Justin Herbert Got His First Start Unexpectedly, But Here's How He Earned the Job Full-Time

Anthony Lynn explains what he loves about Justin Herbert's game, why it was so hard to demote Tyrod Taylor and which three plays stood out from the Chargers' Week 7 win. Plus, Odell Beckham's future, Cam Newton's mindset and more notes from around the league.
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This much I didn’t know—the ball was already in the air to kick off the Week 2 game between the Chargers and Chiefs when rookie Justin Herbert found out he was 60 seconds away from making his first NFL start.

We all knew he got very little warning, ahead of a circumstance caused by a mishap in giving Tyrod Taylor a pain-killing shot. I wasn’t aware he got literally no warning.

“He laughed. He thought I was joking. I said, Justin, I’m not joking. Your ass is the starter right now,” Lynn said, from his office Sunday night. “Kansas City’s kicking off and the ball’s in the air, trainer whispers in my ear, You don’t have Tyrod. I go and grab Justin. And he really thought I was joking. But the way he stepped in, the way he’s handled it, it’s just told me if he can handle that situation like that, how much more can he handle?

“I was really impressed with that.”

At the time, impressed as he might’ve been, Lynn was strident that the job was waiting for Taylor whenever he was ready to return from his punctured lung.

But what he couldn’t forecast, just as Herbert couldn’t forecast how he’d get his first start, was how much the 22-year-old would show he could handle. He had a second 300-yard effort in his second start, against Carolina. He went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in Tampa, averaging a robust 11.6 yards per throw and drawing wows from Bruce Arians. He took Drew Brees to OT in the Superdome, in his first game after being named the full-time starter.

And Sunday, finally, he got his first win, posting a passer rating exceeding 110 for the third straight week, and showing all over again exactly what the Chargers saw in him when they took him sixth in the draft back in April.

All of it makes it seem like the decision to go to Herbert was easy for Lynn, because now we can all see what the Oregon product looks like a month and a half into his first NFL season. But the Chargers’ coach won’t hesitate to let anyone know how hard pulling the plug on Taylor really was for him—no matter how correct the move looks now.

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***

We’re mixing it up a little this week in the MAQB. If you read to the bottom of this week’s MMQB column, first of all, big s/o to you; and second, you know that my internet connection catastrophe of the 3 a.m. hour early Monday caused some column shuffling.

So don’t worry, we’re going to give you the normal notes we always do on Monday afternoon. But we’re also giving you a more robust lead item, which is actually a leftover from the morning column that I decided to save because A) It was good enough to lead this one; and B) My deadline was coming fast in the wee hours. And yes, I’m putting this together on 90 minutes of sleep, so fingers crossed on making this work.

With that, let’s jump into Lynn’s big gamble, and how it paid off Sunday.

***

You may have noticed that Lynn named Herbert the Chargers’ full-time starter on a Thursday, three days after their Week 4 game in Tampa. Part of doing it that day was that, with L.A. playing on Monday night, the schedule gave Lynn the leeway to do so. Another part of it? He really did agonize over sending Taylor to the bench.

Lynn loves Taylor, and fully planned to have him as the team’s quarterback in 2020. Which should provide a decent explanation on just how impressed he was with Herbert. But even after that Buccaneer game, Lynn decided to give himself an extra day to ruminate over the change.

“I’m usually pretty decisive when I have to make decisions,” Lynn said. “But I took an extra day just to make sure. And when I made my mind up, it’s just the way I was going. We drafted this young man to be our franchise quarterback. Not having an offseason, not having preseason games, it was almost impossible to project him as a starter his rookie year. And I wasn’t particularly crazy about putting a rookie on the field his first year. …

“But just the way he played, the way he handled himself, I saw enough consistency and I thought I saw an opportunity for him to continue his growth. Because I know he’s just going to continue to get better. Why not start now? That was hard. That was a tough decision. Because Tyrod Taylor had earned the job, and he earned the respect of the team. Every player on this team voted for that man for captain, and that’s the first time that’s happened since I’ve been here. So he was, no doubt, a leader on this football team.”

And the other part that made it tough for Lynn was the obvious, non-football empathy he felt for Taylor, not being able to fight to stay on the field through no fault of his own.

“To lose the job the way that he did, it’s just really unfortunate,” Lynn said. “I don’t even like to talk about it because I’m the one who did it to him. I’ve spoken with Tyrod, we have a really good relationship. I care a lot about that young man and his well-being.”

