Despite record, Chargers can build on small victories

Small victories. With a 3-8 record headed into an AFC matchup against the New England Patriots at SoFi Stadium, the Los Angeles Chargers haven’t had too many victories to count this season. These wins have come far and between.

But when you’re a struggling ballclub like the Chargers, trying to come up for air long enough in trying to reach the .500 plateau by the end of the season, you have to build on positive energy from wherever that source may be. Let’s start with quarterback Justin Herbert. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Herbert has been fanatically awesome.

And you might want to throw away that rookie tag while you’re at it. The one glimmer of light constant all season for the Chargers has been the play of the former University of Oregon star. Since head coach Anthony Lynn’s impromptu decision to inject Herbert into the starting lineup against the Kansas Chiefs in Week 2, Herbert has shown that he is all of that and a bag of Doritos.

Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) looks to throw the ball to an open receiver against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. Herbert completed 28 of 42 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns. Credit: Los Angeles Chargers

In just 10 games, Herbert has already surpassed the 3,000-yard passing mark (3,015 yards), passed for 23 touchdowns and is looking every bit like he would become the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. It’s not just the numbers that Herbert is putting up; it’s how he’s doing it. He’s already tied with Andrew Luck for the most 300-yard games by a rookie in a season with six.

By the end of the season, it’s a good hunch that Herbert will claim ownership of that record. That’s not the only league mark within striking distance of Herbert. Herbert is just five touchdown passes away from leapfrogging Baker Mayfield’s rookie season record of 27, which the Cleveland Browns quarterback set in 2018.

Adding to his game-by-game stature as a premier signal-caller in the NFL, Herbert snagged the league’s record of touchdown passes thrown by a rookie quarterback for the month of November with 12. That kind of outside noise appears to have not gotten into Herbert’s head.

In a 31-26 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 9 in which he threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns, Herbert showed his poise in handling a reporter’s question about the team’s mounting losses the way he has been able to side-step blitzes.

Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) goes up for one of the 10 catches he had against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. Allen caught 10 passes for 125 yards in the Chargers’ 39-29 win at SoFi Stadium. Photo credit: Los Angeles Chargers

“We’re never going to give up,” Herbert said. “Losses are tough, like I was saying earlier. This isn’t easier for anyone, no one is enjoying this. Everyone’s working really hard and we’re doing our best. I know things are going to change and I’ve said that before, but if you keep fighting, keep executing, keep getting better, good things will happen. We’re really close and that’s probably one of the toughest parts. There’s nothing we can do about it now. We can’t change what has happened, we can’t change these losses. We can only push forward. We can only look to this week and have a good week of practice and get better and watch film. That’s all that we can do is get better.”

Small victories.

The return of running back Austin Ekeler undoubtedly is a win for the Chargers offense. Ekeler, who the team signed to a multi-year extension in March, came into the 2020 season as THE GUY for the Chargers at the running back position after serving his first three years in the league behind the departed Melvin Gordon and making his mark as an all-utility player for the ballclub.

Though he has yet to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, where Ekeler earns his keep is catching passes out of the backfield and making opponents eat turf with his knife-cutting running ability after the catch. In 2019, Ekeler caught 92 passes for nearly 1,000 yards (993 yards) while rushing for 557 yards. So when Ekeler went down with a hamstring injury in Week 4 in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a collective breath was knocked out of the Chargers’ offense.

That’s because Ekeler has established himself as the pulse of the Chargers offensive unit in his four years with the team. Ekeler’s official return in the Chargers’ 27-17 Week 12 road defeat to the Buffalo Bills was welcomed news. There was some rust as it related to Ekeler juking a defender here and there while in open space but for the most part the Western State alum pretty much looked like himself.

Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) hits the hole against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1. The Chiefs defeated the Chargers, 23-20, in overtime. Photo credit: Los Angeles Chargers

Against the Bills, Ekeler rushed the ball 14 times for 44 yards. Those numbers are not exactly the stat line you want to take home, but the fact that Ekeler was out on the field in the first place is a win for the Chargers. Ekeler also caught 11 passes (targeted 16 times) for 85 yards in his return to action.

“For me, I think I missed seven games. So it was kind of like the ultimate test to see how my healing and how my rehab has been,” Ekeler said after the Bills game. “So coming back, I got into the game, and I felt pretty good and ended up getting probably the majority of the snaps at running back; didn’t feel any pain. Even got into a couple of positions and was like ‘Oh, that was definitely stretching me out as far as my hamstring goes. But got back into a rhythm…didn’t quite feel 100 percent as far as just what I’ve been in the past when my conditioning was where it was. That was to be expected missing all those weeks. For the most part, [ I] felt pretty good. That was the goal coming into this game.”

Small victories.

When it comes to consistency, has there been anyone more dependable than wide receiver Keenan Allen? Since he has been with the Chargers, Allen has been a model of consistency. With his 875 receiving yards (and counting), Allen is on pace to record his fourth straight season with 1,000 yards or more. If he is able to hit that plateau, it would be Allen’s fifth season overall with 1,000 yards or more in receiving.

Allen’s reliability has made Herbert’s adjustment from college football to the NFL much easier. How much easier? Well, twice this season Herbert threw the ball 19 times Allen’s way. Against Carolina, Allen caught 13 of those passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. The second time that Herbert threw that many passes towards Allen, the veteran wideout caught 16 passes for 145 yards and a score against the New York Jets in Week 11.

Los Angeles Chargers rookie Joe Reed (12) on a kick return versus the Las Vegas Raiders. Photo credit: Los Angeles Chargers

“Well, Keenan is sly,” Lynn said of Allen’s performance in the Chargers 34-28 win against the Jets. “He’s very rare to be that big and quick and sly and we kind of take advantage of that sly defender with some good open concepts with him. I was not pleased with the fumble down on the one-yard line at all, but he made up for it with some other plays and overall, he had a productive day.”

The Chargers have five games remaining on their schedule. Allen, with 85 catches, has an outside chance of beating his own personal best of receptions in a season (104) and yards receiving (1,393 yards). If Herbert continues to throw the ball as well as he has this season, Allen is a shoo-in to hit those marks.

“He’s an exceptional talent and anytime you have him on the field it creates huge mismatches,” Herbert said of Allen after the Chargers’ 21-16 Week 3 defeat to the Carolina Panthers. “It’s a big part of our game plan, just getting him the ball. He makes special things happen. That’s part of my job.”

Small victories.

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