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Column: Why the Chargers are starting Tyrod Taylor instead of Justin Herbert

Chargers quarterbacks Justin Herbert, right, and Tyrod Taylor on the field during practice Aug. 19 in Costa Mesa.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

This is the kind of coincidence that feeds into the mythology of a curse.

The Chargers drafted their next franchise quarterback this year, only for a pandemic to rearrange their offseason to a degree that is certain to affect his development.

The team’s status as a playoff contender alone would have complicated decisions on how and when to break in Justin Herbert. The adjusted NFL calendar added entirely new sets of variables.

Rookie minicamp was staged online. So were organized team activities. There was no exhibition season.

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“Obviously, it’s going to affect him,” general manager Tom Telesco said of Herbert, whom he selected with the sixth overall choice.

Once again, the universe is conspiring against the Chargers.

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has supported his players on and off the field and has the trust of management, but winning games remains a priority too.

Deciding how to bring along Herbert could be even more difficult from the major call they made at quarterback earlier in the year, which was to break up with longtime starter Philip Rivers.

With Rivers moving on to the Indianapolis Colts, the Chargers found a placeholder in a veteran who was literally their placeholder on field goals last season.

That’s Tyrod Taylor, their projected Week 1 starter.

Coach Anthony Lynn is familiar with Taylor, as he was on the Buffalo Bills coaching staff when the now-31-year-old was the starting quarterback. Taylor doesn’t turn over the ball and runs well, but has a limited ceiling as a passer.

With the defense expected to be dominant, the Chargers could very well succeed with a game manager such as Taylor, who is in the second year of a two-year contract.

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The Chargers have an emphasis to win now, as key players such as defensive end Melvin Ingram and tight end Hunter Henry are in the last year of their contracts.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert
Justin Herbert could end up on the Chargers sideline all season, which is less than ideal for a rookie expected to become the next franchise quarterback.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The mind-set distinguishes them from a team like the Cincinnati Bengalswhich drafted Joe Burrow No. 1 overall.

With virtually no chance of reaching the postseason this season, the Bengals can focus on developing Burrow. If starting Burrow results in a couple more losses for the Bengals, so be it. Their season already was lost.

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While mindful of Herbert, the Chargers have to think first of what gives them the best chance to win now. This could result in Herbert remaining on the sidelines for the entire season, which could be less than ideal.

Telesco was an entry-level employee in the Carolina Panthers scouting department when they drafted Kerry Collins in 1995. Collins, the fifth overall pick, became their starter in Week 3.

Telesco worked in the front office of the Colts when they selected Peyton Manning in 1998 and Andrew Luck in 2012. Manning and Luck were Week 1 starters as rookies.

“I just don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all philosophy to developing a rookie quarterback,” Telesco said. “It depends on where your team is, who else you may have and that particular quarterback.”

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Drue Tranquill recently described new Chargers teammate Kenneth Murray Jr.'s legs as “glossy.” It was most definitely a compliment.

This year, the workouts that were lost in the unconventional offseason also have to be considered.

Addressing Herbert specifically, Lynn said, “You can’t make up reps, the physical reps, that he would’ve had.”

In other words, Herbert might not be ready — at least not ready to start for a playoff contender.

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Herbert was a four-year starter at Oregon, but operated almost exclusively from the shotgun. He could recall only one play in which he was under center, a quarterback sneak.

If he’s behind now, not taking a single snap this season could set him back even more.

“Who knows how this season is going to go?” Lynn said. “I’m not going to sit here and say who’s going to start and who’s not. Tyrod Taylor’s in the driver’s seat. I’ve said that all along. And, yeah, he’ll probably be our Day 1 starter. I’m very familiar with him and know what he can do and can’t do. But this young man’s got to be ready to play.”

In Sunday’s season opener, the Chargers will get reacquainted with Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, a quarterback they scouted before the 2020 NFL draft.

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The Chargers could underachieve as they did last season when they went 5-11. Taylor could stumble. This being football, there’s always a possibility Herbert could be forced into action by injuries. And this being pandemic season, there’s always a chance COVID-19 could drastically alter plans.

Herbert was modest when asked about his goals for the season, declaring his ambition was simply to become “a better quarterback at the end of the year than I was when I started.”

Which could be the right mind-set. The last time the Chargers had a rookie quarterback as highly regarded as Herbert, they kept him on the bench for two years. The quarterback was Rivers and he went on to start for the next 14.


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