Here’s what’s not new with Chargers offense: All starts with Justin Herbert
They often were the only ones on the field, each morning of training camp, working long before most of the rest of the Chargers would arrive.
Justin Herbert and Shane Day — quarterback and quarterbacks coach — going through the script of that day’s plays. The footwork. The routes. The progressions. Herbert visualizing each rep.
Day called the exercise “a critical step” in Herbert’s mastering of the new offense, making it also critical to the Chargers’ chances of success in 2021.
“His desire to be great, how hard he works at it, has been the most fun part of this,” Day said. “As a coach, you’re always trying to find players who match your love and passion for the game. Justin really does that.”
Herbert was a record-setting, award-winning, highlight-generating rookie last season, playing behind a leaky offensive line and without a reliable run game.
Now, he has a fresh scheme, a new coordinator and a rebuilt line that — given good health — promises more help from Day 1 than Herbert had at any point in 2020.
The Brandon Staley era kicks off for the Chargers on Sunday. The coach is optimistic Austin Ekeler, bothered by a hamstring injury, will be able to play.
“Where he was last year is not going to be where he is this year,” coach Brandon Staley said. “He is going to be in a much better place because he has worked a lot harder. He has experienced a lot more, and he’s capable of more because of those things, because of all that he has put into his game.”
Staley was hired in January to replace the fired Anthony Lynn. He turned to Joe Lombardi, one of his former college coaches and a longtime assistant with New Orleans, to oversee the offense.
The new system will feature a variety of rotating personnel groupings and emphasize an up-tempo pace, allowing Herbert to operate off a menu of play options at the line of scrimmage.
Chase Daniel, one of Herbert’s backups, spent four seasons with Lombardi and the Saints and understands the details of operating a rather nuanced scheme.
“It’s a lot of work for a quarterback,” Daniel said. “You literally have to know every single bit in the run game, in the pass game, play-action game, screen game, all of it. So Justin’s been studying his butt off.”
“I mean, he’s pretty special. He can throw just about every ball on the football field.”
— Backup quarterback Chase Daniel on Justin Herbert
The new coaching staff understands what it has in Herbert — an intelligent, ultra-gifted quarterback with the mentality of a grinder and the respect of the entire building.
So Staley and Lombardi are willing to lean on Herbert — along with All-Pro center Corey Linsley, an offseason free-agent addition — and place in his hands the Chargers’ offensive fate.
Staley called Herbert and Linsley a “power source in the middle” of the offense and likened their collective potential to what Linsley had in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers.
“This guy we have here [No.] 10, I mean, he’s pretty special,” Daniel said. “He can throw just about every ball on the football field.”
Here’s how every team in the AFC is set to finish over the course of the 2021 NFL season.
Said wide receiver Keenan Allen of Herbert’s limits, “I don’t think he has a ceiling.”
When the Chargers open Sunday at Washington, their new system finally will be unveiled. Herbert and most of the offensive starters did not play in the preseason, their best work coming in two joint practices with San Francisco.
The debut figures to be an interesting one, a unit with a lot of moving parts trying to find its way on the road and against what is expected to be one of the NFL’s premiere defensive fronts.
Lombardi explained that after Herbert and the five offensive linemen, the Chargers have five spots that can be completely switched or just tweaked on each play.
“We’ve got more than five other good players,” he said. “So getting those guys in and out, doing the things that they do best and doing it at a fast pace is something that keeps defenses on its heels.”
The Chargers typically will operate quickly, the idea being to get to the line of scrimmage before the opposition can properly adjust. The pace can stress a defense and present potential mismatches.
The system worked well in New Orleans under the direction of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, a quarterback recognized as one of the NFL’s all-time great processors of information.
The Chargers have the golden arm of Justin Herbert to ignite their offense, but rookie coach Brandon Staley needs many others to step their games to qualify for the playoffs.
Lombardi, though, struggled in his only previous stint as an offensive coordinator. He lasted just a season and a half in Detroit before being fired in October 2015.
With the Lions, he had Matthew Stafford as his quarterback. Stafford made the Pro Bowl in Lombardi’s first season there before things unraveled quickly the next year.
Now Lombardi is armed with a fresh start and with Herbert, a quarterback he called “a perfectionist.”
“You can see why he was so successful last year,” Lombardi said. “He wants to be great and he wants to do everything perfectly. I’m excited to keep moving forward in the process with him.”
While it’s not possible for the Chargers’ new offense to be perfect, Lombardi and Herbert will settle for it being productive.
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