Column: Chargers’ Justin Herbert might seem unassuming, but his skills are superlative
His lips twitched, as if he were trying to contain a smile.
He continued like this for a couple of minutes until he was presented with what he considered to be an appropriate reason to smile from ear to ear, as someone mentioned the Ohio State’s upset loss the previous day to his alma mater, Oregon.
“I actually got updates on the plane,” he said.
Beaming, he ran his right index finger across the tip of his nose.
“Just seeing the score and seeing those guys battle, super proud of them,” he said.
It wasn’t a perfect start to the season for the Chargers, but they responded to earn rookie coach Brandon Staley his first victory, a 20-16 road win over Washington.
The next question was whether Sunday marked the first time Herbert had won a NFL game with his father in the stands. The smile disappeared.
Herbert’s reserved demeanor failed to conceal what was obvious to everyone at FedEx Field: The Chargers have a Super Bowl quarterback.
Not in a year, not in two.
The experience he gained in a record-breaking-but-nonetheless-frustrating rookie year had helped him lead the greatest drive of his career, against a team that reached the postseason last year and boasted of one of the league’s most ferocious defenses.
The 15-play sequence that marked his coming of age wasn’t punctuated with a last-second touchdown or field goal. Instead, it ended with an understated move that mirrored his personality.
Herbert dropped to a knee.
Don’t be deceived by the unspectacular final play. What led up to it was the stuff of legends.
The Chargers regained the ball with six minutes 43 seconds at their 18 and Herbert converted four third-down throws over the next 15 plays, ensuring they had possession when the game clock expired.
There were moments such as this in Herbert’s record-breaking rookie season last year, as the Chargers won their last four games, three by three-point margins.
But he never had a drive like this.
On third-and-16 from the Chargers 12, he fired a 17-yard strike to Allen. Three plays later, he connected with KJ Hill over the middle of the field. Three plays after that, with the Chargers lined up on the right hash mark, Herbert threw across his body and found Mike Williams near the left sideline for a 20-yard gain.
The pass that sealed the victory went to Allen, who caught a short slant at the Washington seven with 1:50 remaining.
Herbert kneeled three times and the game was over.
Herbert was later presented with a game ball by rookie coach Brandon Staley, who said in the stadium’s crowded visiting locker room, “That last drive, he was cash money. We all know how cool he is.”
The footage of the ceremony was uploaded by the Chargers to their social media accounts.
The last drive was a microcosm of the game, the Chargers converting 14 of 19 third downs.
Herbert completed 31 of 47 passes for 337 yards. He committed two turnovers, one on a very questionable fumble call and another on an interception early in the fourth quarter.
The way he responded to the interception, however, demonstrated his growth over the last year. The Chargers defense forced and recovered a fumble on the next play. Herbert made the most of the opportunity, throwing a three-yard touchdown pass to Williams that moved his team back in front, 20-16.
Brandon Staley’s first win as an NFL coach Sunday came on the birthday of his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2004.
Herbert looked like a championship quarterback. He played like a championship quarterback. He is a championship quarterback. The question that remains is whether the Chargers are a championship team.
The Chargers didn’t defend well against the run. Joey Bosa was flagged for a couple of times for roughing the passer. And there were some dropped throws by receivers, which is in part why they had to hold on to win a game in which they outgained their opponents, 424 yards to 259.
“I felt like if we didn’t have the drops in this football game, this guy throwing the football would have had a spectacular day,” Staley said.
But Staley mentioned how Herbert energizes the team by how he reacts to others’ mistakes.
“He ignites you when you have a drop,” Staley said.
Staley pointed to how Williams dropped a pass in the end zone in the third quarter.
“He kept going back to Mike and Mike ended up making a bunch of big plays for us,” Staley said.
Chargers’ 20-16 victory over Washington by the numbers. Chargers, Washington individual statistics.
Herbert is a leader.
The postgame celebration in the locker room offered another example. When Staley flipped games balls to safety Derwin James and Allen, he was ready to call the group together for one final huddle.
“Hold up,” Herbert said. “We got one more.”
Herbert handed a ball to Staley, who won his first game as a NFL head coach.
As players shouted, Staley raised the ball over his head. Herbert retreated out of focus.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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