The Washington Post

In beating WFT, Herbert shows what could have been

- Barry.svrluga@washpost.com For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washington­post.com/svrluga.

The player the Washington Football Team did not select with the second pick of the 2020 NFL draft came to Fedex Field on a lovely Sunday afternoon, was given the ball with both a lead and more than

61/ minutes remaining, and

2 essentiall­y took that ball and went home, back to Los Angeles, where he will be the quarterbac­k for this year and next year and who knows how many more going forward.

On that final drive Sunday — the one that sealed the Los Angeles Chargers’ season-opening, 20-16 victory over Washington — Justin Herbert completed a 17-yard pass on third and 16, a 19-yard pass on third and three, a 22-yard pass on third and seven and a nine-yard pass on third and four. There was nothing Chase Young, or anybody in burgundy and gold, could do about it.

It was profession­al quarterbac­king, the stuff around which a franchise can be built, and it’s not a stretch that more than a few of the 52,753 fans in the stands might have thought: “Why can’t we — just once — get a guy like that?”

“You have an idea, but after you see them, it confirms it,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said. “The thing that was legit, really, is who Justin Herbert is. He’s a heck of a quarterbac­k. Got a great arm. He’s got quick twitch, makes quick decisions.

. . . You sit there, and you think, ‘ This kid’s pretty special.’ ”

And he could have been the quarterbac­k right here, playing for the home team, not the visitors. Herbert’s day: 31 for 47 for 337 yards, a touchdown and an intercepti­on (that was probably his only substandar­d throw of the afternoon), and the lasting impression that, if he were your quarterbac­k, you’d feel pretty good about your team’s present and future. In the history of the NFL, no one has ever thrown for more touchdowns as a rookie than Herbert did last year, and only one rookie (Andrew Luck) has ever thrown for more yards. He is just getting started — in Los Angeles.

Look, Young may someday have his name put in Washington’s Ring of Fame. He was the NFL’S defensive rookie of the year in 2020, and he could dominate as an edge rusher for a decade or more, a perennial all-pro. There is a combinatio­n of talent and drive that is worthy of taking with the second pick in the draft. More than a few of those fans who finally got back to Fedex after a year lost to the pandemic wore shiny new No. 99 jerseys with “Young” emblazoned across the back. Almost a year-and-a-half later, there’s not a lot of secondgues­sing of that pick around here.

But this is also true: Washington could have taken Herbert — then a quarterbac­k with some questions coming out of Oregon — with that same second pick. They passed, as did the Detroit Lions at No. 3, the New York Giants at No. 4 and the Miami Dolphins at No. 5.

This tale is in its early chapters, and who did well in that draft won’t be determined after one season and one game. Yet it’s so fun to consider the evidence thus far, especially when it plays out right in front of you.

So, then, here’s something else that’s true: A quarterbac­k simply impacts a higher percentage of plays than even the best defensive lineman does. The Chargers ran 76 plays Sunday, and Herbert touched the ball on all of them. Young was frustrated by a series of quick throws from Herbert, as well as the chip-blocking from Los Angeles’s backs — and wasn’t even on the field when the Chargers scored their first touchdown, nor when Herbert completed his crushing thirdand-16 throw in the fourth quarter. He was in on three tackles and didn’t have a sack. That’s the life of a defensive lineman, rotating in and out, looking for an opportunit­y that may not come. It’s not the life of a quarterbac­k, for whom every single play is an opportunit­y.

So follow that line of thinking to one more truism: Justin Herbert will have a greater impact on the Chargers’ longterm prospects to win a championsh­ip than Chase Young will have on Washington’s prospects to do the same.

That’s not reverse engineerin­g. That’s acknowledg­ing that Washington has spent the better part of 30 years in the quarterbac­k wilderness, and there’s no telling what the solution will be or when it will come.

On an afternoon when Washington started a 38-yearold journeyman and that 38year-old journeyman lasted about an hour — just 16 snaps into his career here, Ryan Fitzpatric­k left with a hip injury — it’s hard to escape those thoughts.

The backup — and the player who should start Thursday against the Giants, even if Fitzpatric­k is healthy — is gunslingin­g 28-year-old Taylor Heinicke. He plays with an obvious and admirable flair but is still an unknown. Should he start Thursday, it will be the second regular season start of an NFL career that was, in the fall of 2020, in danger of being dead.

Who should start will carry the discussion in town this week because Washington has just three days to prepare and the season is coming at this team quickly. It matters who takes snaps and throws passes against New York, because it’s a division game, and the schedule gets hard fast. Wins must be wrestled away wherever and whenever they can, because the Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers are all on the docket before October is out. The endorsemen­t here is for Heinicke, who went 11 for 15 for 122 yards and a touchdown in relief of Fitzpatric­k against the Chargers.

Rivera’s stance immediatel­y after the game: “There’s some things we got to go through and talk about.” That’s reasonable. But Fitzpatric­k’s injury put Washington right where it was a year ago, when the Football Team went from Dwayne Haskins to Kyle Allen to Alex Smith and, eventually, to Heinicke to start a playoff game. That was all out of necessity, and Rivera and his staff did well to navigate the week-to-week uncertaint­y. It’s just not a formula for continuity or sustained winning.

So, then, here they are again. “Business as usual,” said tight end Logan Thomas, who caught the third-quarter touchdown pass from Heinicke that gave Washington its only lead, 16-13. “We’ve been in this situation before. Obviously, Taylor’s a little more mobile than Fitz is. But same old story.”

Same old story. Justin Herbert left Fedex Field late Sunday afternoon with a win and a future that looks both bright and clear. Ryan Fitzpatric­k left Fedex Field with a bum hip and no idea when his next snap might come. Ron Rivera left Fedex Field with uncertaint­y at the sport’s most important position, having watched a heck of a quarterbac­k pick apart what’s supposed to be one of the game’s best defenses. It all makes it hard not to think about how important a quarterbac­k is, and what might have been.

 ?? Barry Svrluga ??
Barry Svrluga
 ?? PHOTOS BY JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Running back Antonio Gibson finished with 90 rushing yards on 20 attempts Sunday, but he lost a fumble deep in Washington territory that led to the Chargers’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
PHOTOS BY JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST Running back Antonio Gibson finished with 90 rushing yards on 20 attempts Sunday, but he lost a fumble deep in Washington territory that led to the Chargers’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
 ??  ?? Taylor Heinicke was 11 for 15 for 122 yards and a touchdown after Ryan Fitzpatric­k went down with a hip injury in the second quarter.
Taylor Heinicke was 11 for 15 for 122 yards and a touchdown after Ryan Fitzpatric­k went down with a hip injury in the second quarter.

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