INDIANAPOLIS – They clicked from the very start despite operating in disparate spheres.
The 29-year old quarterback in his eighth NFL season and the 26-year old former college QB getting his foot in the NFL door as a defensive assistant on Norv Turner’s staff with the San Diego Chargers.
Philip Rivers, the three-time Pro Bowler who was routinely throwing for 4,000 yards. And Shane Steichen, a productive quarterback at UNLV whose football career would be as a coach.
It was 2011 and the start of a relationship that would impact the future of the Indianapolis Colts.
“He and I just hit it off, even way back in . . . I lose track of the years,’’ Rivers said with a laugh.
Rivers was and remains a football junkie. He never got enough. He always was looking to pick up a tip here, there, anywhere to give him an edge and add to his already deep reservoir.
When the veteran QB first noticed the novice defensive assistant, he saw another fertile mind to harvest.
“He’s doing (play) cards and drawing cards,’’ Rivers said. “It was just my nature. I like to walk over and see what guys are doing and thinking. He was with the defense, but he was a quarterback guy.
“We struck up a friendship early on, way back before we ever knew we would be in the same quarterback room or much less being our coordinator.’’
Fast-forward to earlier this month. The Colts were deep into their pursuit of a successor for Frank Reich, who was fired Nov. 7. The process involved first-round interviews with 13 candidates, and a second round with eight.
At one point, it was time to seriously vet Steichen. His reputation had been enhanced following two prolific seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator, but the philosophical foundation had been poured with the Chargers. Steichen worked with receivers and quarterbacks before being named interim coordinator in 2019 – Rivers’ final season with the team – and full-time coordinator in ’20.
As owner Jim Irsay did his research on Steichen, he called Rivers. Their relationship/friendship began in 2020 when the quarterback-hungry Colts signed the Chargers’ icon as a free agent.
“Philip had a lot of input,’’ Irsay said. “Him and I talked for a very long time about Shane.’’
Imagine the dialogue: a longwinded owner and a personable quarterback who’s never at a loss for words.
“I just told the truth,’’ Rivers said of his conversation with Irsay. “Shane is an easy guy to endorse. I had a lot of great things to say about Shane.’’
Steichen’s selling points?
Again, Rivers wasn’t at a loss for words.
“He’s all family and ball,’’ he said. “He’s genuine. I think what those guys are going to appreciate is his genuineness and realness. He’s not ever going to put on a show. As a player, guys appreciate and respect that.
“Once they realize, ‘Dang, this guy knows what he’s doing. He knows football and isn’t arrogant about it,’ they’ll really take to him.’’
Another aspect of Steichen that undoubtedly swayed the Colts? He’s had success regardless the skillset of his quarterback.
Rivers excelled despite having the mobility of a fire hydrant. Justin Herbert possesses good mobility to complement the elite arm. In 2020 with Steichen as his coordinator, the sixth-overall pick in the draft earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors by setting rookie records with 31 touchdowns and 396 completions. His 4,336 yards ranked second to the Colts’ Andrew Luck (4,374).
With the Eagles, Steichen was instrumental in the accelerated development of multi-dimensional Jalen Hurts. The 2020 second-round pick was runner-up to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in last year’s MVP voting after leading Philadelphia to Super Bowl LVII.
“He has the ability to relate to and see the game how he needs to help that guy be successful,’’ Rivers said. “He really does understand what each guy needs. He’s very detailed, but he’s not so rigid where he says, ‘These are the drills that I do.’
“Well, maybe these drills don’t apply to that guy’s game and you’re wasting your time. Shane looks at the tape and sees how he can work with this quarterback on this particular throw or whatever. He just has an innate feel for the game.’’
The Colts must find their quarterback of the future in the April draft, and Steichen will have heavy input on the decision. Bryce Young? C.J. Stroud? Will Levis? Anthony Richardson?
“I think Shane’s the perfect guy for that based on Herbert and Hurts the last few years and what I know of the guy,’’ Rivers said. “He will take all of the tape from the guy in college and help implement whatever he can that fits in the pro game and give him the best chance to process quickly and excel early and at the same time not put it all on that guy.
“I was pulling for Shane obviously because of how I feel about him, but I was also going, ‘Man, this is going to be perfect based on the situation the Colts are in.’’’