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Justin Herbert flashes promise but struggles with turnovers in Chargers’ loss

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert scrambles for a first down during the fourth quarter of a 21-16 loss.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert scrambles for a first down during the fourth quarter of a 21-16 loss to the Carolina Panthers at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

He trotted onto the field with 106 seconds to go and no timeouts left, the ball resting barely outside the end zone opposite the one the Chargers needed to reach.

A rookie in just his second career start, on a day during which he already had two turnovers, Justin Herbert was facing a daunting challenge.

But, in looking at the length of the SoFi Stadium field, he said he saw only one thing — a chance.

“What a great opportunity to go 99 yards,” Herbert explained later. “I knew we had the guys out there to go execute. What an opportunity to go play football. …I t’s unfortunate that we didn’t finish it.”

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Sunday was a day of repeated misfortune for Herbert and the Chargers, who won just about everywhere but on the scoreboard, falling 21-16 to Carolina.

They turned the ball over four times and had zero takeaways. They were called for eight penalties, one of which led immediately to the Panthers’ only touchdown. Their defense played well enough to win, but their offense did just enough to lose.

The Chargers had practiced this last-second trick play for two years, but when it came time to execute it against the Panthers on the final play of Sunday’s game, L.A. fumbled.

Afterward, coach Anthony Lynn praised Herbert’s play, noted the yards generated by his offense and applauded the team’s overall fight.

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All of that was commendable, sure, but not enough to overcome a minus-four turnover differential.

“That’s on me,” Lynn said. “I gotta do a better job, coaches gotta do a better job putting this team in position to win and eliminating the stupid and the turnovers.”

The Chargers fell to 1-2, losing at home to an opponent that dropped its first two games and was without its best player, injured running back Christian McCaffrey.

Unlike a week ago, when Herbert found out he was starting only seconds before kickoff, he had plenty of time to ready himself. The Chargers were coming off a spirited effort in an overtime loss to Super Bowl-champion Kansas City.

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Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray closes in on Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray closes in on Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater during the second half of Sunday’s game.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But this was a struggle from the start. The Chargers’ first two possessions netted seven yards. The second ended when Herbert was hit while attempting to pass and fumbled.

After a 75-yard drive produced an Austin Ekeler touchdown run and a 7-6 lead, rookie running back Josh Kelley fumbled at the end of a 16-yard run.

Trailing 15-7 and trying for points just before halftime, Herbert was intercepted, and a 66-yard return by cornerback Donte Jackson set up a field goal and an 18-7 edge.

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“A poor decision,” Herbert said. “You can’t let that happen.”

The Chargers’ first three turnovers became 12 points for the Panthers. Carolina reached the end zone just once, with Joey Slye kicking five field goals — none longer than 31 yards.

That touchdown allowed came after another miscue. The Chargers were called for illegal formation on what would have been a sixth successful kick by Slye. Officials flagged Jerry Tillery for lining up over the long snapper.

On the next play, Teddy Bridgewater hit Mike Davis for a 13-yard score.

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Chargers tight end Hunter Henry makes a catch between a group of Panthers defenders on the last drive of the game.
Chargers tight end Hunter Henry makes a catch between a group of Panthers defenders on the last drive of the game.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“We know,” Lynn said. “We practice it every day. We cannot line up any part of our shoulder pads over the center, OK? Usually, you get a warning. … This time they didn’t. They just threw the flag for whatever reason.”

For Lynn, this loss had to be particularly jarring. He has preached the need to take care of the football since the Chargers tied for last in the NFL in turnover differential a year ago.

Veteran Tyrod Taylor earned the starting quarterback job because he rarely gives away possessions. But Herbert was forced to take over last week after Taylor suffered a punctured lung during a pregame medical mishap.

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A trio of Chargers joined a growing list of significant players who are dealing with injuries following Sunday’s loss to the Panthers.

Herbert, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 draft, possesses more potential, the Chargers hoping he will develop into their long-term solution at the position. But, pressed into action, the team has no choice right now but to live with Herbert’s ups and downs.

“I think every turnover was a big swing for us,” Lynn said. “I thought we were going to score on all those drives.”

Said Herbert, who finished 35 of 49 for 330 yards and a touchdown: “The game’s still really fast. It’s a different level of play out there. I’m doing my best to go weekto week and learn as much as I can.”

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On that final, improbable 99-yard test, Herbert moved the Chargers into position to take one end-zone shot, his pass to Keenan Allen falling incomplete.

Then the Chargers narrowly missed on a trick play that had Allen pitching the ball back to Ekeler as the two crossed.

“I always believed,” Herbert said. “That entire drive I believed that we were going to get into the end zone.”

Instead of a miracle touchdown, as time expired, the play resulted in something more fitting: the Chargers’ fourth turnover.

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