Column: Justin Herbert’s resilience — and health — could be nearing a breaking point
He had directed the first fourth-quarter comeback of his career.
Until he hadn’t.
When it was over, when a replay review invalidated his last-second touchdown pass, Justin Herbert clutched the collar of his navy-blue jersey and stared up at SoFi Stadium’s video scoreboard in disbelief.
Donald Parham Jr.’s catch on the right side of the end zone was a mirage, the resulting euphoria an illusion. There was no reprieve for Herbert and the Chargers, not on Sunday.
The Chargers are 2-6 overall, 1-6 with Herbert as their starting quarterback.
By now, it’s clear Herbert isn’t the quarterback of a team that’s cursed or an underachieving team that can’t hold leads.
He’s the quarterback of a team that’s not very good, if not downright awful.
Chargers tight end Donald Parham Jr. can’t hang on to a potential touchdown pass on the final play as the Chargers lose to the Raiders, 31-26.
“I know things are going to change here,” Herbert said in the postgame video news conference.
He’s probably right.
In Herbert, the Chargers have a franchise quarterback. At some point in the relatively near future, they should be able to field a contender, whether it’s under Anthony Lynn or another coach.
The question is whether the 22-year-old Herbert can survive until then.
His spectacular performances have obscured how he is playing behind a porous offensive line that is jeopardizing his physical well-being and, by extension, his future.
Herbert absorbed another pounding while completing 28 of 42 passes for 326 yards on Sunday, as the group’s two major offseason reinforcements were sidelined.
All-Pro right guard Trai Turner has played in one game, in Week 2.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga returned in Week 8, only to reinjure his back on the second play Sunday. Bulaga was replaced by Trey Pipkins III, who was abused by the Raiders pass rushers.
The Raiders entered the game with just seven sacks, which was tied for 30th in the 32-team league. But they sacked Herbert twice and were credited with seven quarterback hits, not counting the time Maxx Crosby decked Herbert when he pitched the ball to Kalen Ballage on the final drive.
Another shot he absorbed from Crosby was particularly costly. With the Chargers down by eight points, Herbert faked a handoff to Ballage and rolled right, only to find Crosby there. Herbert threw back across his body to an open Gabe Nabers for a four-yard touchdown, but was knocked to the turf.
Herbert was shaken and required the attention of team trainers. Rules prohibited Herbert from remaining in the game unless Lynn burned a timeout, so Tyrod Taylor replaced him on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt. The attempt failed, which kept the Chargers behind, 28-26.
How the Chargers positioned themselves to win this game was a credit to Herbert’s athleticism.
Consider the first of his two touchdown passes, a 27-yard strike to Keenan Allen with 19 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Sensing pressure behind him, Herbert stepped up in the pocket. In doing so, he nearly walked into the outstretched arm of a pass rusher. Herbert hopped to his left to avoid the tackle and somehow threw to his right as he landed.
The near comeback was also a testament to the rookie’s resilience.
“He doesn’t flinch,” Lynn remarked.
The Chargers started their final drive on their 25-yard line with four minutes 37 seconds remaining. They drove to the Raiders’ four-yard line, where Herbert spiked the ball to stop the clock with six seconds left.
That was sufficient time for Herbert to throw a couple of fades to the back-right corner of the end zone.
The Chargers put a drive together in attempt to beat the Raiders before time ran out, but two dropped passes in the final six seconds cost them a victory.
The first was to Mike Williams.
Then came the near-catch by Parham, who couldn’t hold on to the ball as gravity pulled him to the turf.
Afterward, Herbert was stoic. As he addressed reporters over an internet feed, he looked straight ahead. He pursed his lips.
He said he would throw to Williams and Parham again, knowing they would make the catches next time. He backed the coaching staff. And he shared why he was confident better days were ahead.
Herbert pointed to his freshman year at the University of Oregon, where he became the Ducks’ starter five games into a 4-8 season. As a senior, he went 12-2 and won the Rose Bowl.
He proved his resilience then, just as he’s proving it now. But the Chargers should be mindful of how tough they’re asking him to be. If they demand too much of him, if they require him to take too many hits, he won’t be healthy enough to take advantage of the roster they envision building around him.
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.