This Chargers’ season has gone so unexpectedly and convincingly sideways that some people involved have lost more than just games.
General manager Tom Telesco’s roster-building and record over his 11 seasons has been dissected all but forensically.
Brandon Staley’s status as a defensive architect has been damaged to the point of perhaps even needing rehabilitation.
Austin Ekeler’s NFL-best touchdown production from the previous two seasons has waned just as he prepares for free agency.
And then there’s Justin Herbert, whose standing as a clutch performer has taken almost as many hits as his body has during the final, decisive moments of games.
“I don’t really worry about my reputation,” Herbert said, before adding that he’s more concerned about being the best quarterback, leader and teammate possible, a line he has uttered repeatedly over the last three-plus seasons.
On Sunday, the Chargers play in Foxborough against a New England team that has lost seven of eight and is on pace to finish with the franchise’s worst record in more than three decades.
But if this game somehow still comes down to the long shadows of the fourth quarter …
Under first-year coordinator Kellen Moore, it has been a rough season for Herbert and the offense during those critical closing minutes that often shape a quarterback’s image.
The Chargers have failed to produce deep into the fourth quarter against Miami, Dallas, Green Bay and Baltimore and in overtime against Tennessee.
Herbert did lead a seven-play, 68-yard touchdown drive to tie Detroit in the final four minutes, but then the Chargers lost on the final play.
Right there for the seizing, the crucial times instead have consumed the offense through unyielding pressure, a torrent of sacks, two intentional grounding calls and an interception.
“I can be a lot sharper in those two-minute drills,” Herbert said, and he could have been talking about everyone else in the operation, as well, particularly those charged with protecting him.
Quite simply, the Chargers have failed to give Herbert time to be Justin Herbert in the exact instances when they need him the most. The underwhelming results have only added to a team-wide frustration palpable after recent losses.
During a season in which the defense has frequently let them down, the Chargers on offense have been unable to snatch the sort of victories that can save seasons when the chances have been presented.
“They haven’t gone our way, and that’s the unfortunate part,” Herbert said. “We have to be honest with ourselves about it. We’ve done it before. … We have the right guys out there. We have the right plan. We just haven’t executed.”
The storyline is quite a departure for Herbert, who emerged quickly as a rookie first because of his success against the blitz and then for his ability to navigate in late, tight situations.
Yes, he was clutch under the most demanding circumstances for a quarterback. Herbert led the Chargers on three consecutive late game-winning drives in 2020, matching an NFL rookie record.
Into his second season, he began to earn recognition for being especially effective in prime time while guiding the Chargers to five comeback victories in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Last season, he produced four more such wins, giving him 11 total, the second-most for a quarterback in the first four seasons of a career.
Yet, as the Chargers have continually struggled to finish lately, the burden — and much of the blame — has fallen on Herbert and the most important position in sports.
“It has been surprising because we expect to go out there and execute,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “I think it’s surprising to everyone. People are like, ‘Dang, what happened to these guys?’ ”
The Chargers’ next-to-last possession against Baltimore in Week 12 perfectly captured three month’s worth of failure.
After taking over at their 34-yard line and trailing 13-10 with 2:57 to go, Herbert hit Alex Erickson for a first down at midfield. Needing only a field goal to tie, the Chargers were on the edge of scoring range.
But two incompletions and a short gain brought up fourth-and-six just after the two-minute warning. On the next snap, Herbert was blitzed by an unblocked Raven — cornerback Arthur Maulet — and the play was doomed.
“Protection-wise, we have to be on the same page,” Moore said a few days later. “We have to communicate really well and have a good plan so that we can handle those situations.”
Herbert explained that the Chargers knew what Baltimore would do in that situation and took responsibility for not adjusting the protection. Moore accepted blame, too, saying he has to “build better plans.”
It was another fourth-quarter flop, another loss on the Chargers’ record, another nick in Herbert’s credentials.
“We all contribute to the product on the field,” Ekeler said. “To say this is one person’s fault, one coach’s fault is ridiculous. I mean, we play a team sport.”
Football, indeed, is a team sport and also a flustering one for the 2023 Chargers, whose inability to finish now has them on the verge of being finished.
Source: LA Times