Sports

Justin Herbert keeps showing why he might be the best quarterback in the NFL.

Every now and then, Chargers center Corey Linsley will wonder how the ball possibly could have traveled from Justin Herbert’s hand to its eventual destination. The search for answers usually prompts Linsley to raise his eyes skyward, in the direction of the oval-shaped video board that is suspended from SoFi Stadium’s translucent ceiling.

“We’re always watching replays if something happens,” Linsley said with a laugh.

Enough happened Sunday for the 120-yard-long electronic display to be renamed HerbertVision, the third-year quarterback passing for 279 yards and three touchdowns in the Chargers’ season-opening, 24-19 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.

The story of the game was how the Chargers’ revamped defense intercepted three of Derek Carr’s passes and registered six sacks, including three by newcomer Khalil Mack.

But let’s be clear: The primary reason the Chargers have any chance of reaching the Super Bowl is Herbert, who is now in his third year of making the extraordinary feel routine.

At the risk at sounding repetitive, Herbert really can play.

He’s the best quarterback in a city in which the other NFL team is the defending Super Bowl champion. Now in his third year, he very well could be the best quarterback in the entire league.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws while on the run against the Las Vegas Raiders. Herbert finished with three touchdown passes.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Reflecting on Herbert’s performance, safety Derwin James Jr. ended up arguing with himself over which of the Pro Bowler’s passes were the best.

James initially pointed to a 42-yard completion in the second quarter in which Herbert delivered the ball down the right sideline over two retreating defenders to Keenan Allen, who had a safety closing in on him from the opposite direction.

James quickly reconsidered and offered another possible choice: A 23-yard touchdown strike to DeAndre Carter that split a double team later in the same quarter.

“That was a dot right there,” James said.

Carter had replaced Allen, who departed the game with a strained hamstring.

If Herbert displayed his precision on the ball to Allen and arm strength on the throw to Carter, his athleticism and improvisational gifts were demonstrated on an 18-yard touchdown pass to Gerald Everett in the third quarter.

Herbert was flushed to his left on a busted play. Pursued by safety Johnathan Abram, Herbert opened up his throwing shoulder and unleashed a throw down the sideline to Everett’s back shoulder. The placement was critical, as safety Roderic Teamer was between Everett and the end zone. Everett made the catch and powered his way past Teamer.

“I’m amazed every time, man,” James said. “I’m just like you, man, when I’m watching him play, every day in practice, his daily habits, and when he gets out there and slings it with the defense coming at him, I mean, it’s like no other.”

Coach Brandon Staley praised Herbert for how he managed the game, playing his part to preserve what was once a 24-10 lead.

“The best thing he did was lead our team today,” Staley said. “He led our team today and kept our team together. Then, to finish with the ball there at the end of the game, protecting the ball, good operation between him and Corey [Linsley] the whole day.”

Herbert completed 26 of 34 passes, none of which were intercepted. He wasn’t sacked.

If only Herbert’s on-field persona could be reflected in his postgame news conferences.

Herbert remained his typical low-key self after the game.

He said of the previously mentioned completion to Allen, “Two defenders heading with him not looking back at me, so you play it as if they’re not there.”

He deflected credit for his touchdown pass to Carter to the receiver, saying, “It was an incredible catch by him. It was low and he went down for it and caught it.”

Running back Austin Ekeler chuckled when recalling that throw to Carter.

“His cannon typically looks very good,” Ekeler said of Herbert.

Ekeler mentioned the impact of the newcomers such as Mack, Bryce Callahan, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson.

“The defense got turnovers,” Ekeler said, “so they’re giving us extra opportunities.”

And that, in turn, will create additional highlights from Herbert for video board operations to show on their 360-degree, two-sided screens. Sunday was the start of a busy season for them.

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