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Tom Krasovic: Herbert's future is mostly bright, despite brilliance of Reid-Mahomes-Kelce Chiefs

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws a 50- yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Joshua Palmer, not pictured, behind a block from tight end Tre' McKitty against Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark during the first half at SoFi ...

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Joshua Palmer, not pictured, behind a block from tight end Tre' McKitty (88) against Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark (55) during the first half at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Inglewood, California. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Andy Reid's creation is once again outperforming the Chargers, but that doesn't mean quarterback Justin Herbert is doomed to forever chase Reid's Chiefs in the AFC West or — like Philip Rivers — never reach the Super Bowl.

Reid, a brilliant coach and astute judge of talent, has transformed the Chiefs into an AFC powerhouse since team owner Clark Hunt hired him in 2013. In the same offseason Chargers owner Dean Spanos hired Mike McCoy into his first head coach job. Reid, who has proved a huge bargain even if he commanded a top-tier salary, said his relationship with the Hunt family took him to Kansas City.

When Hall of Fame talent man Ron Wolf assisted the Chargers in the coaching search that produced McCoy, he said the greatest mistake of his career was not to hire Reid to lead the Packers a decade-plus earlier when Reid was a Green Bay assistant.

With Reid spinning gold, largely through quarterback Patrick Mahomes and a trio of All-Pros in Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones, the Chiefs have won 72 percent of their games, their first Super Bowl trophy in 50 years and two AFC titles in a torrid 10-year run.

Kansas City (8-2) beat the second-place Chargers (5-5) on Sunday night for the second time this year. All but clinching a seventh consecutive West title, their ninth under Reid, the Chiefs inflated their lead to three games and ensured they'd win the head-to-head tiebreaker.

So, three seasons into Herbert's tenure, the Chargers presumably will see their divisional title drought — exceeded by only five other franchises — stretch to 13 years.

As bleak as the franchise's track record appears for Herbert, it would be a mistake to count him out.

In his favor are rare assets: his youthfulness as a three-year starter and the NFL's parity-driven system that punishes successful teams and assists the executives and coaches who can't keep up with the likes of Reid, 64.

Herbert is a top-10 QB at just 24 years and 8 months old.

Though unpredictable detours could await him, it's not unrealistic to project for him several bites at the Super Bowl tournament.

That he's already started 42 games has hastened his progress, even if backing up a veteran would've benefited him, too. It's notable that when Philip Rivers made his first NFL start, after watching Drew Brees for two years, he was a month older than Herbert is now.

Rivers went on to lead six Chargers teams and a Colts squad to the postseason before retiring at age 39. Though Herbert is unlikely to match Rivers' astounding streak of 14 seasons of games started, he's already showing rare durability. The mobile, 6-foot-6, 237-pounder has been available to the Chargers for all 43 starts since they drafted him sixth overall. Only four other teams — the Bills (Josh Allen), Bucs (Tom Brady), Falcons (Matt Ryan and Marcus Mariota) and Raiders (Derek Carr) — have had their franchise QB available for every start in that three-season span.

The NFL wants stars like Herbert in its postseason, and the league's NFL rule makers already have boosted his chances by expanding the NFL's playoff field from 12 to 14 teams. The Chargers came up short last year under the new format by losing to the Raiders with the AFC's final seed on the line.

Nevertheless, the seventh seed in a 16-team conference should be low-hanging fruit in most years for a franchise with a too-10 QB.

The NFL's playoff expansion seemingly did a second favor to the current Chargers' football operation headed by John Spanos, Tom Telesco and coach Brandon Staley. It devalued the divisional races by eliminating a playoff bye to the No. 2 seed.

Staley's defense kept Herbert out of the playoffs last year by finishing near 32nd in several categories. Sunday night, erasing a four-point lead, his defense allowed a game-winning touchdown drive in the final 1:46.

But it would be out of character for the Spanoses and Telesco to fire Staley just two years into his tenure. Both McCoy and Anthony Lynn got four years after the current front office hired them.

Besides, Staley's current team still has a shot at a wild card. So long as Herbert is the projected starter, the Chargers stand to enter five or six games as a betting-line favorite (including this week's game at Arizona that shows them as a 3.5-point favorite).

Sean Payton? He's not the type of head coach hire the Spanoses have made, not even when they hired Marty Schottenheimer. Payton would command a top-tier salary that exceeds Staley's by millions of dollars. Brash and confident, even cocky, the former San Diego State assistant might seek a bigger say on personnel than the Spanoses have given head coaches.

In addition, the Saints would seek a premium draft pick in return.

So it would appear that in addition to John Spanos — who holds an ownership stake — both Telesco and Staley will head the Chargers again next year regardless of how this season plays out.

And while it would defy history for the Chargers to outsmart Reid, that might not be necessary. After years of lapping them, the Chiefs might come back to them, at some point.

Mahomes, 27, has suffered more injuries than Herbert and missed starts with a dislocated knee. Kelce roasted several much-younger Chargers defenders Sunday but, at 33, he has more than 150 NFL games on his body. The Chargers will continue to receive draft picks that are slotted higher than Kansas City's and play easier schedules. Heck, they might get another shot at the Chiefs this winter.

In the NFL, mulligans abound, and Justin Herbert will continue to tee it up.


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