The Future is now for the Chargers

The choice of the starting quarterback for the first game of the 2020 NFL season was an easy one for Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were no traditional offseason workout programs, no mini-camps and there were no preseason games. The Chargers chose veteran Tyrod Taylor to start in the first game over rookie Justin Herbert, since Herbert had zero NFL game experience.

That all changed on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, in the second game of the season. Taylor was experiencing chest pains caused by a bad reaction to a painkilling injection before the game. The injection was needed due to a rib injury suffered in the week one win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Because of the chest pain, Taylor was scratched from the lineup and sent to the hospital. It was later determined that a Chargers team doctor accidentally punctured Taylor's lung while administering the injection.

The injury gave rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, the sixth overall pick in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft, his first opportunity to see action in an NFL game, in the Chargers first home game in the new SoFi stadium. Although the Chiefs won the game in overtime 23-20, Herbert did not disappoint. Herbert completed 22 of 33 passes for 311 yards and one touchdown and he rushed for 18 yards and a touchdown.

Herbert found out he was starting minutes before the kickoff. The opening kickoff went to the Chargers and Herbert led the team on an eight play, 79-yard drive, capping the drive with a four-yard touchdown run. In the second quarter, Herbert threw his first career touchdown pass to wide receiver Jalen Guyton, a 14-yard strike in the back of the end zone. The Chargers led the Chiefs 14-6 at halftime.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes led a second half comeback that tied the game in regulation, with Harrison Butker kicking a game tying 30-yard field goal with three seconds left in the game. Mahomes threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns and led the Chiefs in rushing with 54 yards.

Herbert became the third player in NFL history along with Cam Newton in 2011 and Otto Graham in 1950 to have 300 passing yards and a rushing touchdown in their first NFL game. Against the defending Super Bowl Champs, Herbert showed off his size, athleticism, and arm strength. He showed his ability to throw a pass to any part of the field, including an amazing throw in the middle of the field through traffic to wide receiver Keenan Allen for a 25-yard gain.

Allen had seven receptions for 96 yards and tight end Hunter Henry six receptions for 83 yards. Running back Austin Ekeler rushed for 93 yards on 16 carries and had four receptions for 55 yards. Rookie running back Joshua Kelly, the 4th round draft pick from UCLA, rushed for 64 yards on 23 carries, while also catching two passes for 49 yards.

Rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray, another first round pick of the Chargers from Oklahoma, led the Chargers with ten tackles on defense. Murray is the quarterback-of-the-future on defense. Herbert, Murray, and Kelly are the future and they are ready to play now. Kelly and Ekeler are transforming the Chargers into a running team. The Chargers are second in the NFL in run percentage, with 55.3% of the offensive plays being running plays. The Los Angeles Rams lead the NFL in that category at 56.8%.

The game plan for the 2020 Chargers is to run the ball, play good defense, win the turnover battle, and maybe get a little bit lucky. They got all four elements in the win in Cincinnati. Against the Chiefs, the Chargers ran the ball well and played good defense, but they lost the turnover battle and they did not get lucky.

The Chargers defense was unable to force any turnovers against the Chiefs and unlike last week, the offense committed a key turnover late in the third quarter. Near the end of the third quarter, on second-and-2 from the Kansas City 39, Herbert rolled left and had a clear field to run, with at least ten yards of daylight in front of him. Instead, he threw deep across his body into triple coverage, in an attempt for a big play to Allen, that was intercepted. That ended a scoring drive for the Chargers.

Unlike the field goal kicker a week before in Cincinnati, Butker not only did not miss any chip shot field goals, but he nailed two 58-yard field goal attempts. The last one ended up being the game winner in overtime. Butker became the second kicker in NFL history to connect on two field goal attempts from 58 yards and tied a Chiefs franchise record for the longest field goal ever.

Despite Herbert's performance, Lynn stated after the game that Taylor would remain the starter: "He was our starter for a reason, and if he's 100 percent healthy, he's our starter." Unfortunately for Lynn, the cat is out of the bag. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells once said, "You lose with potential. You win with performance." The potential of Herbert was well known. But now that the public has seen Herbert's performance on an NFL field, the Chargers will have a difficult time going back to Taylor.

As a comparison, Taylor has started 47 NFL games and thrown for over 300 yards just once. Herbert did it in his first start. Herbert is under contract through 2023. Taylor is a free agent at the end of the season. The Chargers are playing in Los Angeles, in a beautiful new state-of-the-art stadium and Herbert could be the kind of player that might sell tickets and help attract new Charger fans to the stadium, once the pandemic has ended. It makes no sense to delay the future when it has arrived.

The report of a punctured lung has put the Chargers in a difficult position with regard to Taylor. If Taylor loses his starting job to an apparent medical error, what happens then? The NFL Players Association is investigating the incident. In the meantime, it appears that Herbert will start again this week and Easton Stick will be the backup at quarterback if Herbert starts.

This week the Chargers will face a Carolina Panthers team that is struggling, having started 0-2 after losses to the Las Vegas Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Panthers just lost their top offensive player, Christian McCaffery, to a high ankle sprain. He will reportedly miss the next four to six weeks. Defensively, the Panthers are allowing 32.5 points per game through the first two weeks.

The game will be played at SoFi Stadium, with a 1:05 p.m. starting time on the CBS television network. The Chargers are 1-1 after the loss to the Chiefs, trailing the Raiders and the Chiefs in the AFC West, who are tied in first place at 2-0. The Chargers need to win the game on Sunday to keep up and the Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Chargers a 6.5-point favorite at home.


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