Things could be different right now in Los Angeles. Justin Herbert is singlehandedly saving Anthony Lynn from unemployment.
After five long weeks of anticipation, Los Angeles Chargers (2-4) rookie quarterback finally earned his first NFL win Sunday as his squad prevailed over the Jacksonville Jaguars 39-29.
With a 347-yard, 4 touchdown performance (3 in the air, 1 on the ground), Justin Herbert has added another notch to his rookie-of-the-year resume: dragging his team to victory.
Lightning Struck with Justin Herbert
As a whole, the Chargers have been relatively disappointing in 2020. Injuries have ravaged the offensive line and defense. One-score losses continue to plague the team (more on that later).
There’s an obvious bright spot in LA in Herbert. He’s exceeded everyone’s expectations in his surprise starting role for the Chargers.
He hasn’t just been an impressive rookie, he’s been one of the top QB’s in the NFL.
Among the QB’s that have attempted at least 100 passes this season, Herbert ranks third in yards per attempt at 8.4. His 108.1 QB rating is good for seventh in the league among full-time starters.
He’s grown stronger by the week. His first few starts had some hiccups. Herbert threw untimely — and frankly inexcusable interceptions. They were chalked up as rookie mistakes. Those kind of things happen when you’re starting a 22-year old quarterback.
But they’ve abruptly stopped. Herbert was virtually mistake-free against Jacksonville, and even against the Saints before the bye. The rookie has been the reason why the Chargers won, and almost won those games respectively.
He makes good decisions. His deep ball is simply deadly. He can extend plays with his feet, something the Chargers were sorely missing in the past decade and a half.
Just five games into his career, it’s already an easy call: Justin Herbert is going to be a superstar.
… But it almost didn’t
Now, let’s get something straight. Wins are not a QB stat. All you need to do is look at the win/loss record of a guy like Matthew Stafford to know that. The same applies to the young Chargers signal-caller in his first four starts.
But Justin Herbert won this game for the Chargers. It was all him. And for the first time in his brief career, Herbert didn’t play in a one-score game.
LA’s struggles in such contests have been well-documented. Losing such games isn’t the fault of the QB in most circumstances. Herbert’s third-quarter interception against the Chiefs cost the Chargers, but it didn’t cost them the game. That lovely distinction falls squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff.
Let’s look back into ancient history — Week One of this NFL season. The Chargers flew up to Cincinnati, Ohio to take on the Bengals.
A high-profile rookie gunslinger was making his league debut, but it wasn’t the man in the snazzy white-and-powder-blue uniforms. The number one overall pick in the draft, LSU’s Joe Burrow, started for the Bengals and played a solid game.
Instead of Justin Herbert, who took the reigns the next week, the Chargers started was Tyrod Taylor. And, well, he did well enough to get the win — but just barely.
He was 16-of-30 for 208 yards. No TD’s, no interceptions for Taylor in the 16-13 win. A very “meh” game.
That week, the Chargers snuck by a bad team through its running game. Led by Austin Ekeler’s 84 yards and Joshua Kelley’s 60, LA grinded out a tough game on the road. Its 155-yard rushing day has only been topped once — the next week against Kansas City (183).
The issue? Coaching
The Chargers’ evolution from smash mouth to a vertical passing offense happened basically overnight. And with all due respect to Tyrod Taylor, it wouldn’t have happened if Herbert never got his chance.
And this thought brings us to the main point: if Justin Herbert wasn’t the starting QB for the Chargers, they wouldn’t have won Sunday’s game. Not only that, but those one-score losses (3 points, 5, 7 and 3 respectively) are wider margins.
Taylor was never going to throw for over 250 yards like Herbert did in each of them.
If we go deeper into this alternate universe, where LA’s medical staff is competent and doesn’t impale Taylor in the lung, we see a completely different narrative forming. The Chargers aren’t a team that’s “better than their record” or a good team with bad injury luck. They’re a 1-5 team that probably isn’t competitive and has a questionable QB prospect sitting on the bench.
If this was the case, head coach Anthony Lynn would have a scapegoat. The Chargers were never going to compete, right? This year is a redshirt year for Justin Herbert. They’re riding Taylor to a top-5 draft pick where they could select Herbert’s old college pal, Penei Sewell, right?
But with how things obviously played out, coach Lynn has found himself firmly on the hot seat.
There is no excuse, with a roster this talented, with a QB this good (rookie or not), for this team to be 2-4 right now with four one-possession losses. That’s on coaching, even with the injuries.
Barring an inexplicable turn of events in which the Chargers find ways to win the close ones, Lynn is coaching for his job right now. With the shape this season is forming, the Chargers big brass should be licking their lips watching the Chiefs’ Eric Bienemy every week.
With an arm talent like Herbert slinging the ball at a historic rate every week, you need aggressive and creative offensive philosophies, and so far that’s not what they’re getting. So while the Chargers earned that important win Sunday, give that credit to Herbert before giving it to anybody else.
Austin covers the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Chargers for OT Heroics. Follow him on Twitter @AustinTurner_.
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