When Ravens safety Eric Weddle stares across the line of scrimmage Saturday, intent on guessing what Philip Rivers might do next, he’ll be reviving a ritual that was as familiar to him as breathing for the better part of nine years.
Rivers and Weddle were more than teammates when they played together on the San Diego Chargers — closer to kindred football souls. They’re both devout family men who obsess over the game to a degree other players find exhausting. One was the quarterback of the Chargers, the other the de facto quarterback of the San Diego defense. They sharpened one another during endless training camp and practice square-offs. At the end of each season, they’d break down the team’s roster and plot potential moves, even if no one else cared what they thought. Their sons played on the same flag football team, with Rivers taking over play-calling duties after Weddle departed for Baltimore following the 2015 season.
“Back in the day, after every series of going against each other, we’d come to the sideline and say, ‘What did you see here? Why’d you do this?’” Weddle recalled. “During the season, we’d literally talk after every practice, in the sauna or the cold tub. … It was just great dialogue. We were there for each other through some old times. We didn’t have many guys to talk to, to keep us going throughout those seasons. I remember it like yesterday.”
The Pro Bowl safety and the MVP-candidate quarterback still keep in touch throughout the season and have texted with each other this week as the Ravens and Chargers prepare for their primetime showdown. “Great win,” Rivers wrote Weddle after the Ravens beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon. “Now, let’s get after it.”
Rivers watches his pal on tape and sees the same guy he used to spar with on those San Diego afternoons — a one-man communications center for one of the league’s best defenses.
“We had a lot of conversations about football,” he told Los Angeles reporters on Tuesday. “Things we liked, things we didn’t like. Things we see, things we didn’t see. Some of the things he does and some of the things he’s still doing are things I’ve seen forever.”
For the first time, however, they’re about to test their wits against one another as foes rather than comrades, in a game with massive playoff stakes for both teams.
Weddle’s battle with his close friend comes at a time of competing narratives in his own career. He just made the Pro Bowl for the sixth time in 12 seasons and the third time in three seasons with the Ravens. But he’s also faced pointed criticism from fans, who question his ability to track opposing ball carriers in the open field. Weddle believes he’s contributed in other ways but acknowledges he hasn’t made as many obvious big plays this season; he has zero interceptions and just three passes defended in 14 games. He’s about to finish the penultimate season of his four-year, $26 million contract with the Ravens, and with his 34th birthday coming in less than three weeks, his football mortality hangs over every moment.
“Obviously, I haven’t made as many big plays as I’d like to,” he said Wednesday. “But a lot of what I do shows up in other areas. … Every year, it’s a different element. This year has been different, just that I’ve been a playmaker my whole career and just not having many opportunities or chances to make those plays. But still finding ways to affect the game and help my defense by affecting the opponent’s offense by my looks, my checks, my disguises, and getting my teammates in the best possible position to be successful. We’re the No. 1 defense for a reason.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said anyone who’s around Weddle understands the total package he offers.
“If you’re asking me to justify it, I don’t think I have to,” he said of Weddle’s Pro Bowl selection. “The guy’s a heck of a player. The players and the coaches that play against him, all the guys, they know it. That’s why they voted him in. They know what he brings to the table. … He runs the show on the back end, and I think he does a great job.”
Fellow safety Tony Jefferson said there’s no way to capture Weddle’s importance in a box score. “That’s why he’s in the Pro Bowl,” he said. “I think from the fan’s perspective, maybe he wasn’t the highest voted. But the players and coaches, they’re aware and they know what he’s done. There’s a bigger part of the game than just making the plays everyone sees. He helps us out tremendously.”
Weddle tries to make an impact beyond the field by critiquing younger teammates and holding them to the highest standard they can meet. He’s made a public effort with cornerback Marlon Humphrey, whom he perceives as a potential All-Pro. Earlier in the season, Harbaugh said Humphrey was already one of the elite cornerbacks in the league. Weddle questioned that praise, arguing that Humphrey needed to perform more consistently — in practice and games — to earn it. Not many players would feel comfortable speaking that way about a teammate.
Humphrey said Weddle’s words did not motivate him so much as reinforce his own self-analysis. But he did say he’s leaned hard on the veteran safety over the last two seasons. For example, Weddle has helped him look beyond individual match-ups to assess broader formations and schemes when he’s watching film.
“He’s definitely a guy who knows football inside and out,” Humphrey said. “He’s someone you could definitely see coaching one day, because on the field, it’s almost like you’ve got a coach back there. He can see things that you can’t always see. He knows things that you don’t always know.”
Few people in the league appreciate Weddle more than Rivers. Their friendship was deep enough that neither man ever thought it would be threatened by Weddle’s bitter divorce from the team that drafted him out of Utah. The Chargers famously fined Weddle — one of the best and most popular players on the team — $10,000 for staying on the field to watch his daughter perform in a halftime show. That and other acts of pettiness led the veteran safety to proclaim the Chargers dead to him, even though he and his wife, Chanel, planned to build their long-term dream home in San Diego.
Jefferson has joked that Weddle was watching Chargers tape as early as this summer in anticipation of Saturday’s match-up. But Weddle said his anger faded long ago. His former team plays in Los Angeles now and hardly feels like the same entity. He’s unlikely to send a Christmas card to Chargers owner Dean Spanos, but he holds plenty of warm feelings for younger players he mentored.
“I’m like an extended big brother to a lot of those guys, and to see them play the way they are, it’s what we envisioned back in the day,” he said.
Rivers was asked how much Saturday’s game will evoke those old practice battles, with Weddle reading the meaning of every word that escapes his lips.
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“We’ll find out early on how much that will go on. That would go on about every day, multiple times on the practice field,” he said. “I don’t want to make too much of it. I don’t imagine he’s going to overanalyze everything he hears. He knows that I know that he knows, and vice versa. You can almost know too much and almost paralyze yourself. You forget about the rest of the play. … It’s not me vs. him. It’s our offense vs. an awesome defense, and he happens to be one of the key components and a guy that is as smart as any safety you’ll play against.”