The Los Angeles Chargers could have played it safe. Ahead of 10 points with less than four minutes to play against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the team might have handed the ball over and turned the clock back to finally end a four-game losing streak.
Having Justin Herbert under center, however, changed the team’s math. Third and fifth on the Jaguars 34-yard line, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen ended a timeout by giving the green light to rookie quarterback to pitch wide receiver Keenan Allen, who gained 8 yards and a new streak. of downs. Soon after, Herbert knelt down to claim his first NFL victory.
The decision – that a Herbert pitch was as safe a bet as a carry over, even in a rush – was emblematic of how Chargers coaches came to view the 22-year-old who, technically speaking, did not wasn’t supposed to be their starter yet.
Herbert was propelled to the spot in week two after Tyrod Taylor, the Los Angeles starter signed a two-year contract that included $ 11 million in guaranteed cash, had his lung punctured by a team doctor injecting pain reliever before the game. In Taylor’s place in a widely broadcast afternoon game, Herbert pushed Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs into overtime, running for a 4-yard touchdown in his first practice in the NFL and finishing with a better passer rating (94.4 to 90.9) and more yards. (311 to 302) than Patrick Mahomes, but not the victory.
The unexpected performance turned heads to Herbert, who last spring was ranked third-best professional prospect in quarterback, behind No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, both charismatic leaders in college. . Now, having thrown for 1,542 yards in his first five NFL games, a career start second only to Cam Newton’s in 2011, Herbert has established himself as a revolutionary talent who deserves to be. built.
“There is nothing passive about the way he plays,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout and NFL Network analyst who is a color commentator on Chargers’ radio shows. “Other teams are trying to protect their young quarterback, try not to destroy their confidence.” The Chargers coaches have said, “let’s run your business.”
Herbert, who is not prone to hyperbole, tried to downplay the attention he might get.
“One of the great things I’ve been taught is not to let myself be affected,” Herbert said. “All I focused on was what was said inside this building, or by my parents or my former coaches. I did a good job of staying away from the noise.
When Los Angeles drafted Herbert sixth overall, the plan was for him to sit down and watch Taylor for one season. Herbert was 29-14 in college and became only Oregon’s second quarterback to throw over 10,000 yards and score over 100 touchdowns, despite the lack of wide receivers, but he didn’t have to take a lot of risk in the Ducks. heavy rush attack.
Herbert was the second-tallest quarterback measured on the reconnaissance combine in February, and also one of the heaviest. But he ran the 40-yard scoreboard in 4.68 seconds, the fourth-fastest time among quarterbacks, catching the attention of Chargers coach Anthony Lynn.
“For a man who is 6ft 6in tall he’s very nimble,” said Lynn. “In the NFL today, with the speed of the defenses, it’s pretty important. So a guy who can do both, pocket throw and move and extend the game, that’s a pretty unique skill to me.
Herbert’s talent was a boon to the Chargers, who, in addition to losing Taylor, were deprived of their best player, Austin Ekeler, and three offensive linemen. Looking for a spark, Chargers quarterback coach Pep Hamilton and Steichen encouraged Herbert to play aggressively, running when needed and throwing receivers through narrow windows.
He responded with the best quarterback rating in the rookie category (74.4, good for 12th place in the league) and has emerged as a running threat who can keep defenses honest. Herbert has 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns through Week 7 and a climax on which he flattened much heavier Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson on a scrambled run to the sidelines.
Coach Anthony Lynn, who previously said Taylor would keep his job after returning from the injured reserve list, named Herbert the starter in early October, after appearing in three games.
“I wanted this to play out, and I saw enough of it, and I wanted to go ahead and make it official,” Lynn said.
Still, Lynn was hesitant to overload the rookie with too many tempting offensive challenges. He said Philip Rivers, the former Chargers quarterback, used to go into the line of scrimmage with three different options for games, too much to expect from a rookie. Instead, Herbert is asked to review his first, second, and third pass options in one play call, based on his defense reading.
So far, Herbert has shown his ability to play it safe with the offense entrusted to him, racking up a 67.4% success rate and a four-to-one ratio of touchdowns to interceptions.
“He throws the deep ball really well, throws the intermediate stuff well, he’s obviously very athletic,” said Vic Fangio, coach of the Denver Broncos, who will face the Chargers on Sunday. “They did a good job training him and tailoring their offense to his skills.”
Another part of Herbert’s development has been left deliberately simple: his time off the pitch. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, less than a mile from his college stadium and with two brothers who doubled as training partners during the offseason, Herbert tried to recreate that cocoon in Southern California. . Despite his salary of $ 610,000 and his signing bonus of $ 4.2 million, he shares a house with two other rookies, including one from the practice team. Her diet hasn’t changed much either, still relying heavily on Subway sandwiches and Domino pizzas.
What has changed, however, is Herbert’s growing list of accomplishments and, with them, attention. Don’t expect it to be fashionable.
“I don’t think I changed my game,” he said. “I think I just grew and developed and have a better understanding of the game.”