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New Chargers coordinator Joe Lombardi looks to build offense around Justin Herbert

New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, right, laughs with offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael
New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, right, laughs during practice Sept. 2. Lombardi was introduced Tuesday as the Chargers offensive coordinator.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

His first shot as an NFL offensive coordinator lasted 23 games.

Joe Lombardi now has a second chance and plans to apply a lesson learned in 2014-15.

“Just having the flexibility to adjust a little bit better maybe than we did back then,” he said Tuesday in a videoconference. “That’s the biggest thing, just the flexibility to adjust as things aren’t like you’re used to them being.”

Lombardi, 49, was hired this week by new coach Brandon Staley to oversee a Chargers offense that features one of the NFL’s bright young quarterbacks in Justin Herbert.

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Seven years ago, he joined Jim Caldwell’s staff in Detroit for a tenure that turned out to be rocky and failed to meet expectations. Lombardi was fired seven games into the 2015 season.

He had spent the previous seven years with New Orleans, first as an offensive assistant and then as quarterbacks coach. Lombardi suggested Tuesday that he had become too rutted in the Saints’ way of operating.

His two Lions teams had a difficult time running the ball and in pass protection, which led to Matthew Stafford struggling despite the presence of receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

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After being dismissed by Caldwell, Lombardi returned to New Orleans, where he spent five more seasons as quarterbacks coach before the Chargers called.

Now, he’s in a position where, like Staley last week, he’s touting the idea of building a scheme around Herbert rather than forcing the quarterback into a predetermined system.

“I’m comfortable with whatever our guys are good at,” Lombardi said. “Man, if it’s something the quarterback thrives in, then that’s what we’re going to want to do.”

For Herbert, Lombardi explained that could mean more up-tempo and no-huddle next season. The Chargers tried both this season but with no sustained commitment.

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In college, Herbert flourished in an offense that never huddled and operated almost exclusively from the shotgun. Lombardi said he will go back to Herbert’s days at Oregon to tap into what the 22-year-old does best.

“He’s got a skill set that is elite,” Lombardi said. “It appears there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s got an incredibly strong arm, good accuracy. He’s very athletic. Sounds like he’s a real smart guy that’s a good leader.”

Along with directing the Chargers’ offense, Lombardi is expected to continue developing Herbert after a season that made him the favorite for the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award.

Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi looks on with quarterback Dan Orlovsky
Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi looks on with quarterback Dan Orlovsky during a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 11, 2015.
(Payul Sancya / Associated Press)
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Having spent 12 of the previous 14 years working with Drew Brees, Lombardi said the future Hall of Famer’s commitment to detail and exhaustive preparation are two qualities be can pass along to Herbert.

He said that in New Orleans, Brees’ influence could be seen in the Saints’ other quarterbacks, specifically how they followed his example. He called Brees’ traits “coachable.”

Lombardi’s familiarity with Herbert dates to preparation for last year’s draft. He said he began paying closer attention during the season as Herbert gained league-wide exposure by the week.

The Chargers lost to Saints in mid-October, 30-27, in overtime. Herbert finished 20 for 34 for 264 yards and four touchdowns, an effort Lombardi noticed even as he was more focused on Brees.

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“I’ve seen enough to know I’ve got no questions about his abilities,” Lombardi said. “If you lined up all the quarterback skill sets in the NFL, he’d be at the very top with a couple guys.”

After a season in which the Chargers offense on occasion lacked aggressiveness, Lombardi said that although game situations sometimes dictate otherwise, he leans toward leaving the offense on the field if there’s an opportunity.

“I always say, ‘What would I want if I’m on the other sidelines?’ ” Lombardi said. “I always feel like when a team’s going for it on fourth down [it’s] like, ‘I wish they were just punting it.’ So, yeah, I’m a big fan of going for it on fourth down.”

Through his foundation, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is helping to build a new gym at Santa Barbara High School.

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Lombardi said he was drawn to the Chargers’ job mostly because of his relationship with Staley. In 2005, both were at Mercyhurst University, Lombardi as offensive coordinator and Staley as quarterback.

He also said he is not surprised Staley received a head coaching job after only four seasons in the NFL. Lombardi recalled a conversation the two had a few years ago about Staley making it to the league as a coach.

“I said, ‘Look, you’ll get your chance, and I bet you you’ll be a head coach in five years,’ ” Lombardi said, smiling. “Pretty sure I called that one a long time ago.”


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