Justin Herbert's long-ball skills already paying dividends for the Chargers

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Sometime between the fifth and sixth grades is when Los Angeles Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert realized he had an arm.

"For throwing," he said.

It came naturally from playing basketball, baseball and football. "I didn't really have time in the offseason to work with a quarterbacks coach," or any coach, really, is what he says.

So all of you out there hiring specialized coaches for your sons or daughters -- stop. They either have it or they don't.

Herbert, as we now know through the first five starts of his NFL career, clearly has it. And it's best displayed when he's throwing the deep ball, something he's shown a natural ability to connect on in those first five starts.

The No. 6 overall pick and third quarterback chosen in April's NFL draft, Herbert has thrown for 1,542 yards and 12 touchdowns on 124-for-184 passing (67.4%). And of those 12 touchdown passes, four have been for 53 yards or longer. But while the NFL world is discovering that talent now, Herbert has known about it for a while.

"Probably fifth or sixth grade" is when Herbert said he knew it was there.

We saw it on display during his pro day in Eugene, Oregon, when, flat-footed, the University of Oregon product heaved the ball 62 yards down the field. And it was clear when we saw him at the NFL scouting combine, as he was the only one of the top three quarterback prospects in the draft to actually throw.

He threw for more than 3,100 yards in each of his final two seasons at Oregon -- passing for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior in 2018 and 3,471 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior in 2019 after coaches told him, finally, to air it out.

The experts figured Herbert would be a good NFL quarterback, but few believed he'd be this good this soon. Or even playing. Yet there he was, a minute before kickoff in the second game (because of an errant painkilling injection to the projected starter, Tyrod Taylor), being thrown into the mix. Herbert says now he wished he had known so he could get a few more reps in practice with the starters.

Once he did, he showed some of the long-ball magic we witnessed in Eugene and Indianapolis at the combine. Prior to that, NFL analyst Chris Simms had watched him and predicted that if Herbert threw the deep ball, NFL defenses would have trouble with it.

They have.

Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4, Herbert launched a beautiful 72-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Guyton, helping put Tom Brady & Co. on the ropes.

This was after a 53-yard TD pass to Tyron Johnson in the first half, a half in which the Chargers jumped out to a 24-7 lead.

Against the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football a week later, Herbert broke the Chargers out of a two-quarter scoring drought with a 64-yard TD pass to Mike Williams, giving them the lead late in the fourth quarter. It was Herbert's fourth touchdown pass of the game, setting a rookie Monday Night Football record.

The Chargers were down 29-22 to the Jacksonville Jaguars this past Sunday when he did it again, launching a 70-yard touchdown strike to Guyton to tie the game 29-29. The Chargers dominated from that point on to win 39-29 and break a four-game losing streak.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when Herbert will hit it big deep. He is liable, even likely, to strike when you least expect it.

"It's a lot of fun," Herbert said about throwing a 70-yard pass. "Especially when the guy catches it. Makes it really special."

Guyton said he doesn't really think about anything when the ball is in the air, except, "touchdown, touchdown." And as nervous as Chargers coach Anthony Lynn might be when a Herbert rainbow is sailing over his head, he said, "they're paid to catch it." So it could be as simple as Herbert putting the ball in the right place for plays to be made.

Offensive coordinator Shane Steichen says most of the playbook has been put in the system, but that Herbert gets better every week on improvising.

"I've got a lot to learn still," Herbert said.

But one thing Herbert has learned is how to throw a pretty deep ball. He works on it every day and has been doing so since fifth grade, no matter the sport.

"But football has to be my favorite," he said.

That's becoming a very good thing for Chargers fans.