INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Less than a minute before the opening kickoff Sunday in SoFi Stadium, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn walked over to rookie quarterback Justin Herbert and told him he was starting against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
“I think he thought I was joking,” Lynn would say later.
“I was surprised,” Herbert admitted.
From that a potential legacy was born. The Chargers may have stumbled in the 23-20 overtime loss but they never blinked in part because Herbert confirmed the hype surrounding his talent is warranted.
The former Oregon star, who was drafted sixth overall and displays a quiet confidence that is as long as his 6-foot-6 frame, threw for 311 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 18 yards and a score. But in answering any questions about his ability, at least for one game, he created an even more intriguing question: Do the Chargers have a quarterback controversy on their hands?
Lynn said afterward that Tyrod Taylor, who left during warmups and was taken to the hospital with “chest pain”, remains the starter “if he’s 100 percent and ready to go.” Maybe that’s true, but so is this: History is unrelenting in reminding us that the sand in the hourglass empties quickly when it comes to highly drafted quarterbacks seeing the field. It’s never a matter of if. It’s always a matter of when.
The NFL is cruel that way. It doesn’t help that the Chargers’ offense was underwhelming in the season opener at Cincinnati, scoring just 16 points while putting up only 208 yards through the air. The Chargers left Paul Brown Stadium with a victory, but they also were dogged by questions about just how long it would take for Herbert to be ready to step in.
Taylor has been through this before. In 2018 he was repeatedly affirmed as the unquestioned starter after the Browns drafted Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall. But when the offense failed to score more than 21 points in the first two games and Taylor went down with a minor injury in Week 3, Mayfield took the field and the starting job for good.
If there is a difference this time, it’s that Lynn is an unabashed believer Taylor. The two were together in Buffalo in 2015 and ’16, when Taylor was 14-14 as the starter before leading the Bills to the playoffs in 2017, the year that Lynn took the Chargers job. But loyalty can be a tricky thing. It may win a coach respect, but it can also cost him his job. Owners are often fickle to the whims of their paying customers, if not their own desires. Taylor represents the safety of the known; Herbert represents the promise of what can be.
Hence, Lynn is smart enough to know he will face tremendous headwinds if he stays with Taylor. If Herbert can look this good on the shortest of notice, with little to no first-team reps in practice, imagine what he can do with a full week of preparation this coming Sunday against the 0-2 Panthers. Herbert wasn’t just good against the Chiefs; at times he was very good against a Kansas City defense that dominated Houston and quarterback Deshaun Watson the previous week. Fans saw it on television, and, perhaps more importantly, Chargers players saw it in person. Their postgame praise for the youngster didn’t sound perfunctory. It sounded foretelling.
“I like what I see,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “He has great vision back there. His arm was a little too strong today on a few passes, but I just really like what I’m seeing from him. He’s got a great head on his shoulders. It’s going to be exciting to see him grow.”
“I thought he had a great first game,” said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “I thought he played with toughness. He definitely gave us a lot of confidence that he can go out there and do the job.”
Herbert said he was surprised but excited when told shortly before kickoff he would start. He jogged onto the field as if it were just another game, instead of a moment he had dreamed about since he first suited up as a kid, and led the offense on an eight-play, 79-yard drive that culminated with his 4-yard run. He took a hard hit at the pylon but bounced up as if he had done nothing more than trip over his feet. At one point on the sideline, his boyhood jubilance came out as he smiled and said: “Man, this is cool.”
It didn’t matter that starting center Mike Pouncey was placed on injured reserve during the week, or that left tackle Bryan Bulaga left in the first quarter with an injury. Herbert was neither rattled nor concerned. He executed the game plan as if it had been designed for him, relying on quick passes and short completions to stay out of harm’s way. The one time he did go deep, he was late delivering a surprisingly under-thrown ball to Mike Williams. Safety Tyrann Mathieu made up ground to bat away the ball.
Herbert was steady. He had only one three-and-out on his first nine possessions. He looked seasoned, such as when he would slide to the left or right in the pocket to create space to make a throw. Or when he placed the ball on the inside to avoid a defender closing from the outside, or another time when he perfectly dropped the ball beyond the trailing safety but in front of the cornerback.
But just when he seemed mature beyond his years, he reminded us that he is still a rookie who was making his first start in only his second game. The first time came early in the third quarter, when rolled right after taking the handoff and took a sack instead of throwing the ball away — or getting it to the fullback who was open in the flat.
The second reminder was more consequential. Near the end of the third quarter, on second-and-2 from the Kansas City 39, he rolled left and had a clear field to run. Instead, he threw deep against his body, into triple coverage, seeking a big play from wideout Keenan Allen. Result: interception.
When he took a seat on the bench, Lynn walked over. “I just told him you don’t have to try to win the game, just execute, one play at a time,” the coach said. “I felt like he had 8 yards in front of him on that second-and-2. He turned that down and was looking downfield. I like that he was looking downfield and not looking to run it, but that was a bad decision.”
Really, it was a devastating decision, as the Chargers, who appeared in complete control of the game, where driving to make it a two-score contest. Instead, the turnover rejuvenated the Chiefs, who went 95 yards in six plays to tie the score at 17 early in the fourth quarter. Tyreek Hill, who was invisible for much of the game to that point, got free for the 54-yard score. He finished with five receptions for 99 yards and a aforementioned TD.
There was no stopping Kansas City at that point. The Chiefs drove for field goals on each of their next two possessions, claiming victory with 1:55 to go in overtime when Harrison Butker converted on his third field goal — and second from 58 yards. Patrick Mahomes finished 27 of 47 for 302 yards and two scores, but we’ve come to expect that from him. He’s a known commodity. Herbert is not — or, should I say, was not.
Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter at @JimTrotter_NFL.
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