Rivers outgrowing brash reputation

San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers heard the vaguely familiar voices, then whirled to come face-to-face with opportunity. Staring down at him in the Indianapolis Colts' Lucas Oil Stadium two weeks ago were two wide-eyed men, grinning and pointing, wondering if he remembered their previous encounter.

Rivers smiled and waved back before nodding in agreement. In his mind, he knew that most football fans could recall that moment back in January 2008. What started as innocent banter between those two fans and the quarterback eventually led to Rivers basically taunting an entire stadium after the Chargers' AFC divisional playoff win that day.

This time was different, however. Instead of badgering the men, Rivers placed his right index finger and thumb to his lips and pretended to zip them shut. It was a gesture that probably nobody else saw, but it said plenty about Rivers' maturation. He doesn't need the criticism that sometimes came from displaying his exuberant nature in moments like those. These days, it's more than enough to let his play do all the talking.

The reality -- as Rivers' family and friends will attest -- is that Rivers is far from being the obnoxious twit some assume him to be. It's just that two or three ill-timed public moments have given others a different impression.

Said Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha: "All his teammates say he's nothing like the guy who appears to be a jerk, but he does have a bravado to him. You can tell that he thinks he's the top gun out there and that can piss you off. It comes across as being cocky."

"It's funny that you have to defend yourself against something that doesn't really exist," Rivers said recently. "I can understand why the negative perception is out there. I just feel that you earn your respect and reputation by how you do things every day. In the process, I hope people can see that I'm just a guy who loves playing this game."

If consistency is supposed to be Rivers' best image-cleansing resource, he really doesn't have anything to worry about at this stage of his seven-year career. The people who still judge him by that night in Indianapolis -- or his equally well-publicized trash-talking run-in with former Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler in 2008 -- haven't been paying enough attention to what he has done on the field. There's no question that Rivers has entrenched himself among the league's elite quarterbacks. Now he's taking his game to heights that will make him a huge part of this year's Most Valuable Player debate.

Through 12 games, Rivers ranks second in the league in passing yards (3,642), third in passer rating (102.5) and tied for third in touchdown passes (24). On top of all that, he's entering the time of year when he usually separates himself from other quarterbacks. Before San Diego's 28-13 loss to Oakland on Sunday, he had won all 18 previous games he had started in the month of December. And as the Chargers head into their final four games -- starting with a key AFC West meeting Sunday with division leader Kansas City -- they will need more of his late-season magic.

Rivers has helped lead them to a 6-6 record after a 2-5 start, but they now trail the Chiefs by two games. "We've got to get back in a hurry for another division game at home," Rivers said after throwing for 280 yards with one touchdown and one interception against Oakland. "This thing is going to carry on and we've got to go. We've made it even tougher on ourselves, but this division is going to come down to the wire."

That confidence and optimism don't come from an empty place of desperation in Rivers. It's the result of unbridled emotion and a genuine thirst for competition. As Chargers offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon said, "Philip is at his best when things are on the line." That also happens to be the biggest reason the Chargers don't feel panicked at a time when they have to pull out so many must-win games.

What makes Rivers' performance this season so impressive is that he has helped keep the Chargers in contention while playing with so many personnel issues around him. Despite having 15 players catch passes this season, San Diego still fields the league's second-ranked offense, thanks largely to Rivers' brilliance. That continuity largely is a byproduct of his efforts to create team chemistry. It's not uncommon to see him playing dominoes in one corner of the locker room with black players from the inner city before strolling off to chat about country music with white players from rural backgrounds.

This past offseason, Rivers again shocked new teammates during workouts with his knowledge of their roots. The same undrafted free agents hoping to land jobs couldn't believe that the Pro Bowl quarterback had learned their names and where they went to school. Once those players got an opportunity to be around Rivers, they discovered the real secret to his success: a relentless work ethic. He's usually the first to the team facility on practice days -- his pickup truck is normally parked there by 5 a.m. -- and the last to leave.

Said wide receiver Vincent Jackson: "A lot of guys talk about putting in the work, but Philip actually does that every day."

The results of that preparation can't be denied, either. When the Chargers defeated the Colts two weeks ago, Rivers routinely completed passes after recognizing that the Indianapolis defensive backs were using certain hand signals to change their coverages before the snap. In that Raiders game, the Oakland defense stuck mainly to man coverage because it didn't want to play to Rivers' strengths.

"He'll pick you apart if you play too much zone," Asomugha said. "He knows how to read defenses well and he knows where to go with the football. He's the type of quarterback who can go from Read 1 to Read 4 and he'll make that play to his fourth option. There aren't a lot of quarterbacks who can do that."

Rivers is able to maintain such a high level of play simply because he loves everything about football. When he was growing up in Alabama, he'd be so into backyard pickup games that he'd mark the field with orange cones so the action would feel more real. Chargers quarterbacks coach John Ramsdell said, "The great quarterbacks all have that compulsiveness to them, and Philip is exactly the same way." The problem is that Rivers' energy and enthusiasm sometimes ripple over in ways that people misunderstand.

