'A silent killer with great hair': How Justin Herbert helped turn the L.A. Chargers around

THE FOOTBALL LEAVES Justin Herbert's hand and appears to travel downhill, nose down, a plane forever on approach. It rotates through the air roughly 12½ times per second, the laces spinning vertiginously into a white fuzz. A football released by Herbert's right hand and powered by his right arm has always been more than a mere object. Its path, a straight line for longer than seems possible, sends a message of hope and expectation -- for him, for his teammates, for those who run the Los Angeles Chargers. His receivers call it a heavy ball, but they're describing it solely in the literal sense. Its figurative weight can be measured only by the man who throws it.

On its own, stripped of its greater significance, the arm is a marvel. During a Friday practice more than a month ago, two days before the Chargers played the Miami Dolphins on a Sunday night, Herbert rolled about 15 yards to his right, planted his back foot, turned his hips and sent a spiral more than 60 yards to the opposite corner of the field.

After the ball landed in receiver Mike Williams' hands, muffled and polite applause sifted its way through the team. And after practice, standing at his locker next to Herbert's, third-string quarterback Easton Stick describes the throw just so he can get to the part about the applause.

"Everyone goes 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" Stick says, rolling his eyes and tapping the fingertips of his right hand into the palm of his left, an exaggerated, patronizing version of a golf clap. "But: No, no, no." Stick's got his right hand in the air now, like a traffic cop. "I wanted to stop practice and scream, 'Guys, that's not normal. Like, really not normal."

Roughly 54 hours after the throw on the practice field and roughly 56 hours after Stick's awed description, on Sunday night of Week 14 in a season-defining game against the Dolphins, in a game against a quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa) chosen one spot ahead of him in the first round of the 2020 draft, Herbert rolled about 15 yards to the right, side-stepped a rusher, planted his feet at his own 22-yard line and threw across his body to hit Williams near the opposite sideline at the Dolphins' 21. It was the same exact pass Stick described two days before: more than 60 yards in the air, never seeming to climb higher than 15 feet off the ground, plausible for perhaps four of the 7.8 billion inhabitants of the planet.

This is nothing new. Herbert has always been great at this throwing business. He was 7 when he entered his first all-comers track meet in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, where his grandfather was a track coach. There was no discus or shot put for 7-year-olds, so Justin competed in the softball throw. From one week to the next, he kept throwing and winning until that arm carried him all the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he competed in a national meet. That arm has continued to carry him, to stardom at Sheldon High School in Eugene to the University of Oregon and now to Los Angeles.

Despite the arm -- or maybe because of it, and its near flawlessness -- the focus always seemed to shift to Herbert's personality. NFL evaluators, paid to hunt weakness, wondered if his introverted nature would translate to a professional huddle and all the attendant demands the position requires. John Elway was once asked what was harder, doing the job or having the job? Having it, he said without hesitation. It was obvious Herbert could do the job, but could he have it?

Through his first two seasons in Los Angeles, the arm sustained him. "The throws he makes are not normal," says backup quarterback Chase Daniel, in his 13th year in the NFL. "I've been a lot of places, seen a lot of things and I'm here to tell you: That stuff ain't normal."

There were so many throws this season -- 699 attempts, 477 completions, 4,739 yards, 25 touchdowns. Many of them were made when his team needed them most, during the Chargers' stretch of four wins in their final five games, putting them in the playoffs -- a five seed, they play at the fourth-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday in the AFC wild-card round -- for the first time since 2018 and third time in 13 seasons. There was an 11-yard rollout touchdown pass against Miami that blithely ignored four Dolphin defenders on its way to Williams at the back of the end zone; the sidearm throw to Gerald Everett in Week 16 that skimmed the left armpit of Colts' defensive tackle DeForest Buckner; the game- and possibly season-saving dart he threw 35 yards on a straight line off a dead sprint to Williams to set up a game-winning, last-second field goal to beat the Tennessee Titans in Week 15.

But the ball, spinning kaleidoscopically through the air toward the waiting arms of a Chargers' receiver, carries its own secret. This ball has always been the easy part.

IT WAS EARLY December, the Chargers were 6-6, injured and average, coming off a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. The fate of their second-year coach, Brandon Staley, became a topic. Herbert's season -- maybe even his career -- was beginning to look like a collection of impressive but empty statistics.

He was, unquestionably, doing the job, but he came across as almost intentionally enigmatic. Uneasy in the public eye or in front of a microphone, Herbert became a vessel into which any and all theories could be deposited. In his weekly news conferences with the relatively small Charger media contingent, his motto seems to be: Speak quickly and say little. In his third season with the team, he remained just out of reach.

