Beforehand, the questions were about whether Justin Herbert would start the game.
Afterward, the questions were about why Justin Herbert finished it.
That’s how comprehensive of a collapse the Chargers had Sunday in losing 38-10 to Jacksonville at SoFi Stadium.
From opening kickoff to final gun, their performance was sorely lacking as Herbert struggled to play through fractured rib cartilage and the defense wilted under the weight of a 17-minute time-of-possession deficit.
Then, afterward, matters didn’t improve much as Brandon Staley attempted to explain why Herbert remained in the game even as the Chargers fell four touchdowns behind in the final five minutes.
The coach seemed to contradict himself as he spoke of the importance of thinking long term while acknowledging that Herbert won out in his desire to remain on the field in the short term.
“He felt good, and he wanted to finish the game,” Staley said. “… We were going to protect him there at the end … as best we could. But it was more about him wanting to finish the game with his guys.”
Staley was asked about balancing the present with the future, especially when dealing with a franchise quarterback operating under conditions of compromised health.
“The big picture is always what we’re thinking about,” he said. “We’re not thinking about this game with Jacksonville. We’re thinking about our entire football team. We’re talking about the whole season.”
Still, Herbert remained in the game even as the Chargers were without their two best offensive linemen — left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Corey Linsley, both Pro Bowl selections
Slater left early in the third quarter after suffering a potentially significant biceps injury, and Linsley didn’t play because of a knee problem.
Herbert was sacked once and hit five other times, according to the NFL’s official statistics. Two of those hits — by Jaguars edge rusher Josh Allen — came on consecutive plays on the Chargers’ final possession.
“What wins out in the end is always the long term, always,” Staley insisted. “There was just that point where he wanted to make sure he finished with his teammates.
“Until you’ve been in that position, you know, it’s hard to explain. But it was important for us to do it. We were aligned the whole way. Moving forward, we’re going to keep Justin at the front of all the decisions that we make.”
Staley has emphasized player safety since he was hired in January 2021, notably altering everything from the team’s offseason training to playing time in the preseason.
What happened Sunday appeared to be in opposition to much of what the coach had preached and practiced over the previous 20 months.
Staley said “there definitely was” discussion during the game about removing Herbert. But, asked whether the quarterback was “adamant” about staying in, Staley answered yes.
Moving forward, the circumstances won’t be improving anytime soon. Staley acknowledged Herbert’s ribs will be an issue for the foreseeable future.
“Justin’s going to be feeling like this when he’s out there playing,” Staley said. “This injury is going to be there for a while. If you guys know the injury, it’s not like it’s going to feel better next week or the week after that.”
Herbert was hurt late in the Chargers’ previous game, Sept. 15 at Kansas City. He finished the 27-24 loss to the Chiefs despite being in obvious pain over the final five minutes.
His ribs became a story the same week a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by quarterback Tyrod Taylor against a Chargers team doctor became public knowledge.
David Gazzaniga is being sued by Taylor because a 2020 pregame injection — meant to help the quarterback manage the pain from two fractured ribs — resulted in Taylor suffering a punctured lung.
Gazzaniga remains part of the Chargers’ medical team and was on the scene in Kansas City when Herbert was injured.
Late Sunday afternoon, Herbert wouldn’t disclose whether he had been injected before the game.
“I think however I take care of my body, that’s one of the things I’d like to keep private,” he said. “I trust the medical staff. I trust the training staff. And they’re not going to put me in harm’s way. I felt like it was safe. They felt like it was safe.”
Herbert finished 25 for 45 for 297 yards, with one interception and one lost fumble. The 56% completion rate was his fourth worst in 35 career starts.
The Chargers produced only one touchdown in 10 possessions, Herbert hitting wide receiver Mike Williams for a 15-yard score in the second quarter.
Still, Staley said Herbert’s accuracy was not a problem.
“He was throwing the football well,” Staley said. “He wasn’t … the protection … the rush was there today, which forced him to have to speed up at times. But he threw the ball well out there.”
The Chargers not only lost Slater on Sunday but also another Pro Bowl player in Joey Bosa, the edge rusher leaving late in the first quarter after hurting his groin. Wide receiver Jalen Guyton also suffered a knee injury that could potentially be significant. … The Chargers played without Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen, who continues to deal with a hamstring problem, and Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson, who has an ankle injury.