Consider what happened in the Chargers' season-opening loss to Kansas City this year. People could forgive Rivers for yelling at teammates at one point during that game, but he drew plenty of criticism when he kicked the ball after a delay-of-game penalty. Though Rivers said the play was innocent -- he was trying to throw the ball down to end the play and it slipped out of his hands on a rainy night -- it came across more like a tantrum.

"Granted, I did kick the ball with a little frustration and aggravation, but that was all there was to it," Rivers said. "Sometimes things can appear bigger than what they are. It may come out looking wrong but it's always about wanting to do right."

Rivers' father, Steve, who coached him in high school in Alabama, said his son has been bothered by the criticism "because it was stuff that got blown out of proportion. It's hard for him because it's so far from who he is."

Added Chargers guard Kris Dielman: "Philip gets a bad rap because he's very passionate. He's a family guy, a hard worker, and he cares about his teammates. I'm not sure why people have a negative impression of him, because it's not like he's ever been indicted for dog fighting. I've never even heard the guy swear. I've tried to get him to say s--- or f--- and all he'll ever do is say, 'Golly gee, I can't do that.'"

For all the Chargers, Rivers has been that same likable guy from the moment he entered the NFL as the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft. Shelmon remembered watching Rivers at the Senior Bowl earlier that year, after Rivers had finished a stellar career at North Carolina State. Though there were other quarterbacks involved in that game, none showed the ability to draw teammates to them the way Rivers did. The quarterback was no different when he spent his first two pro seasons sitting behind former Chargers quarterback Drew Brees.

While Rivers managed his idle time during games in creative ways -- he often counted the number of players on kickoffs -- he also gleaned as much knowledge as possible from Brees and backup Doug Flutie.

"I appreciate those two years more now than I did when I was going through them," Rivers said. "I had never sat on the bench, but I could always see the big picture. The biggest thing I took away from Drew is that the regular season is filled with so many ups and downs. And if you don't know how to handle it, you won't make it. That emotional roller coaster will take a huge toll."

At 29 years old, Rivers has been fortunate enough to have his family to provide valuable perspective (he and his wife Tiffany, his college sweetheart, have five children). But his immediate success on the field has made his career most enjoyable. The Chargers went 14-2 in 2006, Rivers' first season as a starter, and they finished 11-5 in his second year under center. The only major downside to that 2007 season was how it finished.

Along with creating headlines in that playoff win over the Colts, Rivers tore the ACL in his right knee during the game and underwent arthroscopic surgery the following Monday. The pain was so excruciating that he could hardly walk the Saturday before the AFC Championship Game at New England, and even Chargers coach Norv Turner advised him to not play. When Rivers did start, he completed 19 of 37 passes for 211 yards in a 21-12 loss. Even in defeat, his willingness to play through an injury that later would require reconstructive surgery caught people's attention.

In fact, as pained as Rivers was about San Diego's upset playoff loss to the New York Jets last season, he can still remember every play from that Patriots defeat. "He has always been someone that you like if he's on your team and you don't like if he's on the other side," said Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who played for the Patriots during that season. "But I gained a lot of respect for him after that game. I think a lot of guys around the league felt the same way."

Though Rivers still had some critics after the incident with Cutler in December 2008 -- Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said of Rivers at the time, "You're surrounded by great players, but you're not a great player" -- his productivity continued to increase. Many people thought Rivers was snubbed in Pro Bowl voting that season, when he produced a league-high 105.5 rating. Last year, Rivers produced more big numbers (4,254 yards, 28 touchdowns and only nine interceptions) that led to his first appearance in the all-star game.

Those numbers back up Rivers' belief that he has been playing the best football of his career over the past year and half. "I've just got a better grasp of what happens from play to play in a 65-play game," Rivers said. "I realize that sometimes it's better to throw the ball away instead of forcing it somewhere because that might end up being the play of the game. But my big thing is throwing completions. I don't care if it's a 3-yard gain or a 50-yard gain, the more you can complete passes and get into a rhythm, the more pressure that puts on a defense."

Rivers also acknowledged that he's aware of how other star quarterbacks in the league have elevated themselves recently with something he doesn't have yet -- a Super Bowl victory. That group includes two players who came into the league in that 2004 draft class (Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger) as well as Brees.

If Rivers is going to have a shot at a title this season, he understands that much of the pressure will fall on his shoulders. As wide receiver Malcom Floyd said, "You can feel the sense of urgency in Philip. You can hear it in the way he calls plays in the huddle and how he emphasizes attention to details."

So with four weeks left in the season, the Chargers will once again shoot for what has become their annual late-year run. The odds, as usual, are stacked against them, but that has never been an issue in the past. After all, the Chargers have closed the past four seasons with win streaks of 10, six, four and 11 games. Who knows -- Rivers may even irritate a few more opponents as he guides his team.

What he won't do is spend much time wondering whether people can see that he's only trying to succeed.

"I honestly can't remember the last time I said something to [an opponent] during a game," he said. "It's not like I'm out there running around looking for defensive people to say something to. That's just how I've always played the game -- with emotion and excitement -- and I've been doing it since I was in my backyard as a kid in Alabama. But I really believe that if you play well enough, people begin to perceive you for who you really are. And I'm starting to sense that things are going in that direction for me now."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.