Justin Herbert's critical third year: Why the Los Angeles Chargers' QB is ready for this moment

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The first of two joint practices with the Dallas Cowboys did not bode well for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Protection issues against the Cowboys’ defensive front stymied progress. Quarterback Justin Herbert took several sacks. Passes that should have been completed were not, and interceptions were thrown.

Following the most grueling workout of camp, most of Herbert’s teammates had already departed the practice facility on buses, while a few others lingered to visit with family and friends.

But there, in the far corner of the fields, long after the final whistle, remained Herbert, throwing pass after pass.

“He stays like an hour-and-a-half after practice just throwing balls,” receiver Keenan Allen said, amid a growing smile and chuckling. “It’s crazy.”

A quarterback throwing passes, what’s so wild about that?

“I don’t know,” Allen said, before making a comparison to Philip Rivers, the Chargers’ former quarterback of 16 seasons, including six with Allen. “Philip never stayed after practice to throw the ball. Philip put in the work, but this guy is out here like an hour-and-a-half after, just throwing the same route over and over and over. If there is not a spiral, he’ll just keep throwing the same one.”

For Herbert, there’s no throw count, no time limit, no real measurable that indicates that his post-practice work for the day is complete.

“It’s based on whatever happened that day,” he explained. “If there are a couple of throws during practice that maybe I missed or maybe I felt like I could have done better, after practice is the time to address those.”

The Chargers finished last season 9-8, third place in the AFC West, and missed the playoffs after losing three of their final four games, including a 35-32 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 18, when a tie would have sent them to the postseason.

A failure of a season, despite Herbert’s individual success.

So the attention returns to the franchise quarterback, Herbert -- the No. 6 overall pick in 2020, who is tasked with powering a star-packed roster not only to a second playoff appearance in nine seasons, but -- dare they whisper -- a Super Bowl run.

The post-practice work offers evidence of the burden Herbert carries into 2022, even if the quarterback himself downplays it.

“There is no pressure on us,” Herbert said. “The only pressure that you make is what you put on yourself.”

As a second-year pro, Herbert posted the third-best QBR in the NFL behind future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

On his way to his first Pro Bowl appearance, he became the first player in NFL history to pass for 30 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons. And that’s only where his record-setting numbers began.

Through the first two seasons of a career, Herbert has the most passing touchdowns (69), passing yards (9,350), completions (839) and total touchdowns (77) in NFL history. He reached 800 career completions by his 31st game, faster than any player in NFL history.

But personal milestones don’t mean much if you don’t advance to, and win in, the postseason -- a destination the Chargers haven’t visited since 2018, when Herbert was still an Oregon Duck.

That’s why the organization went all-in this offseason to bolster its defense, a unit that turned in an abysmal performance in 2021, and is expected to exponentially improve with the addition of All Pro outside linebacker Khalil Mack, Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson and run-stopper Sebastian Joseph-Day – all of whom join star edge Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James Jr.

Staley, now in his second season as coach, expressed confidence that Herbert can handle heightened expectations.

“He’s just so steady,” Staley said. “He’s a fierce competitor. His intangibles are by far his best quality, the head that he has on his shoulders. There is nobody’s standards that will ever, ever meet his own...”

“He has rare competitive stamina… It tells the organization that we better keep up with him.”

Entering his third season, and a second in offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s offense, teammates and coaches have noticed an ease about Herbert that he didn’t previously display.

“He’s just a lot looser than usual,” said receiver Mike Williams, who caught nine of Herbert’s 38 touchdown passes last season. “He’s kind of taken control and being himself.”

Herbert, who also had 15 passes intercepted last season, knows where the spots are on the field for his different receivers, according to Williams, and for their part, the receivers have a better understanding where they must be for him to get them the football.

“Everything is just running smoothly now,” Williams said.

Herbert is more present with each group on the team, including the offense, defense, and even an occasional stop by special teams. And with the coaching staff, he’s providing more input on time and score situations.

“He’s a lot more comfortable this year,” Lombardi said. “Probably experimenting a little bit out here with some throws, being a little more aggressive and testing the limits of things.”

Through training camp practices, Herbert has been more vocal. He directs traffic, asserts his knowledge, and corrects teammates when needed.

“He’s making calls now,” veteran center Corey Linsley said. “And he’s making adjustments and stuff. Last year, he was maybe a little hesitant.”

Herbert often deflects when asked to evaluate his own personal performance, and instead defers to the team’s progress. This training camp, he said, there’s an advantage continuing in the same offensive system.

“Going into this camp and having a year of film to look back on and study and go through, is so helpful,” said Herbert, who spent his rookie season of 2020 under former head coach Anthony Lynn, who was fired in January 2021, and former offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, who called plays and is now the Eagles offensive coordinator.

“We’re miles ahead of where we were at this point last year.”