The AFC West got a little more interesting a couple of weeks ago when the Los Angeles Chargers added Jim Harbaugh to the fold, replacing Brandon Staley as head coach. That’s not just from a personality standpoint: The Chargers are expected to look much different on the field, especially on offense, which is Harbaugh’s specialty. So, all the excuses are thrown out the window for Justin Herbert.
This isn’t an indictment of Herbert or what he has or hasn’t accomplished in his NFL career. It’s simply a matter of pointing out the truth. Herbert’s been really good (even great, at times) during his first four years in the league. His 2023 campaign was shortened by injuries as he played the fewest games (13) of his career. Some of his numbers even slipped to career lows in passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage, among others.
However, we’ll give him a mulligan as nearly every quarterback has at least one year that’s just bad, plagued by injury, or both. Over Herbert’s first three seasons, he looked like the next big superstar QB on the horizon. In Year 1 he set an NFL rookie record by passing for 31 TDs. The next season he chucked 38 TDs and threw for more than 5,000 yards, but the Chargers narrowly missed the postseason. The ’22 season saw Herbert throw for fewer TDs and yards, but cut down on the turnovers as the Chargers made the playoffs with 10 wins.
Then that crazy wild-card game against Jacksonville happened and things really went off the rails. A 27-0 lead became a 31-30 loss in what felt like a matter of seconds. But Herbert was spared as he had a decent game and Staley’s defense was slaughtered for giving up such a lead. Staley would end up being the “reason” pretty much whenever things went wrong during his tenure as head coach of the Chargers.
Much of the criticism Staley received was honestly earned over the past three years. That’s why he’s out and Harbaugh is in. This means Herbert will be receiving the benefit of the doubt less often. If Harbaugh comes in and does what’s expected, the Chargers should be in the playoffs every season and Herbert should consistently be among the top three or four QBs in the league.
Harbaugh will tweak some things to his liking within each unit, but this team is ready to win. They already have the prototypical QB the NFL still fawns over in Herbert with pieces around him and on defense. We’ve seen Harbaugh take teams with less talented QBs and go on amazing postseason runs. Herbert is a phenomenal young talent, but these Chargers haven’t been close to that level of success. That’s why Harbaugh is in SoCal, to get these guys over the hump and in contention.
But if things go wrong, especially early on, it won’t be Harbaugh who gets the blame. For the first time since becoming a pro, it’ll be Herbert receiving the bulk of criticism. No one expects this team to struggle next year, even in a division with the Kansas City Chiefs, but this is the NFL. The saying ‘on any given Sunday’ exists for a reason. Herbert needs to do everything within his power to ensure he isn’t that “reason.”
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