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There are things the Los Angeles Chargers can be proud of, and yes, Justin Herbert being on the path to stardom in only his second year as the team’s quarterback is definitely one of them.
Herbert is producing like an all-time great in that he’s already tied Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino by throwing for at least 300 yards in 10 games in his first two seasons.
And, if you need reminding, Herbert has 15 more games left in his second season to surpass Marino’s NFL milestone.
But even Justin Herbert’s reach for greatness has been touched by Chargers’ head-scratching bungling and botching of circumstances.
Recall the second game of the 2020 season. Chargers starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, nursing soreness in his torso, has a lung accidently punctured when the team’s doctor is administering a painkiller injection prior to the game.
The mistake ends Taylor’s day before it begins and unexpectedly thrusts Herbert into the starting job, which he obviously hasn’t surrendered.
It’s an inauspicious way to win the starting job, but it fits the Chargers. It’s very much like the Chargers.
Because the Chargers are the laureate authors of sad, funny, oddly fascinating, wildly improbable, fanciful, head-scratching failures.
This team, blessed with awesome uniforms and tons of talent, is the king of shooting itself in the foot. Which is why the Chargers sit on the throne of frustrating, one-score losses — an NFL-leading 42 of them from September 20, 2016 to September 20, 2021.
The UK Guardian, last season noting the Chargers had led three games by 17 points only to lose and had six losses by a combined 24 points, wrote the Chargers had mastered the art of the ordeal.
FiveThirtyEight found that in 2015 and 2016, the Chargers had lost more win-probability games in the fourth quarter and overtime than any other team in the Super Bowl era and termed those “unprecedented late-game failures.”
It’s as if the Chargers are a volcano.
Because they’re the masters of the meltdown.
The reputation lasted through and eventually ended the coaching tenures of Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner, Mike McCoy and Anthony Lynn.
Three of those four — Schottenheimer, Turner and Lynn — had winning records with San Diego and then Los Angeles.
But all had teams that suffered from cringe-worthy, beat-yourself moments.
This year, the Chargers hired new head coach Brandon Staley, an even-tempered 38-year-old who was the defensive coordinator for the cross-town Los Angeles Rams and a student of longtime defensive guru Vic Fangio.
The idea was that Staley’s hire would help the Chargers stop beating themselves in clownish fashion.
That worked in the regular season opener. And then failed in the team’s second game of the season on Sunday.
The Chargers lost, you guessed it, a one-score game to the Dallas Cowboys. But it wasn’t the 20-17 score that was so frustrating.
It was the dumb stuff.
“We didn’t play a clean enough game to win,” Staley said. “Our guys competed, we played together. But we did not play clean enough football to beat that team. That team’s a good team, but we didn’t play clean enough to finish it.”
There’s a reason Staley kept talking about not playing “clean enough.”
It’s because the Chargers soiled themselves.
They had 12 penalties for 99 yards this game.
Herbert had a 31-yard completion to receiver Mike Williams nullified because of a penalty. A pair of touchdown passes — to tight ends Donald Parham Jr. and Jared Cook — were also erased by penalties.
“I felt like Justin Herbert was outstanding in the game,” Staley said. “I felt like he gave us a real chance. I felt like he made some premium throws, some premium plays in that game. … I feel like if some of those penalties don’t happen, this is going to be a monster day.”
Herbert did throw two interceptions. But they were Charger-type interceptions.
One came when Keenan Allen fell in the end zone.
The other happened, Staley said, when Allen, one of the league’s best route-runners, ran a poor route.
“Today was about penalties for me. Those penalties are minimized, you’re probably going to have a 500-yard day at the office, which is really hard to achieve in the National Football League. You’re probably going to double your scoring total. We need to play a cleaner game technically, and I know that we will.”
Maybe. But on Sunday they were just the Chargers we’ve seen for years.