So the Chargers moved forward, but impressive as Herbert was, the team couldn’t find a way to notch its second win until Sunday. And no one, to be sure, is giving the team a trophy for knocking off the Jaguars. But all the same, the signs that the Chargers, and Lynn, got this right were there.

L.A. blew a 16–0 lead and had to come back from 21–16 and 29–22 deficits to score the 39 –29 victory Sunday. Leading that effort, of course, showed some steadiness in a young quarterback making his fifth NFL start. And more than just that, there were crucial plays in critical spots where all his talent exploded on the screen.

After the game, Lynn took me through three of them.

The first came with the Chargers down 21–16, the offense in first-and-10 at the Jags’ 26 and 5:34 left in the third quarter. Herbert came off play-action and rolled to his right, then fired a strike across his body and into the opposite corner of the end zone, where tight end Virgil Green climbed the ladder to make a play.

“It was a play we ran a couple times, with Virgil at the point of attack,” Lynn said, “Then we just slid Virgil, faked the play, slid Virgil out the backside of the defense. And Virgil got a couple steps on the guy. I thought Justin made a really good throw and Virgil made a really good catch. We ran that play a lot in practice, and it’s good to see that they executed it.”

The second came on the second play of the Chargers’ next possession, with L.A. down 29 –22, and in first-and-10 from the Jags’ 30 with 2:06 left in the third quarter. It’s out of a look called “12 Speed,” built to highlight the young burners on the roster. Second-year receiver Jalen Guyton, who has track speed, was the target, and he wound up covering 70 yards.

“Jalen has wheels,” Lynn said. “He’s a big guy that can run a little bit. We saw him coming last year on practice squad. We got him off the street, got him in here. We had all the leverage in the world on that young man, because he’s from my neighborhood. I knew all about him. But I also told him, ‘This is probably your last stop. If you don’t make it here, you should probably go get a job.’ And man, the way he went to work, pays attention to detail, can’t say enough good things about him. …

“The corner started pressing, so we put a package on the field called ‘12 Speed’. And it’s for our fastest young guys. Had Tyron Johnson on the other side, and said, If you’re going to press, these guys are going to run by you. And those guys, those corners are fast too. But we’re just gonna say, Best man’s gonna win. And Justin found his target and hit Jalen.”

And the third play was the touchdown that gave the Chargers the lead for good, four plays after Guyton’s touchdown and following a Jags’ fumble. L.A. was in second-and-goal from the 5, and Herbert took the snap and rolled right, then made the call to take it himself, shaking Jags middle linebacker Joe Schobert on his way to paydirt.

“I’m telling you, that’s one of the things watching tape that got me excited about him,” Lynn said. “The guy was more nimble than I thought. I was thinking, Here’s this big arm, 6' 6" guy, I’ve seen those a lot in my career. But I haven’t seen any that move like this. And so his movement skills are a lot better than what people give him credit for, I think. He can do those type of things. He really can.”

Herbert would later lead an 11-play, 73-yard drive to put the Jags away—that one ended on a field goal that pushed the Chargers’ lead to 39–29—that only bolstered the idea that the call to insert him in the starting lineup was probably coming one way or another, regardless of what happened to Taylor.

But it was important to Lynn that Herbert earned the job, and with 1,542 yards, 12 touchdown passes, just three picks and a 108.1 passer rating through five weeks, he’s more than done that. And given that Herbert is only 22, this is more than just about having a starter for the moment. It could mean the franchise, less than a year removed from the Philip Rivers era, is set for a decade or two.

“It’s very exciting,” Lynn said. “His skillset, his talent, his character, I’m really excited about it. This is a young man that you can build around.”

And the Chargers will, for some time to come.

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• It’s a shame that Odell Beckham is gone for the year, after an MRI confirmed he tore his ACL in Sunday’s Browns win in Cincinnati. But it’s fair now to ask questions about his future. The seventh-year pro put up intergalactic numbers his first three years, and hasn’t gotten back to that level of production in the four seasons since (a lot of that’s injury-related). He’ll be 28 next week. Most of his money for next year ($13 million of the $15.75 million due) is injury guaranteed and all of it vests and becomes fully-guaranteed in early March. That said, reasonable raw numbers could make him pretty tradeable—he’s due just $45.75 million over the next three years, with that deal carrying him past his 31st birthday. Would the Browns be better off moving on? It’s debatable. Baker Mayfield was 22-of-27 for 297 yards and four touchdowns after Beckham went down, and seemed free to play point guard out there at quarterback, so how he does without OBJ merits watching. On the flip side, I know the coaches believe Beckham would’ve had a big day if he didn’t go down—Rashard Higgins played in his position the rest of the day and Higgins wound up with 110 yards on six catches. So in summary, I’d say the future is cloudy for Beckham once again.

