COSTA MESA — Practice was done, but quarterback Justin Herbert was not.
Chargers players, coaches and staff members began drifting away from the fields at Jack Hammett Sports Complex after the second of two joint practices with the Dallas Cowboys last month. Cold drinks and a snack or two or three awaited them all after a long session under the midday sun.
Herbert stayed put.
One throw followed another, tight spirals to a number of receivers.
Five minutes passed.
Ten minutes passed.
Fifteen minutes passed.
“You see him, he stays, like, an hour and a half after practice just throwing the same route over and over and over,” Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen said, watching Herbert from afar while others ran pass patterns. “If there’s not a spiral, he’ll just keep throwing the same one.”
Twenty minutes passed.
“He’s not only a tremendous talent, but I think it’s just the way he plays,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy had said one day earlier when asked for his assessment of Herbert. “He has a lot of juice, a lot of energy. Both in the pocket and out of the pocket, obviously, he can make any throw on the field.”
Thirty minutes passed.
Finally, Herbert called it quits.
“I need to be the best quarterback that I can be,” Herbert said when asked about his post-practice routine. “I go after practice and if I miss my throws that day, it’s important to me to figure them out and take care of my body, as well. I’m going to go ice and make sure I’m ready to go tomorrow.”
Many minutes earlier, Allen had marveled at Herbert’s commitment.
“It’s crazy,” Allen said
“I don’t know,” said Allen, entering his 10th season in the NFL, all with the Chargers and the first eight with longtime quarterback Philip Rivers.
“Philip never stayed after practice to throw the ball. Philip put in the work, but this guy (Herbert) is out here, like, an hour and a half, just throwing the same route over and over and over.”
Rivers, Herbert’s predecessor, completed 65% of his passes for 63,440 yards and 421 touchdowns in 244 career games over 17 years in the NFL, all but one with the Chargers. Rivers never threw for 5,000 yards in a season.
Herbert did last year.
In fact, no one in Chargers history had thrown for 5,000 yards in a season until Herbert threw for 5,014 yards in 17 games last year – not Rivers, not Dan Fouts, not Stan Humphries, not John Hadl and not Drew Brees. Fouts set the team record of 4,802 yards in 16 games in 1981, one fewer than Herbert.
“So impressed with Justin, frankly, last year when we played them,” the Cowboys’ McCarthy said, referring to Dallas’ 20-17 victory on Sept. 19, when Herbert completed 31 of 41 passes for 338 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. “I think it’s like any player in this league. You watch them on tape and there’s no emotion. You don’t really feel that energy that’s out there.”
It was a different story while watching Herbert live.
“I was just so impressed with him in our game last year,” McCarthy said.
WHAT MAKES HIM GO?
Herbert, 24, was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2021 in his second season with the Chargers, who drafted him sixth overall in the 2020 draft following his stellar career at the University of Oregon. There’s been preseason chatter that he could be an MVP candidate when this season is done.
“My personal goal is just to be the best quarterback and teammate that I can be,” he said on the opening day of training camp July 27. “I try not to look too much into statistics. I think that can kind of skew or throw you off from what you are trying to accomplish. As long as I work hard and do the right things on and off the field, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Last season, Herbert’s record-setting yardage coupled with a 65.9% completion percentage and 38 touchdowns. They were counterbalanced by 15 interceptions, a 9-8 record, a third-place finish in the AFC West and falling one win short of the playoffs.
Perfection, as a goal unto itself, can be elusive.
Or it can prove to be maddening at best or counterproductive at worst.
So, how does Herbert balance a desire to be the best with inevitable mistakes?
“It’s an interesting thought because I always tell myself that I made it further than I ever thought I was going to,” he said. “At this point, if I just do my best, I can’t complain. I go out there and if I work as hard as I can on every single rep and I go out after practice, I can fail and still be proud of myself.”
Improvement when you’ve reached the peak of your profession can be difficult, too. As a rookie, with a Rose Bowl victory, a golden arm, fleet feet and a sparkling résumé, Herbert still had to prove himself in the NFL. As a second-year player, he had to raise his game to another level, and he did.
Spectacularly, in fact.
What comes next? How many more steps can Herbert take in Year 3?
“He’s pretty good, he’s pretty good,” Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams said, laughing while repeating himself for emphasis. “But, yeah, we can unlock some more stuff this upcoming season. We haven’t gotten to the playoffs or the Super Bowl with him, so, yeah, we’re looking forward to that.”
Herbert has become more vocal, more assertive and more of a leader in his third training camp, according to center Corey Linsley, who is in his second season with the Chargers after seven years snapping the ball to quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers.
‘It’s more of an attitude,” Linsley said of Herbert. “Yeah, he says stuff. It’s not like he doesn’t rally the team up. It’s his calm, that sort of confidence where it doesn’t need to be said a whole lot. You just see it in his eyes. This guy is in the zone. That’s what you see day in and day out where we all rally around him.”
Then there’s that arm of Herbert’s. Have we mentioned his strength and accuracy?
“Justin hits you in the chest every time,” Chargers wide receiver DeAndre Carter said. “There’s not too much to get used to – just catch the ball when it comes. It definitely makes it easier. He can throw that thing in there. Probably about 102 miles per hour. If he played baseball.”
As a matter of fact, Herbert did play baseball while at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Oregon. He pitched Sheldon to the state 6A championship as a senior and earned second-team all-state recognition, which makes one wonder who was picked as the state’s first-team pitcher.
Football runs through the Herbert family like the blood coursing through their veins, so that was the direction Justin headed after high school. He landed at Oregon after initially hoping to join his older brother, Mitchell, at Montana State. His father, Mark, had played at Montana and his grandfather, Rich, played at Oregon.
After Herbert’s record-setting career with the Ducks, the Chargers selected him as the heir apparent to Rivers, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts for his 17th and final NFL season on March 21, 2020, less than a month before the draft. Herbert then started 15 games as a rookie.
Brandon Staley replaced Anthony Lynn as the Chargers’ coach after the 2020 season, and Staley’s union with Herbert has been strengthened with each passing day. Not that Herbert has changed in any great way, mind you, but Staley can’t help but notice his growth and maturity over the past weeks and months.
If there’s increased pressure on Herbert’s 6-foot-6, 236-pound frame to win this season, to march the Chargers into the playoffs for the first time since they went 12-4 in 2018, it wasn’t apparent to Staley as training camp unfolded. Herbert is the same, no different in meaningful ways.
“He’s just so steady,” Staley said. “He’s handling it like he did the first time I met him. He’s a fierce competitor. His intangibles are by far his best quality – the head that he has on his shoulders. There’s nobody’s standards that will ever, ever meet his own. That’s what makes him such a good player and such a good teammate.
“He knows how important it is to be one of the guys. I think that’s why his teammates and his coaches appreciate him so much. Because it’s never about him. He wants it to be about our team, our unit on offense, our fans. When you have a humble superstar like him, it sure helps.”
No question, expectations of Herbert have increased for his third NFL season.
Blame him. He’s the one who set them.