Kyusung Gong/Associated Press
When the Los Angeles Chargers sent Philip Rivers packing in the offseason and used the sixth overall pick on Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, it was clear that a changing of the guard under center was coming in L.A. However, veteran journeyman Tyrod Taylor drew the start against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1.
With Taylor surprisingly on the shelf in Week 2, Herbert was thrown to the proverbial wolves. His first NFL start came with no preparation against Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Herbert didn’t quite pull off a Hollywood ending and stun the champs. But by taking Kansas City to overtime and topping 300 yards in his pro debut, a 23-20 loss, he showed that high pick was spent wisely and the time for that changing of the guard is right now.
After his standout career at Oregon, which included 3,471 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 2019, the Chargers made Herbert the third quarterback drafted in 2020, behind the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa. But while Burrow started for the Bengals right out of the gate, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco made it clear from the get-go that wasn’t going to be the case with his signal-caller.
“There’s no pressure on Justin to walk in on Day 1,” Telesco said, via Dylan Mickanen of NBC Sports Northwest. “We’re not asking him to come in here and carry the football whatsoever. Just asking him to come in, start competing, start learning and we’ll take it from there.”
Peter Joneleit/Associated Press
Given that so much of the offseason was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not hard to see the rationale behind the decision. And while Taylor didn’t play especially well against the Bengals, there was no indication the Chargers were considering a switch.
At least, not until a pregame chest injury forced the Chargers to make one.
With no prep time in practice this week and facing a Chiefs team that gave Deshaun Watson more than a little trouble in Week 1, it would have been understandable if Herbert had struggled in the early going.
On his first drive in the NFL, he hit running back Joshua Kelley with a 35-yard pass and led the Bolts right down the field. He then called his own number on his first score as a professional.
That last word may be the best way to sum up Herbert’s debut. He didn’t at all look the part of a rookie making his first career start. He made good reads and threw the ball accurately, picked up yardage with his legs and didn’t shrink at all from a duel with the NFL’s highest-paid player in Mahomes.
By game’s end, Herbert had thrown for 311 yards, which was the most in a Chargers debut (h/t NFL on CBS). When he hit second-year wide receiver Jalen Guyton for a 14-yard score in the second quarter, he became the first quarterback since 1954 to throw a touchdown pass and run for a score in the first half of his first NFL game.
Herbert’s debut certainly impressed Tony Romo, who was calling the game for CBS.
“This kid has made great decision after great decision, and really just two balls were barely high, and this is as good a start as I’ve seen in some time,” Romo said, per NBC Sports Southwest’s Dylan Mickanen.
Admittedly, Herbert had help. The Chargers piled up 183 rushing yards against the Chiefs, and the defense played Kansas City about as well as a team can reasonably be expected to. Herbert also wasn’t perfect. He threw a red-zone interception in the second half that led to the game-tying touchdown.
But Herbert, who learned just moments before kickoff that he would be taking snaps instead of holding a clipboard, played against the quarterback most consider the gold standard at the position and posted a better completion percentage. And more yards per attempt. And more passing yards. And a higher passer rating.
That’s right. In this game, at least, there’s an argument to be made that Herbert outplayed Mahomes.
For his part, the rookie tried to downplay the significance of his first start.
“I think we moved the ball pretty well,” he said after the game. “Unfortunately, we came up short, but I know that we’re gonna watch the film, and we’ll learn from it and get better.”
Shockingly, head coach Anthony Lynn indicated that if Taylor is healthy in Week 3, he’ll start.
Apparently, the coaching staff didn’t learn anything from this game. Because if the Chargers want to get better, then when the team takes the field at SoFi stadium next week against the Carolina Panthers, Herbert will be the starting quarterback.
There’s certainly no way to use the quarterbacks’ performances to justify going back to Taylor. Against the Bengals in Week 1, Taylor completed just 53.3 percent of his passes for 208 yards with a passer rating of 75.4—and that was against one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
Taylor is what he is: a journeyman backup.
As to the notion that Herbert somehow isn’t ready, Sunday’s game rather dispelled that. With no time to get ready, he took the field against the Super Bowl champions and went toe-to-toe with the best quarterback in the league.
He isn’t going to learn anything more watching Taylor be mediocre than he can with game reps.
Is Herbert going to top 300 passing yards with a passer rating of almost 95 every week? Of course not. As good as he looked Sunday, Herbert is still a rookie. There are going to be bumps in the road. Ill-advised throws. Missed reads.
But there is no way you can come away from watching what Herbert did against the Chiefs and say with a straight face that Taylor gives the Chargers a better chance to win. You just can’t.
Whether Lynn wants to admit it or not, the torch was passed Sunday against the Chiefs—all over the danged field.
Justin Herbert is the best quarterback the Los Angeles Chargers have.
And his time is now.