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Even Justin Herbert’s Historic Rookie Campaign Can’t Save the Chargers

Herbert is in the middle of an all-time great rookie season and has the stats, efficiency, and historical references to prove it. There’s just one problem: He’s on the Chargers.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

It may not feel like it, but Chargers QB Justin Herbert is in the middle of one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history. The first-rounder out of Oregon has accumulated 2,146 passing yards, 17 passing touchdowns, and five interceptions in seven games, plus he’s added another 166 yards and two scores on the ground. He’s flashed with big plays, excellent awareness, and top-tier athleticism.

Herbert has also been remarkably efficient for a rookie. So far this season, he has one of the best adjusted net yards per attempt (7.64 coming into Sunday) ever for a first-year passer. Even accounting for 2020’s pass-friendly offensive environment, Herbert ranks fifth among rookie passers all time in era-adjusted ANY/A. The only names above him are Dan Marino, Dak Prescott, Robert Griffin III, and Ben Roethlisberger (and Herbert may jump up that list once this week’s results are tallied). The names just below him are Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, and Jim Kelly.

There’s just one major obstacle standing in between Herbert and a Pro Bowl–caliber career: He’s on the Chargers. The switch at quarterback from longtime starter Philip Rivers to Herbert has not stopped the Chargers from being a seemingly cursed franchise that finds creative and agonizing ways to lose football games each and every week. This time, that meant a 31-26 loss to the Raiders, in which Los Angeles had a last-second attempt to win the game from Las Vegas’s 4-yard line. They called an end zone fade to their third-string tight end, and—spoiler alert—it didn’t work.

That last play spoiled an otherwise impressive performance from Herbert. The rookie passer went 28-of-42 for 326 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions) while adding another 24 yards on the ground. If Donald Parham Jr. had come down with that football, it would have been Herbert’s fifth consecutive game with at least three touchdown passes.

The failure against the Raiders is a near mirror of what happened a week ago, when the Chargers lost to the Broncos on the final play of that game. That time the roles were reversed, though, with Denver and sophomore quarterback Drew Lock facing a six-point deficit with just one second left and the ball 1 yard from the end zone. The Broncos did not call an end zone fade, and their play was successful:

This is hardly the only heartbreak the Chargers have faced this year. In Week 5, they had a chance to beat the Saints on a last-second, 50-yard field goal, but kicker Michael Badgley doinked it off the right upright. The Saints got the ball first in overtime and settled for a field goal, giving the Chargers a chance to either tie the game or win with a touchdown. Instead, their drive sputtered, and wideout Mike Williams was tackled just short of the first-down marker on a fourth down.

In Week 4, the Chargers took a 24-7 lead over the Buccaneers, only to allow Tom Brady and Co. to score touchdowns on four of their next five drives (and a field goal on the sixth). The team still had a chance to tie it late, getting the ball back with a seven-point deficit and more than two minutes on the clock, but Herbert badly overthrew Keenan Allen and was intercepted. (Hey, he’s a rookie, he can’t be perfect.)

And in Week 2 against the Chiefs, Herbert’s first start, the Chargers watched an eight-point fourth-quarter lead disappear. That included a game-tying field goal drive for Kansas City in which the Chargers defense let Patrick Mahomes pick up a third-and-20 with his legs:

In overtime, the Chargers went three-and-out, and punted it back to the Chiefs. Predictably, Kansas City drove the ball down the field—in a whopping 13 plays—and kicked a field goal to win the game.

Most of this heartbreak has little to do with Herbert, who has been as promising as anyone could have expected as a rookie. Indeed, in typical Chargers fashion, there is no one culprit: The team came into Sunday ranked 11th in offensive DVOA, 15th in defensive DVOA, and an abysmal 32nd in special teams DVOA. But even with that level of special teams incompetence, the Chargers should be better than 2-6. Instead, they find a new way to lose each week.

The seven names that surround Herbert on the rookie era-adjusted ANY/A list went a combined 68-33 in their first seasons. With Sunday’s loss, Herbert is 1-6. Herbert is on pace to have one of the best rookie seasons ever—but even he can’t stop the Chargers from being the Chargers.