The Week 14 win over the Dolphins initiated an unlikely stretch for the Chargers. Herbert benefited from his top receivers, Keenan Allen and Williams, returning from injury. The offensive line, spackled together most of the season, got healthier as well. The win over the Dolphins was followed by wins over the Titans, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams, a winning streak that earned the Chargers the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs.

How did yet another textbook Charger season -- overpromised, underdelivered -- turn into this something both unexpected and uplifting? Like everything in the NFL, the rules state it must begin with the quarterback. It's the most scrutinized position in sports, and its practitioners -- especially ones as talented at Herbert -- are expected to be vocal and motivational and even promotional. On a team fighting for traction in a saturated market, he is expected to be the face of a franchise that desperately needs one. But those rules are unenforceable and theoretical, applicable to whomever wants to adopt them. Herbert doesn't build the roads, he just drives on them.

Given that, is it heartening or disappointing to discover there was no Hollywood moment? Herbert's numbers were, for him, more of the same; over the four-game winning streak he completed 74% of his passes and averaged 281 yards passing. His teammates, some of them apologizing for the mundaneness of it all, praised him for his steadiness and attention to detail, the same qualities they've seen since he arrived.

"He's not an ego guy," says offensive tackle Trey Pipkins III. "He's not a big media-look-at-me guy. There's a balance; you want to be confident, but you don't want to be the guy who's always looking for the camera."

I began four conversations with his teammates by telling them I was there to figure out their quarterback, and each of the four responded with the same two words: Good luck. When I ask receiver DeAndre Carter, one of the well-wishers, if he has decoded the mystery of his quarterback, he laughs and says, "I have not. I have not." His words are delivered with a smile, in a good-natured tone that signifies a certain respect, an acknowledgment that if he -- a man who occupies a locker less than 15 feet away from Herbert's -- is not able to figure him out, there's no hope for an outsider.

"I don't even think Justin hates attention," Stick says. "It might come off that way, but I don't know if that's really the word for it. A lot of guys enjoy a lot of the stuff that comes with that position; he just doesn't enjoy it as much. He wants to play football and hang out in the locker room and be with the guys."

Stick stops and points a finger first at himself and then at me. "But this stuff right here?" he says. "Probably not. Definitely not in this setting."

Herbert is stubbornly unwilling to speak about himself. He can turn any question intended to elicit a personal response -- questions tailored to him and only him -- into an answer that somehow includes everybody but him. Linguistically, it's feels like a form of performance art, but in other ways it can feel almost hardwired. Questions as inconsequential as, "What do you have to do to be better this week?" are dexterously turned into answers that begin, "We need to ..." or "As a team ..." After the Chargers beat the Rams to clinch a playoff berth and win their fourth straight, I asked Herbert what he learned about himself over that stretch. "As a team," he said, "the word toughness comes to mind." When I pressed him, he said, "My most important job is to put the team in a position to win." He is not Justin Herbert, star quarterback. He is Justin Herbert, member of the Los Angeles Chargers.

He is the lowest-profile guy in the highest-profile job, a star quarterback with the mentality of a backup offensive lineman. He has asked that he not be announced with the rest of his Chargers' offensive teammates during pregame introductions at home games, preferring to run onto the field as just another guy in a uniform. Because this wish is not granted -- anonymity, after all, is not consistent with the face of a franchise seeking traction in a packed market -- he runs from the tunnel onto the SoFi Stadium field with his head down and his thoughts to himself, as if the noise has nothing to do with him.

Whenever the team presents him with a game ball, he tries to turn it down. "He's like, 'No. No. No,'" defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko says. "We've told him, 'Justin, you've got to stop being so modest.' He's like, 'No, man.' If told him, 'Man, I can't believe that sidearm throw you made against Indy,' and he said, 'It was only possible because you guys stopped them on defense.' He's just too nice, and he doesn't like being in the spotlight. He's the same with us as with everyone else. What you see is what he gives us. It's not a show or a façade. He's a humble, silent killer with great hair."

Herbert is uncommonly fastidious and conscientious, traits that are quickly becoming legendary. (In the summer of 2021, former Chargers teammate Gabe Nabers said he saw Herbert's temper flare once, when Nabers failed to return a shopping cart to its rightful place). After a recent road game, he was among the last to leave the locker room in part because he needed to find a member of the equipment staff to ask where he should leave his used towels. It didn't matter to him that every one of his teammates had left their towels where they always leave them: on the floor in front of their lockers, for the staff to pick up and toss into rolling carts. He carried his towels to the cart himself.

"That doesn't surprise me at all," says Justin's older brother Mitch, a third-year medical student at Columbia who played tight end at Montana State. "He's going to do the right thing when no one's watching."