• With the Antonio Brown signing now official, I asked his ex-Steeler teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster on Sunday if he’s following what’s going down with the new Buccaneer. “No,” Smith-Schuster responded. “No, I’m not.” (You may remember Smith-Schuster getting team MVP in 2018 in Pittsburgh was one of the final straws in sending Brown off the deep end and, ultimately, off the Steelers roster.)

• While we're on Brown, here are the details on his contract, on top of a base salary a little over the veteran minimum ($1.416 million prorated, meaning if he gets nine of 17 game checks he'll get $749,647) …

• Per-game roster bonuses of $31,250/game (max = $250K).
• $750K for a Super Bowl win and 35% playing time.
• $250K for 45 catches and the Bucs make the playoffs.
• $250K for 650 yards and the Bucs make the playoffs.
• $250K for six touchdowns and the Bucs make the playoffs.

Add it up and Brown can make $1.75 million. That means he’d top out at about $2.5 million, in which case the Bucs would win the Super Bowl and get a ton of production from their new receiver. Which, of course, would make all this a bargain.

• The Bills’ issue the last couple weeks? Details. Last week against Kansas City, the defense didn’t hold up on third down against Patrick Mahomes & Co. This week, against the Jets, the red-zone offense was the problem—the Bills kicked six field goals against a pretty dreadful New York outfit. So you can bet, with the Patriots up next, situational football will be a top-of-the-agenda topic in Orchard Park this week.

• Patriots QB Cam Newton said this on WEEI on Monday morning, after getting benched late in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Niners: “The first thing I said to myself coming home was, ‘You keep playing games like that, bro, and it’s going to be a permanent change.’ You don’t need to tell me that for me to understand that. I get it loud and clear.” Newton’s been a model teammate and worker since he arrived in New England, and that should buy him some time—as should the simple fact that the Patriots will have to make big decisions involving No. 1 after this year, and need to gather as much information on him as possible. But you add Newton saying that about how it looked on Sunday, and it does make you wonder where the spark is going to come from.

• A well-established fact within the walls of the Cowboys’ facility: LB Jaylon Smith hasn’t played up to his contract over the last year and a half. In fact, I know people there have been alarmed how often he’s at the heart of big plays made against the Dallas defense. I believe he’s got a pretty important couple months ahead, and it wouldn’t shock me if he’s gone after the year, regardless of who’s running the defense.

• The Carlos Dunlap saga continues in Cincinnati, and outside of the hilarious stunt to “put his place on the market” via Twitter, his shouting match with an assistant coach Sunday, and his Instagram posting of the team’s defensive end rotation, there’s also the matter of his play. The tape, I’m told, shows a guy who isn’t just playing poorly, but is playing like he doesn’t care. Which, ultimately, won’t help the Bengals trade him.

Talking to Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday night, it sounded like he’s still working his way back from the high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 2. “It’s coming along,” he said. “The high-ankle kind of lingers a little bit. For the most part, it’s feeling pretty good. Nothing happened to it tonight, so that’s a good thing I guess.” So it’s not gone, but he’s getting there.

• I thought this was pretty interesting: The Buccaneers’ top four receivers—Scotty Miller, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski—all have between 22 and 25 catches for between 275 and 375 yards, and each has score multiple touchdowns. That’s a pretty good sign of Tom Brady’s trust in the guys around him, and when Brady feels that way about the group he’s got, it really unlocks the quarterback as a distributor, capable of keeping all five receivers alive all the time. Which is when Brady is really at his best.

• With the Bears and Rams going Monday night, here’s a fun nugget for you: Sean McVay hired Brandon Staley from Denver to be his defensive coordinator in January in large part because he wanted a Vic Fangio protégé, since Fangio’s defenses in Chicago always gave him such trouble. Fangio’s not there anymore, of course, but a lot of the personnel he and Staley worked with there still is. So it’ll be interesting, in a few hours, to see who McVay tries to exploit on that Chicago defense, given that Staley should be pretty helpful in assessing the Bears’ personnel.

• Finally, here’s the best thing you’ll see all day … congrats to Ron and Stephanie Rivera.