Justin Herbert was placed on injured reserve Tuesday by the Los Angeles Chargers after he underwent surgery on a broken finger.
The move all but officially ends the star quarterback’s season, given that he will have to sit out the final four games for the Chargers, whose 5-8 record leaves their playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
In Herbert’s place, Los Angeles will start Easton Stick, a fifth-year player who had very limited on-field experience until he was pressed into duty Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Now Stick will have to get up to speed in a hurry before the Chargers play Thursday night against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Los Angeles Coach Brandon Staley told reporters Tuesday that Herbert’s surgery, to mend the index finger on his right, throwing hand, went well and that the 2020 offensive rookie of the year is “on the road to recovery.”
Herbert was injured in the second quarter of what would become a 24-7 home loss to Denver. Just after releasing the ball on a completion to tight end Donald Parham, Herbert was hit and taken to the turf by Broncos defensive end Zach Allen. He remained in the game for several plays until the drive ended with a turnover on downs.
When the Chargers’ offense returned to the field with less than two minutes before halftime, Stick was under center. His season debut got off to an inauspicious start when he was hit and nearly fumbled the ball, but Stick showed composure in the second half. He connected with rookie wide receiver Quentin Johnston on a pair of deep passes in the fourth quarter to help Los Angeles march to its only touchdown, and for the game he completed 13 of 24 attempts for 179 yards.
“I think the way that [Stick] played in that second half does give us confidence going into this game,” Staley said Tuesday.
Before Sunday, Stick had taken just two snaps in a regular season game since the Chargers selected him in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. He said Tuesday that having the chance to come into the Denver game was invaluable in terms of helping get him ready to face the Raiders.
“Reps are the biggest thing,” Stick, 28, said at the Chargers’ training facility. “There’s no other way, really, to learn at that level than playing. So however you get ’em, you’ll take ’em, and they’ll always make you better.”
Stick and Staley both referred to the quarterback’s achievements at North Dakota State, where he set a Football Championship Subdivision record with 49 career wins and led the Bison to national titles in his junior and senior seasons. Although NDSU plays a rung below college football’s top tier, it has produced highly drafted quarterbacks in Carson Wentz and Trey Lance, and Stick set numerous program passing records.
“Look, I understand North Dakota State is not the National Football League, but I’m used to winning,” Stick said Tuesday. “I only know one way.”
For Herbert, this will go down as another season in which he failed to drive the Chargers to great success. After Los Angeles drafted the Oregon product sixth overall in 2020, he threw 31 touchdown passes as a rookie and 38 the following season. However, the Chargers have been to the playoffs just once with him — losing right away in calamitous fashion by coughing up a 27-point lead to the Jacksonville Jaguars — and his record as a starter is just 30-32.
Herbert’s abundant talent was enough to convince the Chargers to give him a five-year contract extension in July worth $262.5 million. That made him the NFL’s highest-paid player for several weeks until Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow topped it with a five-year deal worth $275 million. Now Herbert has joined Burrow and several other quarterbacks in suffering season-ending injuries during what has been a fraught few months for the position. In all, the NFL has seen 54 quarterbacks start at least one game this season, a number that could grow if the Houston Texans’ C.J. Stroud (concussion protocol) has to sit this week.
“It’s been unfortunate [that] a lot of the top players at our position have gotten hurt … but it’s part of the game,” Stick said Tuesday. One positive aspect for him has been a chance to see Jake Browning, who also entered the league in 2019 and played sparingly before replacing Burrow a few weeks ago, show he can help the Bengals stay in the playoff chase.
“It’s been really cool watching him get his opportunity and have a bunch of success,” Stick said of Browning. “We follow it as much as anybody.”
Staley is hoping his own backup quarterback, now thrust into the spotlight, can follow that trajectory.
“He has improved every year as a quarterback,” the coach said of Stick, “and now he gets to show what he can do.”