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Justin Herbert Looks Ahead of Schedule. Are the Chargers Ready for It?

The rookie mostly shined after being unexpectedly thrust into action on Sunday. Could the transition from Tyrod Taylor happen sooner than we expected?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Are the Chargers ready to embrace the future? After Justin Herbert’s strong debut, Los Angeles finds itself facing a decision that no one expected would be a dilemma entering the weekend. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn didn’t find out starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor wouldn’t be able to play against the Chiefs because of chest pains until after Sunday’s coin toss, leaving Lynn with no option but to turn to the rookie Herbert to lead Los Angeles’s offense against Patrick Mahomes’s squad. Perhaps more shocking: Herbert held his own—and then some. It took a Mahomes magic show and a 58-yard Harrison Butker field goal for Kansas City to come from behind and win in overtime, 23-20. Although Herbert’s initiation has started earlier than expected, his performance suggests that Los Angeles could potentially compete with their division rivals sooner than later.

Herbert, whom the Chargers took sixth overall in this year’s draft, boasts tantalizing arm strength and, at 6-foot-6 and 236 pounds, is pretty nimble for his size. The questions surrounding the former Oregon quarterback focused on his quiet demeanor and streaky playing style (he flicks pinpoint deep passes one moment and makes inexplicable throws the nex)t. With an abbreviated offseason and no preseason games, Herbert was expected to be eased into things as Taylor guided Los Angeles’s offense. Instead, Herbert’s introduction came against the defending Super Bowl champions after receiving next to no warning. No pressure.

“It might’ve been good that he had to go in and play, without thinking about it all night,” Lynn told reporters after the game.

Herbert shined in his debut. He finished 22-for-33 with 311 yards, one touchdown, and one pick. On his opening drive—not long after he’d learned he’d be starting—he converted on a key third-and-4 at Kansas City’s 20-yard line by completing a 16-yard pass to running back Austin Ekeler. Herbert scored on a 4-yard run the next play.

Through the air, Herbert flourished. His 66.7 completion rate was 4.6 points higher than expected, according to Next Gen Stats. He showed willingness to push the ball downfield, completing a 25-yard pass to Keenan Allen to convert a third down in the third quarter; the throw had only a 22.9 percent completion probability, per NGS.

On third down, Herbert went 5-for-8 with 93 yards and one touchdown. He picked up a first down on three of those completions. In other third-down situations, he was sacked once and scrambled twice for 3 total yards, picking up one first down. Herbert showed maturity and patience within the pocket throughout the night, rarely making any rookie mistakes. His most oblivious error was his third-quarter interception when he could have easily ran for a first down, but instead chucked the ball downfield.

That was a noticeable blemish, but it doesn’t cover up the bright spots of Herbert’s performance. He was worth a team-best 5.1 estimated points added, per The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin’s database. He outperformed Mahomes through most of the afternoon. Mahomes completed 27 of 47 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns, but the stats don’t show how the Los Angeles defense flustered the reigning Super Bowl MVP. He was 8-for-19 and 60 yards through the first half, and his longest completion was just 13 yards. Still, Mahomes managed to find a way to turn the game on its head, spoiling Herbert’s performance by showing off his incredible arm strength …

… and also using his legs …

The Chargers ultimately fell short Sunday, but they showed more life than they did in their season-opening win, when they needed the Bengals to self-destruct down the stretch to hang on. As Mahomes came back on Sunday, Herbert demonstrated poise, utilizing his arm and legs late in the game to set up a go-ahead drive with five minutes left.

But once the Chargers drove inside Kansas City’s red zone, they didn’t show much trust in Herbert. After Herbert’s carry to the Chiefs’ 4-yard line, Los Angeles called two designed runs before calling a busted play-action play that Herbert took a sack on. The Chargers settled for a field goal, and the Chiefs tied the game on the ensuing possession at the end of regulation. In overtime, the Chargers went three-and-out; facing fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line, Lynn decided to punt back to Mahomes and the Chiefs. The decision, according to Andrew Shackelford’s Surrender Index, which determines “how cowardly every NFL punt is, quantitatively,” Lynn’s decision to punt at the time ranked in the 99.5 percentile of “cowardly punts” this season and in the 96th percentile of all punts since 2009.

“I did consider going for it, but I didn’t,” Lynn said. “I went for it a couple other times in the game, but at that point in time, I thought I’d give us a chance to extend the game, but it didn’t work out.”

Fourth-down decisions, aside—whether Los Angeles punted or went for it, Mahomes and the Chiefs taking the lead seemed inevitable—Lynn and the Chargers now face an even bigger choice in deciding whether to stick with Herbert or Taylor. When Lynn was asked about it, he said, “If [Taylor is] 100 percent ready to go, he’s our starter.”

Things can change during the week, but considering the fire with which the Chargers played, it would be a shock if Lynn stuck with Taylor as their starter any longer. It was one game, but Herbert looked the part of a starting quarterback. It would be surprising for Lynn to not try to build on Herbert’s performance and allow him to further establish a rapport with his supporting cast. Los Angeles’s game plan eased him along enough, with the Chargers’ backfield duo of Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley combining for 39 rushes for 157 yards. Even when he made mistakes, Herbert showed resolve and an ability to bounce back. Lynn even said so.

“This guy doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Lynn said. “He made a couple today, but I thought he bounced back just fine. He wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger.”

Additionally, Taylor signed a two-year deal this offseason and arrived with the understanding he’d serve as a natural bridge to Herbert, like he did in Cleveland in 2018 after the Browns drafted Baker Mayfield. This isn’t a Nathan Peterman situation—in 2017, the Bills replaced Taylor with a fifth-round pick who threw a record five picks in his first career start. Herbert is not that player. He’s the future. The Chargers got a glimpse into what their future could look like, one in which they’re competing with a Super Bowl contender, with a Joey Bosa–led defense on one side of the ball and their special dual-threat passer leading the other. If Lynn would rather put that on hold, then he’ll stick with Taylor and limit Los Angeles’s capabilities for this season. But if he’s ready for the Chargers to realize their potential, the fourth-year coach won’t be passive this time around. Los Angeles should go for it here and continue forward with Herbert as their starting quarterback.