Justin Herbert must adjust to Chargers’ new philosophy that running is not passé

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert speaks at a media conference for the first time in months.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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No quarterback in NFL history has attempted more passes per game than Justin Herbert.

His 39.1 mark over the last four seasons edges Andrew Luck, with Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford next on the list.

Now, Herbert is playing for a head coach and offensive coordinator who, since their arrivals five months ago, have talked extensively about emphasizing the run game.


“Selfishly as a quarterback I’d love to throw the ball every time,” Herbert said Thursday. “But if we throw it one time or we throw it 100 times, as long as we’re winning and finding a way to do that, it’s good with me.”

After the Chargers wrapped up their three-day minicamp in Costa Mesa, Herbert met with the local media for the first time since the team brought in Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman.

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The new regime — including general manager Joe Hortiz — first reshaped the roster to try to become more powerful and physical. Roman then spent the several weeks introducing an offense designed to operate from the ground up.

The Chargers’ new additions include running backs Gus Edwards, who is known of his downhill approach, and J.K. Dobbins, whose explosiveness has resulted in per-carry career average of 5.8 yards.

“We don’t have pads on, so you can’t really feel the impact of the run game right now,” Herbert said. “But you can feel the juice. They’ve got energy. They bring it.”

The overall theme has been to establish a run-pass balance, a clear departure from how the Chargers have played offensively since Herbert took over as the starter in Week 2 of his rookie year.


“The way that we’ve installed everything,” Herbert said, “we want to be able to do everything.”

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Except for the Chargers’ Week 14 loss to Denver last season — when Herbert left the game early because of a finger injury — he has attempted at least 24 passes in each of his career starts.

Along the way, he set numerous franchise and league records and made the Pro Bowl in 2021. Herbert’s right arm has been celebrated as few others, Harbaugh just this week noting the velocity it can generate.

But the Chargers are only 30-32 in Herbert’s starts. They’ve played one postseason game with him at quarterback and are coming off a five-win finish that led to all the leadership changes.

So, it’s not difficult to believe Herbert when he says winning is more significant to him, even while joking that, when it comes to passing the ball, “the more the better.”

In his conversations with Roman, Herbert said the message has been to involve the playmakers, take care of the ball and — if the defense has a decided advantage or there is risk of a turnover — “punting is not the worst-case scenario.”


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The ultimate goal of the offense, Herbert explained, is to produce completions, explosive plays and touchdowns, but the Chargers aren’t going to simply force the passing game.

Harbaugh spent 14 years in the NFL as a player, starting games at quarterback for Chicago, Indianapolis, Baltimore and the Chargers. Herbert said his head coach brings “great perspective” each time he sits in the quarterback meetings.

Similarly, Harbaugh spent several minutes during two recent media sessions praising everything from Herbert’s physical skills to his mental capacity to his overall leadership.

“Nobody in this organization has played quarterback at the high level that he has,” Harbaugh said. “There’s an expertise there that has been extremely valuable.”

When the Chargers met on the field for the final time Thursday before breaking for the start of summer, Herbert was the player Harbaugh tabbed to address the group.

Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. (3) flips a football while watching practice.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Herbert said he spoke about the importance of not allowing the offseason-program work to go to waste. He said he encouraged his teammates to remain diligent in their preparation for training camp, which starts in late July.

“If we’re going to be the team we want to be, it starts now,” Herbert told reporters later. “It’s starts when we’re on our own and having that level of loyalty and dedication and integrity.”

Safety Derwin James Jr., another of the Chargers’ acknowledged leaders, also spoke publicly for the first time in months Thursday, saying the renewed atmosphere surrounding the team “feels like Christmas.”

James called Harbaugh “the most powerful leader I’ve seen” and highlighted his ability to command a room just by walking through the door. Like several of his teammates this offseason, James said the mood is different.

“Every year, you’re going to feel like you’re the team to beat, feel like you’re going to the Super Bowl,” James said. “But this year it just feels right. … I can’t wait to play ’cause I really believe it’s going to be special.”