TAMPA — The last time Buccaneers fans saw Philip Rivers, he made one of the dumbest throws of the 2012 NFL season.
With Tampa Bay clinging to a 24-21 lead against the Chargers in the fourth quarter last November, Rivers rolled right, chased by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Approaching the San Diego sideline, Rivers stopped and threw an off-balance dump pass right into the arms of Leonard Johnson, who overcame his surprise and raced 83 yards for a touchdown to seal a 34-24 triumph.
That was the start of a four-game losing streak for the Chargers that prompted coach Norv Turner’s dismissal and generated lots of questions about Rivers’ future in San Diego.
Have you seen No. 17 this year?
Peyton Manning isn’t the only veteran AFC West quarterback off to a terrific start.
Rivers, who turns 32 in December, has rebounded from two lost seasons to complete 74 percent of his throws during San Diego’s 2-2 getaway. The last two weeks have been ridiculous, with Rivers hitting on 55 of 66 pass attempts.
“The sky’s the limit when he’s playing that way,’’ Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said. “He’s back to playing like the Philip Rivers everyone knew.’’
For Tampa Bay fans envisioning Rivers in pewter next season, his resurrection couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Rivers won’t be eligible for free agency until 2016 and the way he’s handling a new offense, Rivers isn’t going anywhere.
After throwing 35 interceptions and suffering 79 sacks in the previous two seasons, Rivers needed a big year to remind teammates, management and a new coaching staff how accomplished he can be.
This is a four-time Pro Bowler whose career 95.5 passer rating ranks No. 6 in league history, just ahead of Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and some guy named Montana. Yes, Joe Montana.
“Philip’s been fabulous,’’ new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “I’m excited for him because he’s having a lot of fun. He’s a natural for this style of offense.’’
San Diego’s dynamic no-huddle attack is a blend of coaching schemes, all designed to keep defenses off balance.
While Whisenhunt brought his perspective as the former head coach in Arizona, new coach Mike McCoy served as Manning’s offensive coordinator in Denver last year. Quarterback coach Frank Reich backed up Jim Kelly in Buffalo’s K-Gun offense as the Bills reeled off four consecutive AFC championships.
“It’s been new and it has kept everybody engaged,’’ Rivers said of the aggressive strategy. “I like what we’ve done the first four weeks. It’s given us some tempo and helped us sustain drives.’’
It’s unlikely San Diego can hang with Denver and Kansas City because the Chargers have allowed the most yards in the AFC. Their leading receiver in 2012, Malcolm Floyd, is already out for the year with a neck injury.
But Gates is healthy and Rivers is well on his way to rejoining the NFL’s tier of elite quarterbacks, a notch below the golden quartet of Manning, Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Let’s not forget that Rivers led the NFL in a key statistic, average yards per pass attempt, for three consecutive seasons beginning in 2008.
On pace for 44 touchdown passes and only eight picks, Ol’ Man Rivers is back in the big time, even if the Chargers are not.