If Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert thought he was being selfless by refusing to leave a game he probably shouldn’t have played in the first place and wasn’t sure he’d be able to start until he went through his warmups Sunday, he’s wrong.
By continuing to play when the Chargers fell behind the Jacksonville Jaguars by three touchdowns late in the third quarter and by the eventual final count of 38-10 with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Herbert was being selfish.
By deciding to risk aggravating the fractured rib cartilage that limited his agility and ease of movement Sunday — a problem that’s expected to linger — the Chargers’ franchise cornerstone put his team’s season on the line for no good reason.
The game was lost. Progressively depleted by injuries on offense and defense and unable to mount anything vaguely resembling a running game, the Chargers were going to lose to the Jaguars, who seem to be recovering nicely from the brief but destructive Urban Meyer era.
Herbert didn’t have to be out there in the third quarter at SoFi Stadium. He certainly didn’t have to be out there in the fourth quarter.
“I just did not want to quit on the team. It was, obviously, a tough day for us, but I did not want to go out,” Herbert said of staying in until the extremely bitter end. “I felt like we were getting the ball out quickly. I did not want to quit on my team.
“It’s what the team needs, and sometimes you have to put your own goals and everything behind the team. I think that’s what is most important. I felt like I was safe out there and I didn’t want to quit on my team.”
Exiting early wouldn’t have been quitting. It would have been smart. It would have let him get some rest. It would have removed the risk of injury. It would have let backup Chase Daniel get some snaps, which could prove valuable if Herbert’s injury doesn’t improve quickly and Daniel has to come in next week or the week after.
Coach Brandon Staley apparently tried to persuade Herbert about the merits of leaving the game, but franchise quarterbacks are tougher to find than coaches. You know who has the leverage. You know who won.
“He wanted to be out there with his teammates. He felt good and he wanted to finish the game. He wanted to give our group some energy,” Staley said. “We were going to protect him there at the end with really sound protection as best we could, but it was more about him wanting to finish with his guys.”
It’s commendable that Herbert wanted to share the final minutes with teammates, even though those minutes included boos from the fans remaining from a non-sellout crowd of 67,964. But Staley should have sat on him, if it came to that, to get Herbert to watch the fourth quarter from the bench.
There was more at stake for the Chargers (1-2) than a moment of team bonding. If Herbert had gotten hurt worse, their season would have been all but over. It might be over, anyway, with road games at Houston and Cleveland coming up and a lineup further weakened Sunday by injuries to defensive end Joey Bosa (groin), tackle Rashawn Slater (biceps) and wide receiver Jalen Guyton (knee).
It’s early in a 17-game season, but adding those injuries to the absence of wide receiver Keenan Allen (hamstring), center Cory Linsley (knee) and cornerback J.C. Jackson (ankle) will cause major problems.
“The big picture is always what we’re thinking about,” Staley said. “We’re not thinking about this game against Jacksonville, we’re thinking about our entire football team. We’re talking about the whole season. Trust me, in the fourth quarter, we were definitely talking through it.”
Letting Herbert continue to fight a lost cause contradicts the idea that Staley had the team’s long-term situation in mind.
“There was just that point where he wanted to make sure that he finished with his teammates. Until you’ve been in that position, it’s hard to explain, but it was important for us to do it,” Staley said. “We were aligned the whole way. Moving forward, we’re going to keep Justin at the front of all the decisions that we make.”
Herbert said he had no limitations Sunday but he sometimes looked uncomfortable, especially when turning his body. He declined to say whether he had received an injection of a painkiller, citing his privacy.
“I trust the medical staff. I trust the training staff. They are not going to put me in harm’s way,” he said. “I felt like it was safe, they felt like it was safe, so I was going to go out there and play.”
Staley couldn’t do anything Sunday to change Herbert’s mind. But in similar circumstances down the road, he will have to step in to prevent Herbert from taking such a big risk for such a little reward.
“I hope that we don’t get into a game like this, but I’m sure that there definitely would be a point where we would do that,” Staley said. “When that time comes, we’ll make the decision.”
Herbert said he has accepted the likelihood that the injury will bother him for a while.
“A lot of guys in that locker room don’t feel great,” he said. “It’s all about how you react and how you respond.”
His response Sunday was commendable but misguided.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.