Rivers missed being in charge of offense

If the San Diego Chargers stretch out the measuring tape on Philip Rivers, they're likely to find their third-year quarterback hasn't grown even a millimeter since he checked in at precisely 6-foot-5 for the NFL scouting combine workouts at Indianapolis two years ago.

Which isn't to say that Rivers doesn't feel a whole lot taller these days.

"It's hard to put into words, because it really is a feeling more than anything else, but, yeah, I think you do carry yourself a little different when you're the starter," said Rivers, who officially assumes the top rung on the quarterback depth chart Monday morning, when the Chargers commence their organized team activities (OTAs, in league-speak shorthand) sessions. "You walk into the weight room and, whether it's true or not, you feel like all eyes are on you, that everyone is watching for you to take the lead and set the tone. That's something that I had been accustomed to for a long time, and the last two years, I missed it. It's like a part of my game was missing. It's like a part of me was missing."

Fortunately for Rivers, he won't become a real-life Humpty Dumpty, because the departure of starter Drew Brees as an unrestricted free agent this spring has made the former North Carolina State star whole again. The fourth overall choice in the 2004 draft, Rivers sat for two years, appearing in just four games total, as Brees directed a San Diego offense that statistically ranked as one of the league's most explosive units.

But this season, the Rivers puzzle will come complete with an instruction manual for full assembly. And his teammates believe the pieces will all come together snugly.

"Oh, yeah, he's ready for this," star tailback LaDainian Tomlinson said.

Actually, Rivers, having served a patient but often awkward apprenticeship, is way more than ready.

Over the past two seasons, Rivers has banked a lot of money but collected plenty of dust and accumulated considerable rust. Now he gets the chance to amass some victories with a franchise that, despite coming off a disappointing 2005 campaign, will nonetheless enter this season with high expectations. And it will be up to Rivers to overcome his scant playing time and keep the offense rolling.

Eight to 10 franchises figure to trot out new starting quarterbacks in 2006, but few signal callers will come under as much scrutiny as Rivers, who established an NCAA record for most career starts and finished his career as the second-leading passer in college history. But in his four NFL regular-season appearances, none of them starts, Rivers has thrown just 30 passes. He threw more than 30 passes in 29 of his 51 starts at North Carolina State.

And consider this: Even free-agent acquisition Craig Nall, the former backup for Brett Favre in Green Bay who is fighting for the starting job in Buffalo, will enter the '06 season with more pass attempts than Rivers.

We're talking about Craig Nall, no offense intended, for gosh sakes. So you think Rivers, in taking over a Chargers team that statistically ranked No. 10 in total offense and was one of just three teams to score more than 400 points in 2004 and in 2005, won't be under the microscope?

It's a focus, though, that Rivers welcomes. And a degree of heightened attention, despite being the good soldier during his two years of inactivity, for which he yearned.

"In my situation, with Drew as the starter, I had to pull back," Rivers acknowledged. "I mean, just little things, like maybe yelling something [funny] to a defensive back in practice if he got beat, or making some sort of suggestion as to how a route should be run, or how a play might be better if we did it a certain way … I had to bite my tongue. I've never had to play like that before. I've always been an emotional player. That's my game. Having to [temper] that, man, it was hard at times. But as hard and humbling as that was at times, it was part of the process. And, in the long run, it'll make me better."

There is no bitterness in Rivers' voice as he speaks about the experiences of his first two years in the league. He was especially close with Brees, and said if there was any quarterback he would want to learn from, it would be the Chargers' former starter.

"It was actually a healthy and competitive situation," Rivers said. "I mean, Drew knew that I wanted to be on the field. And I knew that Drew was going to do everything he could to keep me off the field. That's the way it's supposed to be, right?"

But when it became apparent that the Chargers would not re-sign Brees, and the five-year veteran subsequently signed with New Orleans as an unrestricted free agent, Rivers relegated the past two years to rearview mirror status. Which, given the bizarre nature of those two seasons, could not have been an easily accomplished task.

Even before the 2004 season, and despite his brilliant college career, Rivers' game was picked apart by some scouts because of his funky, sidearm throwing motion. Then on the draft's first day, he was part of the landmark trade in which the New York Giants chose him fourth overall, and then traded him to San Diego for Eli Manning less than an hour later. Then followed a lengthy holdout, in which Chargers general manager A.J. Smith lobbed salvos at agent Jimmy Sexton, and suggestions that Rivers' absence from training camp cost him an opportunity to compete for the starting job.

Truth be told, despite the holdout and Smith's bombast, Rivers actually challenged for the starting spot deep into the preseason. What also isn't much known is this: At one point very early in the 2004 season, with Brees struggling, coach Marty Schottenheimer considered elevating Rivers to the starting spot.

But just a few days away from officially taking the reins, and even as the offseason speculation continued to swirl over a perceived rift between Smith and Schottenheimer and what it might augur for the franchise, Rivers seemed impervious to any distractions past or present, real or contrived. The lingering controversy over whether Schottenheimer should have started Rivers over Brees in the meaningless '05 season finale, the game in which Brees suffered a shoulder injury? Rivers isn't going to be drawn into the debate.

He is living in the moment, and that means being in an offense that features a superb all-around tailback in Tomlinson, a tight end who can stretch defenses vertically in Antonio Gates and improving wide receivers. The design is not unlike the up-tempo offense in which he played under coordinator Norm Chow in college: Get the ball out, amass plenty of snaps, keep the chains moving, everything predicated on briskness.

It's a blueprint easy for Rivers to reconcile. More important, though, is that he has clearly been embraced by his teammates, young and old, as their new leader.

Rivers, still only 24 years old despite having played four full college seasons and two years in the NFL, has spent considerable time in the offseason working out with teammates. He has been re-energized by being the guy running the practices and presiding again over the impromptu workouts. The swagger is back and, yeah, he does carry himself a little bit taller.

"As much as I don't regret what happened those first two years, this is more fun, definitely," Rivers said. "I'm back to being more myself again. I can say to a [receiver] now, 'Hey, let's try running that [route] this way,' and I don't have to worry about stepping on anyone's toes. And I think the guys respect me. I don't want them thinking, like, 'Well, there's a new quarterback and so we're starting over again.' Or, like, 'Oh well, we're going to have to pick up the slack.' Uh-uh. No way. I know I've got a ways to go, but I think guys realize I can get us there.

"Looking ahead to next week, when the OTAs start, I'm really eager about it. Not anxious, not nervous -- eager. I'm eager to take the lead and see how guys respond to me."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.