The pivotal moment arrived five picks into the NFL’s 2020 remote, pandemic-scrambled draft, the fate of the franchise resting in hands nearly 2,800 miles away.
When Miami selected Tua Tagovailoa, the Chargers were left with a choice that was most obvious at the time and soon would bring outrageous fortune.
With the sixth pick, they took Justin Herbert.
“To hit on a quarterback like Justin, it changes everything,” said Shane Day, now Herbert’s position coach. “It would change everything for every team in the league.”
With one appearance and zero Super Bowl titles, the Chargers are supposedly cursed, right? Charging is a word invented to describe the myriad ways that games, seasons and entire decades have inexplicably crumbled for this forlorn franchise.
Yet, when Herbert was the one standing right there in front of them, the Chargers received a gift that would extend a run so ridiculous that this organization can be correctly characterized with only one word: blessed.
Blessed at the most important position in all of sports.
Since Week 1 of the 2006 season, the Chargers have had only three players start at quarterback, and one of them — Tyrod Taylor — was in there for just a single game.
During that same time:
Atlanta has had six players start at quarterback — despite Matt Ryan holding the job for 14 years.
New England has had seven — despite Tom Brady spending 20 seasons there.
Green Bay has had eight — despite Aaron Rodgers taking over in 2008.
“We’ve seen how desperate some teams can get trying to find a quarterback,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “To get Herbert here and do what he’s done so far, that has to give you a lot of rest at night if you’re a general manager.
“It’s a relief for us too. We know we’ve got a guy. Our reality is there’s genuine mystery about how far we can go. Justin has such an amazing talent cap. I’m real curious to see where our cap as a team is too.”
That’s just three starting quarterbacks over a span of 273 regular-season games, the first 240 of which were manned by Philip Rivers. Then came Taylor’s one start, followed by Herbert for 32 games.
Hurt? Since 2006, the Chargers have had as many home stadiums as they’ve had starting quarterbacks. They’ve had five head coaches during that time.
Since Rivers began this stretch, each of Chargers’ three AFC West rivals—Denver, Kansas City and Las Vegas—has had at least one season during which three different players started at quarterback.
Now retired, Ryan Fitzpatrick started for nine different teams while the Chargers enjoyed absurd consistency. Want to talk Charging? Cleveland has had 24 players starting at quarterback since 2006.
“They made a great pick,” wide receiver Mike Williams said. “That’s about all you can say, right? Sometimes it doesn’t go the way you wanted. This one is going the way everybody wanted.”
The longest-tenured of the Chargers had no idea what the team had in Herbert when he made that first career start as a desperately late replacement for Taylor in Week 2 of the 2020 season.
Keenan Allen said Herbert trotted onto the field that afternoon at SoFi Stadium and into a huddle clueless as to what would happen next.
“You couldn’t really tell because he was going with the twos all training camp,” the veteran wide receiver said. “We were with Tyrod. We knew he obviously had a big arm. But we had Tyrod. So, you know, we just didn’t even think about it.”
Herbert is entering his third year standing atop a foundation unmatched in league history. No one has had more completions (839), passing yards (9,350) or touchdown passes (69) through the first two seasons of a career.
The Chargers invested their 2021 and 2022 first-round picks to bolster the front tasked with protecting Herbert. Considered a weakness in Rivers’ final season, the offensive line is now a strength.
Joshua Palmer has emerged as a legitimate third target at wide receiver, tight end Gerald Everett was signed in free agency and veteran running back Sony Michel was added last week.
Around their young quarterback, the Chargers have built even more potential after they were a top-five offense in yards and points last season.
Yet there’s even more going on here with Herbert, more than can be expressed in numbers or records. His presence alone puts the Chargers among the league leaders in belief.
“Philip was unbelievable,” edge rusher Joey Bosa said. “He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. But to have that young talent that can just sling it from any part of the field, it’s just a different feel, especially when you’re down in the fourth quarter and you have the ball last.”
As a rookie, Herbert produced winning drives late in three consecutive games, matching another NFL mark. He led the Chargers from 15 points down in the final five minutes to force overtime in his most recent game.
In 2020, before facing Tampa Bay, Herbert was asked about playing as long as Brady has. He said he liked the idea of quarterbacking into his 40s.
At the end of the Chargers’ offseason program in June — concluding weeks and weeks of work — he was asked about his vacation plans. “I feel like,” Herbert answered, “I’m kind of on vacation right now.”
Given the desire for longevity and the love of football, who knows how long he might be leading this team? He’s only 24. Could the 2032 Chargers have the same quarterback as the 2022 version? How about the 2042 Chargers?
If that sounds crazy, so does the stability this franchise already is enjoying at Herbert’s position.
“Coming into this year, you’re just seeing Justin grow and grow and grow in every aspect,” Day said. “I don’t think there are any limits on him. He’s so young. He’s working hard every day. He’s humble. There’s no ceiling on this guy.
“That’s why I love coming out here every day. It’s so exciting to continue to see him spiral upward. He has all the physical skills, which everyone sees, and then all the mental things to go with it, as well. It’s amazing. He’s amazing.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.