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Justin Herbert continues record pace, but Chargers need more

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass against the Jets during their game Nov. 22, 2020, at SoFi Stadium.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass against the Jets during their game last Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

He called his quarterback a “special kid” and a “special talent,” Chargers tight end Hunter Henry then pausing as he searched for a new description of what’s become an aged subject.

Entering his 10th career start, rookie Justin Herbert has been so surprisingly good and so surprisingly fast that his teammates already are running low on originality.

“He’s just continuing to grow,” Henry said. “I think I say the same thing every week.”

Everyone says the same thing every week about Herbert because the Chargers’ kid quarterback keeps doing the same things — the same wonderful, record-setting things.

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Simply put, Herbert is on pace for — statistically — the greatest NFL season for a rookie quarterback.

If he continues what he has done to date, he’ll break Andrew Luck’s record for yards, Carson Wentz’s record for completions and Baker Mayfield’s record for touchdowns.

“His skill set coming into this league was good, I knew that,” said coach Anthony Lynn, whose team plays at Buffalo on Sunday. “The way he’s handled it mentally, that’s been really impressive.”

Against the potent Buffalo Bills on Sunday, the Chargers will attempt to avoid giving up at least 28 points for the eighth game in a row.

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With six games to go, Herbert’s numbers project thusly: 4,498 yards passing on 397 completions with 37 touchdowns.

To appreciate what those numbers represent, consider that in his first season as a starter — and his third year in the league — Philip Rivers finished with 3,388 yards passing on 284 completions with 22 touchdowns.

And Rivers played one more game during 2006 than Herbert can possibly play now.

There’s more, too. Rivers never has thrown for as many as 37 touchdowns in a single season. His career high, set in 2008, is 34.

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That number also stands as the team record, meaning Herbert — in 15 games as a rookie — could post the most touchdown throws ever for a franchise that not only featured 14 seasons of Rivers as its starter but also the high-octane era of Air Coryell.

“We saw a lot of glimpses during [training] camp,” Henry said. “I was like, ‘Goodness gracious.’ You see it [now] in the game, some of those throws he makes, the deep ball.

“There’s not many guys that can make that throw. He continues to do, even in practice throughout the week. … He’s a special talent, and he’s only going to get better.”

As optimistically as Herbert’s story has unfolded over the last two-plus months, the tale can’t be told without including a couple bleak twists.

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The first is that all his production has come during a season in which the Chargers have continually failed to produce. Herbert is 2-7 as a starter, his team sitting at 3-7 overall.

Remember that first season of Rivers as the starter? That Chargers team finished 14-2 and won the AFC West.

Sam Farmer makes his picks and predictions for the remaining slate of NFL Week 12 games heading into Sunday and Monday.

Herbert is in the bizarre position of emerging as a potential franchise quarterback during a time when the current team has crumbled to the point where significant changes could be coming.

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It is possible that his second year could feature a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator running a new system.

The second oddity is that Herbert wasn’t even supposed to be the starter in 2020. He began the year as the backup to Tyrod Taylor, with no assurances if or when that situation might change.

Think about that, from possibly not playing to playing almost impossibly well. Rarely has a rookie so convincingly forced a franchise to alter its course this completely.

“I think preparation, our plan…” Lynn said when asked why Herbert has succeeded. “We try to put him in the best situations, whether it’s handling pressure, picking up protections.

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“But, at the end of the day, if he doesn’t work at it, if he doesn’t take the drill to the field, it doesn’t matter. I give him all the credit in the world, the way he’s handled the situation.”

Herbert has developed so quickly that offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and quarterback coach Pep Hamilton have been heaped with praise. Steichen is in his first full season as a play-caller, Hamilton in his first with the Chargers.

Herbert’s instant connection with Keenan Allen has the veteran on pace for one of his finest seasons, and this is an accomplished wide receiver who has made three consecutive Pro Bowls.

Herbert has kept the Chargers relevant even during a season in which their overall performance has threatened to plunge them into oblivion.

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“He’s very impressive,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “He’s tough. He’s got a big arm. He’s smart. What more could I say about him? He’s off to a great start.”

Immediately after Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury last weekend, Herbert became the heavy favorite to be the NFL’s next offensive rookie of the year.

Joey Bosa admitted that he was disappointed in himself against the New York Jets and feels that he sets the tone for the Chargers defense.

That moment also would become part of franchise lore. The Chargers have had only one player win the honor: running back Don Woods in 1974.

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Herbert, whose abundant skill set includes the ability to deflect credit, has spent the last several weeks insisting he has heard little of the outside noise his play has generated.

Instead, he repeatedly has explained that his focus each week is on the opposition and the game plan. As for his rewriting of history, he’ll let others tell that story, twists and all.

“I think it’s a sign of all the hard work we’ve done as a team,” Herbert said. “Any accomplishment an individual gets, I think it’s reflective of the entire unit.”

Ekeler is back

The Chargers activated No. 1 running back Austin Ekeler from the injured reserve list Saturday. He has been out since Oct. 4 because of a hamstring strain.

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They also activated linebackers B.J. Bello and Cole Christiansen as well as nose tackle Breiden Fehoko from the practice squad and waived defensive end Jessie Lemonier.


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