Column: Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert is the gift that will keep on giving

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert scores the game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert scores the game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders on Thursday in Las Vegas.
(Jeff Bottari / Associated Press)

Almost despite themselves, the Chargers have found a gem in the wreckage of this dismal season.

Justin Herbert’s poised performance in their 30-27 overtime victory over Las Vegas on Thursday confirmed what the team knew — he is their franchise quarterback, their identity, their future — but he also showed he could pull out a victory when all seemed lost.

There shouldn’t have been much doubt about Herbert before this, but it’s entirely reasonable to wonder if a team that regularly fumbles basic clock management and play-calling is capable of recognizing what a gift he is and finding a way to build a team around him.


For the second week in a row — and this time on short rest — Herbert engineered a winning drive, putting the Chargers in position to win with a 53-yard pass to Jalen Guyton and finishing off the Raiders with a dive into a wriggling mass of bodies on third and goal at the one.

Jalen Guyton played a big part in the Chargers’ win against the Raiders, showcasing the critical roles young receivers are undertaking for the team.

Dec. 18, 2020

In the pocket, on the run, with plenty of time to throw or with almost no time at all, Herbert showcased his awareness while completing 22 of 32 passes for 314 yards and two touchdown passes. He matched the rookie touchdown record of 27 set by Baker Mayfield in 2018 and became the first rookie quarterback to record seven 300-yard passing games in a season.

“This guy’s got the most beautiful delivery,” Terry Bradshaw, a four-time Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame quarterback, gushed during the Fox telecast.

Coach Anthony Lynn said he saw a lot of growth in Herbert’s last two games. “He’s doing it with young receivers on the field,” Lynn said, adding praise for Herbert’s vision and success on scramble plays.

Herbert has had nine multiple passing touchdown performances this season, matching Mayfield’s record for the most by a rookie in NFL history. On Thursday, though he didn’t attempt a pass in the fourth quarter, he became the third player to surpass 3,700 yards passing through his first 13 career starts, following Patrick Mahomes and Andrew Luck.


And he has two games left to pad those numbers and to learn more, the most positive outcome in this otherwise disappointing season.

“We’re a resilient team,” Herbert said. “For us to come out on top is huge for us.”

Chargers tight end Hunter Henry embraces quarterback Justin Herbert.
Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, right, embraces quarterback Justin Herbert after defeating the Las Vegas Raiders in overtime on Thursday.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

Asked the significance of earning his first win against a division rival, Herbert deflected the attention away from himself.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to keep moving forward, keep getting better,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this locker rom for battling through some close games. I’m proud to be a Charger.”
He wasn’t the Chargers’ starter for their season opener and when he shined in place of the injured Tyrod Taylor, for weeks Lynn refused to annoint the rookie the starter because of misguided loyalty.

Decisions like that, combined with inexcusably bad play-calling and panicky clock management throughout the season, are why Lynn can’t be part of the Chargers’ future. That was confirmed on Thursday, too, when Lynn sent Michael Badgley in to attempt a 47-yard field goal on fourth-and-three with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter, only to have Badgley miss for the eighth time this season.

After Lynn called for a pass on third and two instead of letting Austin Ekeler try to advance on the ground, Herbert was sacked and it cost the kicker eight yards. Still, Lynn went back to Badgley — after inexplicably icing his own kicker by calling a timeout. Then, Badgley took the league lead with his ninth missed field goal, kicking wide left on a 51-yard attempt with less than two minutes left ... later saved from being the goat by Herbert’s overtime heroics.

Justin Herbert punched in the game-winning touchdown to lead the Chargers over the Las Vegas Raiders 30-27 in overtime for their first division win since 2018.

Dec. 17, 2020

Back-to-back wins shouldn’t obscure the Chargers need for a new coach. They didn’t lose close games earlier this season because they were on the verge of greatness and needed only a couple of upgrades to turn things around. They’ve lost because Lynn’s decision-making put them in untenable positions. Herbert can’t be expected to pull off miracles every week. He shouldn’t have to.

Maybe the Chargers have stuck with Lynn out of loyalty for rescuing them from an 0-4 start in 2017 and keeping the team together while playing in their temporary home in Carson, in a stadium overrun with visiting teams’ fans. Maybe they felt obligated to keep him based on their 12-4 record in 2018 and trip to the second round of the playoffs. Any debt they owed him was wiped out by their 5-11 record in 2019 and 5-9 so far this season.

Come the day when fans are allowed into SoFi Stadium, the Chargers will have tickets to sell. Herbert will sell tickets. A winning team will sell tickets. Herbert can make them a winning team again. Lynn can’t. Herbert is the shining star who will guide the Chargers in the years to come.

A look at the Chargers’ 30-27 overtime win over the Las Vegas Raiders by the numbers.

Dec. 17, 2020