It may feel disliked, but the Chargers QB Justin Herbert is in the midst of one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history. The first player from Oregon amassed 2,146 yards of passes, 17 touches and five interceptions in seven matches, plus he scored another 166 yards and two points on the ground. He flashed with great plays, great awareness, and top sports.
Herbert is also very effective against a rookie. So far this season, he has one of the best adjusted net yards on every try (7.64 on Sunday) ever for a freshman passerby. Even taking into account the 2020̵7;s pass-friendly attacking environment, Herbert ranks fifth among all-time rookie passers in the era-adjusted ANY / A. The only names above him are Dan Marino, Dak Prescott, Robert Griffin III and Ben Roethlisberger (and Herbert can jump on that list when this week’s results are counted). The names just below him are Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Jim Kelly.
There’s just one big stumbling block between Herbert and the great career of the Pro Bowl: He’s on the Chargers. The transition in midfield from longtime starter Philip Rivers to Herbert hasn’t stopped Chargers from turning into a seemingly cursed franchise, finding creative and painful ways to lose football matches every week. This time it means a 31-26 loss to the Raiders, in which Los Angeles struggled at the last second to win the game from Las Vegas’s 4-yard line. They call a fading end zone to their third string tight end and – spoiler alert – it doesn’t work.
That last play spoiled another impressive Herbert performance. The rookie passer had shot 28 out of 42 at 326 yards and touched the ball twice (without interception) while scoring another 24 yards on the ground. If Donald Parham Jr appeared with that football, it would be Herbert’s fifth consecutive game to have at least three touch passes.
Failure to the Raiders was a mirror of almost what happened a week ago, when Chargers lost to the Broncos in the final round of the game. That time, however, the role was reversed, with Denver and second defender Drew Lock facing a six-point deficit with just a second left and the ball 1 yard from the backyard. The Broncos were not called a fading end zone, and their play was successful:
This is hardly the only heartbreaking Charger facing this year. In Week 5 they had a chance to beat The Saints on goal at 50 yards at the last second, but striker Michael Badgley missed the right post. The Saints receive the ball first in extra time and settle for a goal on the field, giving Chargers a chance to either end the game or win with a touch of the ball. Instead, their driveway was scattered, and the spacious Mike Williams was dealt with from the first down marker at the fourth down.
During Week 4, Chargers led the Buccaneers 24-7, allowing only Tom Brady and Co. score four of their next five drives (and a sixth on the field). The side still had a chance to equalize late, dribbling back the ball seven points and more than two minutes away, but Herbert got past Keenan Allen badly and was intercepted. (Hey, he’s a rookie, he can’t be perfect.)
And in Week 2 against the Chiefs, Herbert’s first start, Chargers saw an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter disappear. That included a match-fixing strike for Kansas City, in which Chargers defender Patrick Mahomes catches third and 20 with his feet:
During overtime, the Chargers took three turns and returned them to the Chiefs. Predictably, Kansas City drove the ball down the pitch – in 13 plays – and shot on target to win the match.
Most of this heartbreak had nothing to do with Herbert, who made the promise as anyone could expect as a rookie. Indeed, in typical Chargers style, there is no one culprit: The team on Sunday ranks 11th on offensive DVOA, 15th for defensive DVOA and terrible 32nd in DVOA in particular. But even with the incompetence of special teams at that level, the Charger is still 2-6 better. Instead, they found a new way to cut back each week.
The seven names that surround Herbert in a rookie era-adjusted ANY / A list have combined to be 68-33 in their first season. With Sunday’s defeat, Herbert was 1-6. Herbert is on the verge of having one of the best rookie seasons ever – but even he can’t stop Chargers from becoming Chargers.