Column: Can Justin Herbert’s promise outweigh Chargers’ beleaguered past? They appear armed
It’s not his fault.
Justin Herbert is beyond reproach at this stage of his career, his individual achievements sparing him from blame of the Chargers’ collective failures.
The inability of the Chargers to reach the playoffs in their franchise quarterback’s rookie season?
That wasn’t on Herbert.
The team falling short of the playoffs again last year?
That wasn’t on Herbert either.
For a franchise considered cursed, the Chargers have incredible consistency at quarterback, with third-year pro Justin Herbert poised for greatness.
Nor should it have been, Herbert the primary source of optimism of why the Chargers could break the curse that has haunted them for the majority of their existence.
He’s Pete Maravich on the New Orleans Jazz.
In other words, he’s pretty much everyone who has ever played quarterback for the Chargers, from Dan Fouts to Philip Rivers.
Herbert, 24, is entering just his third NFL season. The promise of his future still outweighs the disappointment of the Chargers’ wretched past.
But there will be a point at which he will be viewed through the prism of the team’s record. Herbert’s predecessor, Rivers, lived this, defined as much by the games he didn’t win as the ones he did.
“He stays like an hour and a half after practice just throwing balls. It’s crazy.”
— Keenan Allen, Chargers wide receiver, on quarterback Justin Herbert
This was also Matthew Stafford’s story, the quarterback’s spectacular passing numbers overshadowed by the Detroit Lions’ equally spectacular failures. The debate over whether he was a victim of the Lions’ ineptitude or part of the problem was settled in a single season with the Rams, whom he led to a Super Bowl championship last season.
Shortly after Stafford won the first postseason game of his career, coach Sean McVay said, “It’s good so you guys don’t have to talk about that anymore, so you can get that one out of the way.”
Herbert is in position to avoid such talk from starting, the Chargers taking advantage of their quarterback being on a rookie contract to load up a defense that let them down last season.
In the third year of a four- year, $26.5-million contract, Herbert remains a relative bargain. He will count about $7 million toward the salary cap, which is substantially less than, say, Patrick Mahomes’ cap number of $35 million.
The Chargers used their financial flexibility to acquire edge rusher Khalil Mack, run stopper Sebastian Joseph-Day and cornerback J.C. Jackson. (Jackson is recovering from a preseason ankle procedure and might not be ready for the opener.)
Chargers coach Brandon Staley was scouting school in Florida when he first saw the legendary Sony Michel, an eighth-grader playing on the varsity squad.
The Rams made a similar push in 2018 when Jared Goff was in the third year of his rookie contract. They reached the Super Bowl, where they fell to the New England Patriots.
“I’m really excited for this team,” Herbert said. “I think we are miles ahead of where we were at this point last year.”
While the defense is expected to improve because of the additions, the offense is counted on to do the same because of Herbert’s increased comfort with Joe Lombardi’s scheme. Last year, in his first season running Lombardi’s offense, Herbert registered the league’s third-highest quarterback rating, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.
“It’s not like he was uncomfortable last year,” Lombardi said. “That anxiety [last year] really happened in the spring, and a little bit during training camp, and by the time you zero in on a game plan, he works so hard at it that by game day, you felt that he was comfortable. I just think that process will be faster this year.”
The Chargers are as enamored with Herbert’s mental makeup as they are with his athleticism. He’s a perfectionist who’s also unafraid to make mistakes.
The Chargers’ defense cost them a shot at the playoffs last season, so they rebuilt and adding Khalil Mack opposite Joey Bosa made a drastic improvement.
“I always tell myself that I made it further than I ever thought I was going to,” Herbert said. “At this point, if I just do my best, I can’t complain. I go out there and if I work as hard as I can on every single rep and I go after practice, I can fail and I can still be proud of myself.
“To have that mindset and knowing that I’m not going to be perfect, I’m going to throw interceptions, I’m going to throw incompletions unfortunately, but it’s all about bouncing back and doing your best. If I can have that mentality going into each week, I know that I’ll get my best and I’ll give everything that I have for this team.”
The mindset often results in Herbert throwing to a receiver or two on the practice fields while most of the other players have retreated to the locker room.
“You see him,” receiver Keenan Allen said. “He stays like an hour and a half after practice just throwing balls. It’s crazy.”
Allen laughed, adding that Rivers never stayed after practice to throw when he was the Chargers’ quarterback.
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“Philip put in work, but this guy is out here like an hour and a half, just throwing the same route over and over and over. If there is not a spiral, he’ll just keep throwing the same one,” Allen said.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley is hopeful that Herbert’s work habits will contribute to the change in culture the coach has tried to inspire.
“It sets the tone because he has rare competitive stamina,” Staley said. “It tells the organization that we better keep up with him, and that’s a good thing.”
Not only for the Chargers, but for Herbert as well.
Ultimately, Herbert’s reputation could be decided by whether they can keep up with him.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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