Flash back, for a moment, to late October.
The Chargers, coming off a week’s break, had absorbed a second straight loss and were a wobbly 4-3. Quarterback Justin Herbert, a whiz kid as a rookie last season, was enduring an unpleasant on-the-job education about what it takes to win consistently in the NFL. Opponents seemed to have figured him out, and he was unable to find enough effective options against the New England Patriots’ zone defense in a loss at SoFi Stadium. The Chargers’ season seemed on the verge of going off the rails.
Herbert said he hadn’t faced any protection issues that day, taking full responsibility for his two-interception performance.
“It’s on me to make those throws and to get the ball up quicker,” he said.
Herbert and the Chargers have endured many ups and downs since then, but his education has proceeded at a dizzyingly rapid rate. His ability to learn and adapt are key reasons the Chargers kept their playoff hopes alive and have put themselves in a win-and-they’re-in scenario next week against the Raiders at Las Vegas.
Herbert made history on Sunday by completing his 35th passing touchdown in the Chargers’ 34-13 victory over the COVID-depleted Denver Broncos, breaking the single-season franchise record Philip Rivers had set in 2008. Herbert, who was 22 for 31 for 237 yards and two touchdowns, reached 800 completions in his 31st game, the fewest games any player has taken to reach that number. He also passed 9,000 career passing yards in 31 games; only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (30 games) has done that in fewer games.
Herbert typically avoids the spotlight — he tried to hide from the in-stadium camera after he set the record with a 45-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams in the fourth quarter — but he humbly accepted his place in the record book of the team he rooted for as a kid.
“I was a huge fan of the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson, and Philip Rivers. All those guys. Antonio Gates,” he said. “And just to be here is a huge honor, and I’m thankful every day for it. We have another week of football, another week of opportunities, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.”
To list all he has accomplished could take days. To imagine all that he might still achieve is tantalizing.
“I remember my second year, I was still running down on special teams, trying to figure out how this NFL thing works,” said running back Austin Ekeler, who had 17 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown as well as three receptions for 54 yards in his return from the COVID list.
“He’s no different. He might have had a little bit more pressure put on him coming in early on but he’s young and he’s going to continue to grow and I’m looking forward to seeing that.”
Herbert’s success goes beyond his incredibly strong arm and his nimble legs. It comes from his heart and mind.
“He takes it personally, and I love it. I love how personally he takes just the success of the offense and of himself,” Ekeler said.
“I think that’s really going to help him out as long as he’s continuing to play. Just because he really, really cares. Really, really cares about the team doing well, about how other guys are feeling. That’s going to help him be a great leader, a great player. And then obviously on the field he’s been tremendous.”
On Sunday, Herbert had the patience and vision to find options when he had to.
“Just real quarterbacking against one of the top defenses in the league,” coach Brandon Staley said, singling out the 11-play drive Herbert capped with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Allen late in the second quarter.
“I think that the guy is improving as a player, in all aspects as a player. As a leader, I think this guy’s really finding his way within our team. The example, the impact that he has on our team, that he has on me, he really does a tremendous job of setting the example every single day and that’s very, very important within a football team, within an organization. I’m really proud of him and certainly happy for his record.”
Staley said putting Herbert’s feat in context of the Chargers’ history makes it all the more eye-opening.
“We’re talking about Dan Fouts, a Hall of Famer, you’re talking about Stan Humphries, you’re talking about Drew Brees, you’re talking about Philip Rivers. Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are going to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Stan Humphries is a Super Bowl quarterback,” Staley said. “If you think about the caliber of players that have played for this franchise, I think it says an awful lot. Justin has worked extremely hard to earn that record and it’s not a coincidence that these records are happening for him. It’s because of the type of person he is, the type of competitor that he is, and the type of player that he is.”
Herbert’s next game, against the Raiders, will present the biggest challenge of his young career.
He had little pressure last season, when the Chargers stumbled to a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs.
With a playoff berth on the line next weekend Herbert will have to rely on everything he has learned and experienced and take his education to another level.
“Everything is still in front of us. We believe in each other,” he said.
If that belief translates into a victory at Las Vegas, his legend and inscriptions in the Chargers’ record books surely will grow.