I spent the entire week discussing on the radio and in podcasts how the Chargers were getting a good “tune-up” game before they faced the actual difficult opponents in the Buccaneers and Saints the following two weeks.
But Sunday’s contest was far from the cakewalk many, including myself, made it out to be.
Somehow, the Panthers’ lifeless pass rush got to Herbert early and often and the Chargers offense — which isn’t a slouch by any means — was held to under 20 points. That also marked the first time the Panthers held a team under that mark in 14 games dating back to early last season.
Long story short, it wasn’t a good day. Without many silver linings, I tried my best to make sense of what we saw on Sunday.
1.) Justin Herbert’s performances would look even better if the defense was also taking the ball away
The Chargers’ rookie quarterback has been historic through his first two professional starts. That may sound odd to say, as both games ended in losses, but it’s true.
Only three quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown for 300+ yards in their first two starts: Cam Newton, Kyler Murray, and Justin Herbert. But of course, most of the fan base would gladly trade in those gaudy stats for a pair of victories and a 3-0 start to the season.
But I’m here to simply remind all of you to take everything into account before pointing the finger in anyone’s direction.
Yes, Herbert has made the expected rookie mistakes, including a lone interception in each of his two starts. The one against the Chiefs hurt a bit more than the one against the Panthers, but the end result was the same. After starting +2 in turnover differential, the Bolts are now -3 after turning the ball over fives time - including four times against Carolina. So understandably, some fans are clamoring that Herbert isn’t ready and the team would be better off with Tyrod and his excellent ball security.
I just don’t think it’s that easy.
On Monday, Joey Bosa told the media that he’s been impressed with Herbert thus far, and when it comes to his turnovers, he thinks they aren’t nearly as bad when you realize Herbert is also the one keeping the games close. A prime example is the 99-yard drive that almost was.
Starting at his own 1-yard line, facing a pass rush that had his number from the start, Herbert orchestrated the offense all the way down into scoring position, without any timeouts. Even on the failed hook ‘n ladder, Herbert showed veteran pocket presence and arm talent to drift to the left while contorting his body in proper position to throw the ball back right to give Keenan Allen the best opportunity to catch it cleanly before attempting the lateral.
The bottom line is, good, well-rounded teams are able to overcome a turnover or two by also creating takeaways of their own. Just a single turnover forced by the defense against either the Chiefs or Panthers would have potentially swung the outcome in those contests.
Yes, the defense hunkered down and kept forcing field goals, but it’s the same defense that has allowed opposing offenses to get into field goal range in the first place over five times in each of those games.
Once they start creating turnovers, I think fans will start singing a different tune in regards to the current quarterback situation.
2.) The best players on offense already have excellent connections with their young quarterback
In the team’s Week 1 game against the Bengals, the offense looked like it could be a bottom-tier unit in the NFL.
But one week, and one quarterback change later, the Chargers’ best pass-catcher are all of a sudden looking like their in mid-season form.
Whether it’s Allen, Ekeler, or tight end Hunter Henry, they’re getting all the work they could ask for and then some. Allen is coming off a 13-catch performance with his first touchdown of the season, and so is Ekeler who caught 11 balls himself and rushed for his score.
As for Henry, he’s currently second in the NFL for receiving yards by a tight end with 206 and third in catches with 16.
It’s incredibly relieving to see these players work synergistically off of each other. I mean, it was essentially night-and-day from Week 1 to Week 2. And that’s exactly the type of relationship you want between your quarterback of the future and your recently-extended playmakers.
3.) The health of the offensive line in Week 1 was probably as good as it’s going to get
In Week 1, the Chargers saw all five offensive linemen who started against the Bengals finish the game while playing 100% of the offensive snaps. Now, just two weeks later, I think we can all safely assume that was going to be the only time luck bounced the Chargers’ way in regards to the front five.
In Week 3, only three played every snap, but it might as well have been four with Turner missing just two snaps for an undisclosed injury. Then in Week 3, only three played 100% of the snaps with Ryan Groy playing 96% in place of an injured Trai Turner. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga also missed most of the game with the injury that kept him out a good portion of the Chiefs game, too.
So, collectively, we can look back at the past two weeks and agree that, despite some egregious offensive line combinations, Herbert’s done pretty okay for himself. Now I don’t know how Philip Rivers would have faired, but I honestly don’t think it would have been much better, if at all, just based on last year’s tendencies.
Looking ahead to Week 4 against the Bucs, the Chargers will need everyone they can get against what has shaped up to be one of the best defenses in the NFL. After sitting this week, Turner should be healthy and hopefully whatever has been ailing Bulaga will get figured out, as well.
In the end, it can only go up from Sunday for the offensive line, as four of the five starters earned four of the worst-five overall grades by Pro Football Focus.