The Justin Herbert era in Los Angeles kicked off unexpectedly on Sunday―a surprise to even the team’s coaching staff and Herbert himself. Just minutes before the Chargers’ matchup with the Chiefs, expected starter Tyrod Taylor suffered what was later diagnosed as a punctured lung, the result of a mishandled injection by the team’s doctor, and was taken to the hospital with chest pains. That alarming turn of events thrust Herbert into the spotlight and forced him into a challenging situation: making his first NFL start against the defending Super Bowl champs without the week’s worth of reps with the first-team unit.
But Herbert was apparently unfazed by the last-second shift in plans. The former Oregon Duck calmly led the Chargers down the field on the team’s opening possession, putting together an eight-play, 79-yard scoring drive capped by a 4-yard touchdown on a bootleg run. The rookie was impressive throughout, completing 22 of 33 passes for 311 yards (third most all time among rookies making their first start), with one touchdown and one interception to go with his rushing score. Helming a noticeably crisper, more dynamic offense than the one we saw in Week 1, Herbert became just the third player in league history to post 300-plus passing yards and a rushing touchdown in his first game (joining only Cam Newton and Otto Graham), helping L.A. push the Chiefs into overtime in the 23-20 loss.
Though head coach Anthony Lynn has said he wants Taylor to start, the lung injury will keep the veteran QB sidelined “indefinitely.” The Chargers are Herbert’s team in the interim, and based on what we saw in this NFL debut, there’s a good chance the no. 6 pick will hold on to the starting job for good. Here’s a look at his performance against Kansas City, and what it means for the Chargers in 2020 and beyond.
The “eye test” won’t tell you everything you need to know about a quarterback (and I’ll dig into both the stats and the tape in a bit here), but it’s a good start―and Herbert passed his with flying colors against the Chiefs on Sunday. What stood out the most to me was that the game never looked too big for the rookie; he was composed, decisive, and aggressive from the start. His teammates seemed to rally around him, particularly after their confidence-boosting first drive. The 6-foot-6, 236-pound signal-caller showed off his athleticism at the end of that possession, punching the ball into the end zone himself when he saw an opening.
Herbert’s a bit gangly and he’s not going to make many defenders miss with stop-on-a-dime change of direction, but he can definitely cover some ground in the open field (he ran a 4.68 40-yard dash at the combine), and showed some toughness as a runner in this game. The Chargers game plan under Taylor was meant to involve lots of pocket movement and some quarterback-run-oriented plays, and Herbert showed that the team didn’t need to completely abandon those concepts when he was out there under center. L.A. sprinkled in a handful of speed-option plays throughout the game, including one variation in the fourth quarter in which Herbert kept it himself and picked up 11 yards.
Herbert did a good job in getting the team’s star playmakers more involved in the offense too. One of the most concerning developments from the Chargers’ lackluster offensive performance in Week 1 was the dearth of opportunities that offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and Taylor provided for Austin Ekeler in the passing game. Head coach Anthony Lynn said after the narrow win over the Bengals that the team’s new scheme would limit check-downs to running backs. That felt to me like a missed opportunity, considering that’s where Ekeler does so much of his damage. Thankfully, Herbert looked ready to remedy that mistake, showing a willingness to look for his running backs both on the wing and underneath. Ekeler ripped off a big gain in the second quarter on a simple play-action check-down look, and Herbert found rookie Joshua Kelley later in the quarter on a dump-off over the middle.
Herbert found both Ekeler and Kelley on a couple of easy swing passes, too, the first of which was a huge gain that helped set up Herbert’s rushing score on the opening drive.
Checkdowns and swings don’t exactly require a ton of quarterbacking skill, but I was happy to see that Herbert has embraced a point-guard mentality: get the ball out quickly and efficiently and let the team’s most dynamic players do the rest. Taylor targeted the team’s running backs just once on 30 attempts in Week 1. Herbert targeted them six times on 33 throws against the Chiefs, with Kelley and Ekeler combining to catch all six and gain 104 yards on those plays. That’s easy money for Herbert and this offense.
