The return of Philip Rivers

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SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers is excited, which means he is talking the way he plays. The words come fast, emphasized with hand gestures and sound effects. During a seven-minute window after a recent Chargers practice, Rivers gives a 1,000-word dissertation on the quick-strike offenses that have taken over the NFL -- and turned the San Diego QB into an MVP candidate. "There's more empty backfield, more shotgun, more deet, deet, deet," Rivers says. "Maybe the game is changing."

Oh it's changing, one completion at a time. The Chargers' scheme shift under Mike McCoy -- initiated in 2013 and continued through the first five games this season -- has revitalized Rivers' career just two years after he finished with the sixth-worst Total QBR in the league.

The turnaround can be described in one word: efficiency. Yes, quarterbacks everywhere are still putting up gaudy touchdown and yardage numbers, but how they're doing it has changed. The proof is in the numbers.

Throwing bolts

Quarterbacks this season are connecting on 63.7 percent of their passes, up from 60.9 percent in 2011 and the highest rate through five weeks since 2001. In fact, Weeks 3 and 4 this season provided the highest and second-highest collective completion percentages by quarterbacks in NFL history.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the 129 interceptions thrown thus far in 2014 are 16 percent less than the average interceptions from the past four seasons over the same span. After throwing 15 picks in 2012, Rivers has just 13 since the beginning of last season, the fourth fewest among quarterbacks with at least 20 starts over that span.

His picks are down because his accuracy is up. Way up. Rivers' completion percentage has ranked first each of the past two seasons under McCoy (see chart below), and his career completion rate is a cool 64.6, seventh in NFL history among passers with at least 1,000 attempts.

"His level of accuracy is beyond great," offensive coordinator Frank Reich says. "It's in that upper 1 percent with guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. It's a gift." And it has helped the Chargers rank fifth in the NFL since 2013 with 273.1 passing yards per game.

Short and sweet

Fourteen quarterbacks -- everyone from Russell Wilson to Ryan Fitzpatrick -- have completion rates at or above 65 percent this season, up from an average of eight in the first five weeks of the previous 13 seasons. The reason? For the second consecutive year, quarterbacks are throwing over half of their passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage (see chart below).

And signal-callers are more deadly than ever with passes of the short variety. In Weeks 1-5 the past two seasons, they have a 3.03 TD/INT ratio on short throws. That's 58 percent better than the TD/INT ratio on similar throws during the first five weeks from 2006-12.

Rivers' 57.6 percent short-pass rate in 2014 is the highest among quarterbacks with at least 150 total throws. In the Chargers' case, this approach has helped minimize the effect of a struggling run game, which is averaging an NFL-worst 2.8 yards per carry. "We try to come out, be efficient and get our completions," Reich says. "And if you're struggling a little bit in the run game, some of those short passes are your runs. We call it, 'stealing runs.'"

Despite their reliance on dink-and-dunk passes, the Chargers are currently tied for third with 21 pass plays of 20 or more yards. "We're still getting our chunks, but we're not chucking it deep all the time," Rivers says. "Which is what you want, really."

Catch and run

But how, exactly, do short passes translate into long gains? For starters, as the chart below shows, receivers leaguewide are dropping only 3.9 percent of their passes, the best rate in the nine years the stat has been tracked. And they're catching with more space around them. The past two seasons, receivers have averaged 5.17 yards after the catch, a 24 percent increase from a 4.18 average the previous 10 years.

Rivers' 8.75 yards per attempt leads the league through five weeks, thanks in part to his Chargers pass-catchers, who are fourth in the NFL with a 6.24 YAC rate. Receiver Eddie Royal -- who's part of a unit that has dropped only 2.5 percent of its targets (sixth best in the NFL) -- returns the credit to Rivers and his accuracy.

Take, for example, Rivers' simple 4-yard pass to Royal in Week 3 against the Bills. The precision throw, which hit Royal perfectly in stride, gave him plenty of room to run away from Bills linebacker Preston Brown for a 23-yard gain. "His ball placement tells you where the defender is when you can't see him," Royal says. "That's big for yards after catch. It allows you to shield defenders away from the ball, whether it's on a deep ball where you can run through it, or on a crossing route where he hits you in stride. If you have to stop to get the ball, you're not going to get many yards after the catch."

Gunning it

Through five weeks, quarterbacks are lining up in the shotgun or pistol on 60 percent of snaps, up from 38 percent in 2010. Over the past two seasons, the Chargers have called shotgun/pistol formations 71.6 percent of the time, fourth highest in the league.

"It used to be, 'If they're under center, it's going to be run or play-action, and if they get in the gun it's going to be a pass,'" Rivers says. "Now it's not so much for us. I think that's a positive. That really allows Frank and all of us to be more comfortable doing it more. It's like, 'Get in the gun whenever.'"

Rivers is right. Of the 995 snaps San Diego has taken from the shotgun/pistol the past two seasons, nearly 30 percent have resulted in runs. That's up from 11.7 percent in 2010.

Reich says the shotgun has clear advantages in the passing game, too, cutting down a quarterback's drop from 1.3 seconds to 1 second. The quicker drop, combined with the shorter passes, "discourages blitzing," Rivers says. "I do think that defenses weigh that. 'If they're going to throw it quick all the time, why do we want to bring more guys? If we miss a tackle, it's a big play.'" Indeed, blitzes are at their lowest rate since 2007, and, not coincidentally, quarterbacks are being sacked on only 5.2 percent of dropbacks, the lowest rate through five weeks since 2006 (see chart below).

The results speak for themselves: Leaguewide, quarterbacks have a 65.0 Total QBR when they're in the shotgun or pistol this season. That's 30 percent higher than when they're under center, and the best figure through five weeks since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2006. Rivers' shotgun/pistol QBR comes in at 89.6, second in the NFL.

Rivers for MVP?

What's it all add up to? A golden year in a golden era for quarterbacks -- and a career transformation for Rivers. Week 3 and 4 produced the two highest collective Total QBR scores since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking the stat in 2006. And Rivers' 84.8 QBR is the second best for a quarterback through five weeks since 2010. The only one higher: Peyton Manning's 92.0 from his 2013 MVP season.

All stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information