work.
Let’s face it: Tony Romo’s reputation would look completely different if he had never mishandled that snap in that fateful 2007 NFC Wild Card game in Seattle, or had he just gotten two yards more and lunged into the end zone. His label as a choker and someone who can’t handle the big moments would have an entirely different look and feel. Maybe he is a choker. Maybe he can’t handle the big moment for America’s (cough cough) team. But he wouldn’t be nearly as scrutinized as he is today had that play ceased to exist. Most people wouldn’t even know who Bill Buckner was had he just made the play he was supposed to. But that’s what makes sports funny. A bounce of the ball, a change of course can spark a revolution. Or in Rivers’ new case: a pit of nausea.
The scoreboard may have read just 23-20 when it was all said and done, but those 3 points will haunt Rivers for a long time. His reputation took a very permanent hit on Monday: all from one play. One play that will live on in football lore. It could be how he’s remembered. Or maybe not. But if he never leads the Chargers to a Super Bowl, it will forever hang in the air around him, like a miserable scent.
It’s unfortunate, but you and I both know it’s true.
The media loves heroes, but they love goats more. They wait for you to screw up and then they pounce. This was the ultimate pounce. Rivers was the perfect target. This was the perfect ‘crime’ to call him out on. Once the play happened, and Ryan Succop nailed his overtime field goal attempt, Rivers reputation changed forever more.
It was just a regular season game, but all it takes is one fatal flaw to undo the ‘regular’ aspect of it. Years from now (and let’s assume that the Bolts never do get to the Big Game – they sure don’t look worthy of it right now despite the AFC’s wide-open nature), more people are likely to remember what could have been: ‘that snap’ then the bigger picture (21,745 career passing yards, 143 touchdowns, a QB rating hovering near 100 as of press).
Heck, maybe the Chargers go onto win the West anyways, and this all gets quietly forgotten.
But what if they don’t, and this snowballs into their downfall? Is that an extreme line of thinking? Yes, of course it is. But unfeasible? Not at all.
So Philip Rivers, here we go. Win the division, play well in the playoffs, and we’ll all agree to tuck this under a giant heaping pile of ‘crushing, but ultimately not devastating sports bloopers.’ Freefall into a world of inconsistent, off-kilter play, and those sunny San Diego skies will soon turn dark and unforgiving.
Sports isn’t always fair, but there is a simple credence that overlies all of it: ‘What have you done for me lately?’
Sports fans’ memory spans may be short, but what they choose to remember is an entirely different story.
Philip Rivers, you’re officially on the clock.