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Why this season could be playing out perfectly for the Chargers

They aren’t winning, but maybe that’s not so bad this season

Las Vegas Raiders v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When Philip Rivers made his first start for the Chargers, he was 24 years old. He need only throw 11 passes in a 27-0 win over the Raiders. In his fourth start, he threw multiple touchdowns for the first time. In his ninth start, he threw three touchdowns for the first time. That would be the only three-score game of the season and he wouldn’t rush for a touchdown until the fifth game of his second season as a starter.

Rivers was a solid quarterback in 2006. He had remarkably similar numbers to Tom Brady that year, one season before Brady’s evolution into a 50-touchdown machine. San Diego went 14-2 and Rivers went to the Pro Bowl.

Unfortunately, when Brady met Rivers in the divisional round after a bye week, to quote Keyser Söze, “He showed these men of will what will really was.”

The Patriots won 24-21 and Rivers, practically a rookie, went 14 of 32 for 230 yards and an interception, plus a fumble lost. I don’t mean to make you re-live every Chargers playoff loss but it drives home an important point about expectations and long-term results over short-term gratification.

San Diego went 14-2 in Rivers’ first season as a starter and then 11-5 in his second season under new head coach Norv Turner with a trip to the AFC Championship game. A Super Bowl appearance in the near future seemed inevitable but you know how the Rivers story ebbs and flows; too many ebbs.

The Chargers went 13-3 again in 2009 but they were bounced without a playoff win by another AFC East team. This time, the Jets. It would be nine years before the Chargers next season with double digit victories and Rivers appeared in only that one conference title game during his tenure with the franchise. This is not to put the blame on Rivers, it is merely stating a fact.

Using that fact as a weapon today, we can assert that just because you start hot, it doesn’t mean that championships are inevitable. And just because you lose a lot of games as a rookie, it doesn’t make you a loser. It could actually be what arms you for years to come.

The worst case scenario for the LA Chargers this season was not that they’d start 2-6. The worst case scenario would have been that top pick Justin Herbert, most likely the first non-Rivers, non-Brees QB to lead the Chargers in passing for a season since Doug Flutie in 2001, turned out to be an immediate bust. That would have been the worst case scenario.

Does that mean that Herbert’s living the best case scenario?

Herbert plays in a different era of the NFL passing game, but let’s keep in mind that even compared to his peers he’s been special. At 22, two years younger than when Rivers debuted after spending two seasons in a QB room with the most productive passer of all-time, Herbert debuted in Week 2 after getting about one minute to prepare for his first career start.

He went 22 of 33 for 311 yards, one touchdown, one interception and one rushing touchdown (21 starts sooner than Rivers’ first rushing score) in a close loss to the reigning champions. In his third career start, he threw three touchdowns. Then he threw four. Then he threw three. Then he threw three. Then last week, he had two. He also had another rushing touchdown against the Jaguars, his first (and to this point only) career win.

Here’s what I know about Justin Herbert’s NFL career after seven starts: This guy balls.

Nothing against Rivers — who was playing under an entirely different set of circumstances and played quite well early in his career — but we know see that Herbert had as many three touchdown passing days in his first six games as Rivers had in his first 32. Rivers was 26 years old when he had his fifth three-touchdown game. Herbert could get that this Sunday against the Dolphins.

This isn’t to put down one quarterback, but to raise up his successor.

I didn’t have much of an opinion of Herbert by the draft, but after doing research on him I came away more impressed by him than by Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, which is remarkable given their own attributes. Even then, I projected Herbert to be a below average starter in his first season and that there could be more struggles than successes. That was a poor evaluation.

Though he’s had struggles, he’s had way more successes. Even if he hasn’t had the tangible victories yet.

Maybe that’s a good thing long term, even if not right now.

In his six losses, the Chargers have lost by: 3, 5, 7, 3, 1 and 5 points.

In his one win, the Chargers won by 10.

They are consistently competitive and yet at the same time, climbing fast up the 2021 NFL Draft board. As of today, they are in line to pick sixth in the draft next year, same spot where they landed Herbert. Barring a loss to the New York Jets in Week 11, they most likely won’t catch up to the league’s worst team, though even a loss may not matter there. It will be tough for the Jets to win two games now.

They already beat Jacksonville, the only other team besides New York with fewer than two victories. The next three teams between the Jags and Chargers all play in the NFC East.

But every game remaining on LA’s schedule other than against the Jets is against a team that has a better record, as you can imagine when a team is 2-6. If you project LA to finish 4-12 or 5-11, they will be in line to pick early again next year. However, not all early draft picks are alike because not all team need are alike and neither are all draft classes.

In an ideal draft year, you are a team that has secured your franchise QB already and the teams ahead of you are QB-needy in a QB-heavy draft.

Well, guess the Fenster what? The 2021 NFL Draft will be a QB-heavy class with a ton of QB-needy teams. But not the LA Chargers.

The Jets could select quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars could select quarterback Justin Fields. The Cowboys could claim today that they plan to stick with Dak Prescott, but would they pass up the chance for a franchise QB in the draft as an alternative to paying Prescott $35 million+ on a franchise tag (again) when they couldn’t get him locked up this summer and clearly have a) financial problems and b) concerns about him as a franchise quarterback?

Additionally, the Washington Football Team is as likely to draft a quarterback next year as any team and the New York Giants could very well be done with Daniel Jones if they are 3-13 or 4-12; the only team they’ve beaten this season is Football Team.

Draft prospect value will change considerably in the next six months but Mac Jones, Trey Lance and Zach Wilson have been projected as first rounders also and CBS Sports had six QBs going in the first round in their latest mock draft.

While the Dolphins (who have a pick via the Texans) and Bengals won’t be drafting a quarterback, the Patriots, Panthers, Falcons, Vikings, Broncos and 49ers would clearly be in the market if they found themselves drafting ahead of the Chargers.

To make myself even more clear: 2021 is a hell of a year for a team to be drafting high without a need at the NFL’s most important position.

Among the best non-QB prospects today are linebacker Micah Parsons, defensive lineman Kwity Paye, receivers Jaylen Waddle and Ja’Marr Chase, and corner Patrick Surtain, Jr. But perhaps even more interestingly, Herbert’s former teammate Penei Sewell has been called PFF’s “best tackle prospect ever” and is arguably the best player in college football.

The Chargers could draft him and have their tackle and quarterback positions settled for a long time. Because of all these losses, LA might get their opportunity to do that. Because the losses are close and Herbert is one of the most brilliant rookies of the modern era, it doesn’t seem to sting as much.

Also, the team could fire Anthony Lynn and most likely could have their pick of the best available head coaching candidate on the market. Why? Well, the only things they have to sell the next head coach is: a franchise QB, a high draft pick, the seventh-most cap space in the NFL in 2021, the Los Angeles market, the new $5 billion stadium, Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Casey Hayward, Kenneth Murray, Bryan Bulaga, Trai Turner, a returning Derwin James, Chris Harris, Austin Ekeler, Linval Joseph, Mike Williams, Jerry Tillery and maybe even Hunter Henry returns.

So yeah, I would not be too concerned about the Chargers.

Winning today feels great, but it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have a 5-6 playoff record over 14 seasons. Losing today feels awful, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be in the Super Bowl before long.

Based on the way that Herbert’s been playing and the current setup for the team, I expect them to at least win the AFC before his fifth-year option even kicks in.