INDIANAPOLIS — Philip Rivers likes to refer to the NFL season as a heavyweight boxing match.
In that context, the 38-year-old quarterback was knocked to the mat in Round 5 on Sunday as the Indianapolis Colts dropped a 32-23 decision against the Cleveland Browns. Rivers’ Pick 6 to start the second half and an intentional grounding penalty that resulted in a safety provided the hosts’ margin of victory.
Criticism has flowed in from all corners.
Longtime front office executive and former Browns general manager Mike Lombardi wrote in his weekly column for The Athletic that Rivers’ lack of mobility and declining arm strength are catching up to him, and the game is moving too fast for the veteran in 2020.
Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni have stood firmly behind the quarterback while acknowledging Rivers — and the rest of the offense — must be better.
During his weekly video call Wednesday, Rivers didn’t shy way from his mistakes. He called the interception returned by Cleveland safety Ronnie Harrison for a third-quarter touchdown “terrible” and said he should have stepped up against the rush in the end zone and bought more time on the safety.
Both plays helped ruin a spirited second-half effort by the defense as the Colts (3-2) attempted to rally.
But Rivers has been around long enough to know there will be days like this.
“Acknowledge the fact that individually I didn’t play very well and as a team we didn’t play very well,” he said. “So what are you gonna do about it? Mope around and get beat on Sunday or go out and play the way we know how? So I think the best chance to give us to do it on Sunday is to practice like we’re 5-0 and we’re lighting up the scoreboard. Practice that way, that type of confidence and mentality. That gives us the best chance to win on Sunday.”
Rivers is doing well in two of the most important stats in Indianapolis’ offense. He’s completing a career-high 70.8% of his passes, and his 8 yards per attempt average is his second-best number since 2013.
But the offense ranks 17th in the league with an average of 25.2 points and has produced just eight touchdowns. Rivers has thrown four touchdown passes against five interceptions, and his 2.6% touchdown rate on 154 pass attempts is comfortably the lowest of his 17-year career.
Struggles on third down and in the red zone have contributed to the offensive malaise, and Sirianni pointed out it’s not all on the quarterback’s shoulders.
“We need to help him be in better position,” Sirianni said. “It starts with us as coaches just getting the guys in better positions to help them make plays.”
Last year’s starter, Jacoby Brissett, remains on the roster as the backup, but Reich said Monday there’s been no consideration given to making a quarterback change.
Instead, the head coach is confident Rivers’ experience will help him deal with a rocky patch and get the team moving back in the right direction.
Injuries to running back Marlon Mack and wide receivers Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr. have contributed to a constantly revolving supporting cast, and the Colts played at Cleveland without the anchor of the offensive line – left tackle Anthony Castonzo.
Every team deals with adversity over the course of the season. It’s how they respond that makes the difference.
The head coach said that involves blocking outside voices – both good and bad – and focusing only on the task at hand.
“If you want to be great in this league, and obviously Philip’s done it a long time, that’s what you do,” Reich said. “You block that out, and you reset – whether it was good or bad or in the middle or anywhere in between – you block it out and you move on and you focus on the next opponent.”
In this case, that’s the Cincinnati Bengals (1-3-1), who visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday (1 p.m., FOX).
Rivers said he’s gotten better at handling poor performances over the years. As a young player, he often felt he needed to act demonstrably to show the locker room how much he cares and how much the mistakes hurt him.
He’s learned to always be himself, in good times and bad, and the locker room will respond more strongly to genuine emotion.
“I also think that that can help in some ways, from a leadership standpoint, can help the other guys feel that, ‘Shoot, we’ll all right. Let’s go practice and play and bounce back this week coming up,’” Rivers said. “I do think that’s an important message that we are 3-2. There is no panic here.
“Certainly disappointing the way the game went and certainly, individually, not playing as well as I would like. We are still in position to accomplish everything we wanted to, and we have an opportunity this week to get back on track.”
Castonzo (rib) returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. Running back Jordan Wilkins (calf) also was limited.
Six players did not participate in the week’s first practice. Safety Julian Blackmon (groin) and defensive end Justin Houston (hip) said Tuesday they expect to be ready for Sunday’s game. Tight end Trey Burton received a rest day, but defensive end Denico Autry (knee/ankle), tight end Mo Alie-Cox (knee) and linebacker Darius Leonard (groin) will be monitored throughout the week.