Of course, the rookie quarterback did make a few tougher throws too. On this third-and-4 in the first quarter, Herbert lofted up a well-placed rainbow down the sideline, showing savviness to beat an all-out blitz by hitting Ekeler on a wheel route.
Later in the game, he showed excellent awareness and anticipation on this touchdown throw. On a third-and-goal from the 14-yard line, the Chargers ran a four-verts concept, which, you guessed it, featured four pass-catchers running vertical routes at the snap. The two routes to the left of the field managed to put cornerback Rashad Fenton in a bind; Herbert saw just a slight moment of hesitation from the defender and let the ball loose. He slung a frozen rope to the back shoulder of his receiver, carrying Jalen Guyton just far enough away from the coverage for the score.
There was a scene in Hard Knocks a few weeks ago that stood out to me, in which Herbert told Keenan Allen that his job as the quarterback is simple: to get Allen the ball. I was happy to see that Herbert remembered that too. After watching Allen catch just four passes for 37 yards in Week 1, Herbert peppered his top receiver with 10 targets, connecting on seven throws for 96 yards. Allen’s biggest gain was Herbert’s best throw, this 25-yard dime down the middle of the field that he threw with a pass rusher bearing down on him. This might have been one of the best throws of the week, and it may end up ranking among the best all year.
When I reread my pre-draft scouting report on Herbert, it struck me how closely the rookie passer stuck to all my talking points in Week 2 (don’t worry, I won’t break my arm patting myself on the back). Let’s go through it.
First, the big picture: “A big-bodied quarterback with a strong arm and playmaking athleticism.” Check. Now, some context for why he was so calm making that last-minute start: “Remarkable adaptability helming three different schemes under three separate staffs in his career at Oregon (Mark Helfrich’s spread offense, Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense, and Mario Cristobal’s pistol offense).” Then, his skill set: “He throws a pretty seam ball, can uncork passes on the move, and has shown flashes of brilliance in the face of pressure.” Check, check, and check.
Basically, Herbert looked a lot like the guy we saw at Oregon. That included a few negative plays, too. From my scouting report: “While the Ducks signal-caller has made plenty of scintillating plays in his college career, consistency is an issue—both in his decision-making and accuracy. He’ll throw a perfectly placed laser downfield then miss a wide-open receiver on the next play.”
Well, we saw pretty much exactly that on Sunday. Herbert is clearly capable of making the wow throw, like that last one above, but he still has a long way to go in the ball-placement category overall. He underthrew a deep bomb on play-action early in the game, allowing the defender to catch up with his receiver and bat the ball away. He also just plain missed on a couple of key third-down attempts.
And, of course, we can’t ignore the terrible decision he made late in the third quarter, drifting to his left and throwing back across both his body and the field, into double-coverage, for an easy pick.
This play was a back breaker for the Chargers, ending what had been a promising drive. The Chiefs came back on their next possession and tied the score.
Los Angeles can expect those kinds of ups and downs from its inexperienced rookie passer this year. But despite that handful of miscues, I couldn’t help but come away very impressed with what Herbert did in his debut. He made a few big throws, showed toughness, and most importantly, he looked like he belonged. Ekeler made a good point after the game, too, noting that he was proud of Herbert for checking out of plays and reading the defense in ways that his predecessor, Philip Rivers, used to do.
With Taylor still on the mend, Herbert’s already been named the starter against Carolina in Week 3. That matchup, against a young, talent-deprived Panthers defense, gives Herbert the perfect opportunity to build on his promising start. And while Lynn has steadfastly maintained that Taylor’s their guy once he’s healthy, Herbert has the chance to force the team’s hand over the next few weeks. If he continues to play as well as he did in Week 1, the Chargers will have no choice but to stick with their talented rookie quarterback.