Chargers lose in OT to Chiefs, but gain confidence with top pick Justin Herbert at QB

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert passes under pressure.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert passes under pressure during a 23-20 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Cheers erupted about 900 miles north of Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon when quarterback Justin Herbert made a surprise start for the Chargers.

At Track Town Pizza in Eugene, Ore., one of Herbert’s college haunts, socially-distanced diners followed his every snap against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

They watched the 6-foot-6 first-round pick roll right, pump fake, and beat a defender to the pylon for his first NFL touchdown.

They saw him coolly survey the defense, and pick apart the secondary, looking nothing like a rookie who got a last-minute nod to start after Tyrod Taylor experienced difficulty breathing, was transported to a hospital and later discharged.


They marveled at Herbert’s toughness, the way he ran with abandon — just as he did at the University of Oregon — lowering his shoulder to deliver as much as he could on collisions.

With Tyrod Taylor sitting because of a chest injury, rookie Justin Herbert shines in his first start as the Chargers lose to the Chiefs, 23-20, in overtime.

“It’s really neat for Eugene, especially because he’s a local kid who grew up here,” said Tim Hill, owner of the landmark pizza restaurant, directly across the street from campus. “He was a really class-act kid, quiet and polite.”

Herbert’s NFL debut was anything but low-key. He stepped into a high-pressure situation, with no exhibition games to prepare him, and wasn’t upstaged by Kansas City superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

That’s hugely valuable to the Chargers, who need that to build on their L.A. fanbase. Even though they lost in overtime, 23-20, turning SoFi Stadium into SoClose, they have more than a spark of hope in Herbert, the No. 6 overall selection.

“He played his tail off,” Mahomes said. “Our defense shows a lot of different coverages, a lot of different looks, and for him to be able to move the ball down the field and get points on the board, he did a great job.

“I kind of joked with him, ‘Protect yourself on some of those runs.’ But he ran the ball well, he threw the ball well, and it was a heck of a first start for him.”

Inglewood, CA, Sunday, September 20, 2020 - Quarterback Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Charger.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert passes against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Particularly impressed was a fellow Oregon and Chargers alumnus, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who called Herbert’s debut “fantastic.”

“You talk about his size, and you could really see how it helped him with a number of passes over the middle,” Fouts said. “Because that’s where the big guys are trying to get to you, and they’re getting their hands up. But at 6-6, and with a really nice overhead delivery, it’s hard to block his passes.”

Getting the right quarterback is vital for any team, but it’s especially important for the Chargers, who are replacing a face-of-the-franchise player in Philip Rivers (now with Indianapolis) and need someone who can help market the team off the field.

“I think that performance justifies the pick, number one,” Fouts said. “And everybody is going to be talking about Justin Herbert. That’s always good. I just think it’s all positive for the team.”

Herbert played under four different offenses during his college career. That undoubtedly helped him transition to the NFL and get up to speed so quickly with the Chargers, even though he was splitting snaps with Taylor in training camp.

If Herbert indeed learned at the spur of the moment that he would be starting, that might have been better than to ruminate all week on the idea of facing the Chiefs before a national audience.

“You can certainly make the argument that it’s better you haven’t played the game over in your head,” Fouts said. “When nine of those times it didn’t come out really great.”

The Chargers don’t know how serious Tyrod Taylor’s condition is, but if he is healthy, coach Anthony Lynn says the quarterback will start next week against Carolina.

Fouts made his NFL debut as a rookie in 1973, when he replaced the legendary Johnny Unitas during a Week 4 game against the soon-to-be-great Pittsburgh Steelers. The next week, Fouts made his first start against the Oakland Raiders, who would make it to the AFC championship game that season.

“I felt great that I got a shot,” Fouts said. “I think that’s all any player wants is a shot to play … but don’t look up my stats.”

They weren’t atrocious. In the 27-17 defeat, Fouts threw for 183 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

Herbert completed 22 of 33 passes for 311 yards, and delivered two touchdowns — one on the ground — with an interception. The Chargers lost, but in the big picture, Herbert’s performance made it feel a lot better than that.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Chargers’ 23-20 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.