It's a Friday afternoon tradition -- and something of a running joke -- in the Chargers' locker room for the equipment staff to walk around the room and remind players to pack their bags for that weekend's game. It's a joke because almost nobody ever does it -- they simply put their gear and their bags in front of their lockers, unzipped, and let the equipment crew round it up. Herbert, however, is the one who necessitates the almost: He dutifully packs his bag, zips it closed and carries it to the equipment room.

Whenever Mitch and youngest brother Patrick, a tight end at Oregon, travel to Justin's games, they joke about how much they want the Chargers to win so Justin is more fun to be around. If he has a bad game or the Chargers lose, his parents and brothers text him knowing they're unlikely to hear back for two or three days.

"I wouldn't say we worry about him," Mitch says. "I think we've just accepted it at this point, and over the last couple of years he's gotten better about being more comfortable in his own skin. I think it's a healthy obsession, and I think anyone who's been around him -- teammates, coaches -- would agree. He's just ultracompetitive and ultra-focused. It's all about limiting distractions, and I think that goes along with the way he deals with the media. If he doesn't say anything wrong or controversial, he can concentrate on what's important to him."

Again, nothing new. The three brothers were home together in Eugene with Justin between the NFL combine and the 2020 draft. Justin had work to do, so the three of them would go to their high school or a neighborhood park so Justin could run through specific route trees. He would position his brothers on the field and go through his progressions. If a pass wasn't a perfectly precise spiral delivered in the perfectly precise spot, he would do it over. Mitch and Patrick would trade glances -- get a load of Mr. Perfect -- but they knew they couldn't leave until every pass met their brother's exacting standard.

"It would have been so easy for him to just go through the motions," Mitch says. "We were basically in our backyard. Nobody knew what he was doing. But he's a perfectionist."

HE'S TRYING. GIVE him that.

The run that put the Chargers in the playoffs might have lacked high drama, but something unexpected did happen. Staring down a season that could go either way -- the exact situation many believed he couldn't handle -- a different Herbert began to emerge. His Friday news conferences became more engaging. He cracked jokes, at one point responding to a question about whether he was aware of being one away from setting an NFL record for most touchdown passes in the first three seasons by saying, "Now ... that's something I'm aware of now." He might have even relaxed. He began showing up with some other offensive players at the defense's Friday night dinner. He shocked his teammates three times during the pivotal Sunday night win over the Dolphins, first by signaling for a first down after scrambling to convert a first down, second by spiking an NBC-bestowed game ball in the locker room (he promptly apologized if anyone at the network believed he was disrespecting it or the ball) and third by delivering a short but rousing postgame speech, the first of his career. "Pretty cool to see Justin coming out of his routine," running back Austin Ekeler said. It wasn't so much what he said -- nobody reported anything memorable -- but the fact that he said it. Staley, asked afterward for his interpretation of Herbert's intentions, said, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "I'm not going to interpret what Justin is feeling. I'm going to let him interpret his feelings for you guys, and I'm sure that will be a fun process."

As he deflects question after question, Herbert professes that winning -- as a team, not as a quarterback -- is his sole motivation. And, well, this was his chance to prove it. His teammates dismiss the idea that he knows success in the playoffs is a requirement for entry into the QB VIP room along with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow. "He's not the type of guy to worry about whether people are putting him in conversations with certain other guys," Pipkins says. Maybe, but being ultracompetitive would seem to entail a devotion to competition in all its forms.

"He's definitely introverted," Mitch Herbert says. "You see the rah-rah type leaders, and that's what people think is the face of leadership. They think you have to be in someone's face, do the pregame speech. The can-he-lead-a-team thing was unfair. Anyone who ever played with him or coached Justin thought that was ridiculous. He's true to himself."

Against Tennessee, after the Titans scored a game-tying touchdown with 51 seconds left in a game the Chargers had to win, Herbert stormed up and down the sideline, Brady-like, telling his teammates they were being given the only chance they needed. Forty-three seconds later, Cameron Dicker kicked a game-winning field goal.

"The difference I see is just maturity," Fehoko says. "It's weird to say, since he's a three-year starter, but it's how he's grown as a man off the field. He's finding ways to uplift guys around him, doing more of what we didn't have the past two years. He was just so quiet. He's still quiet -- he's one of the most reserved guys on the team -- but he's showing more emotion, and that stuff gets us going. I think he's starting to see that."

There's a lot going on. For every position but one, football is a grand exercise in overcomplication. But a quarterback's preparation is consuming: different game plans each week, different pressures, different coverage disguises. They have to see everything before it happens, and even if they're right there's still the biggest part of the job: making the plays work. It's why, in advance of his brother's first playoff game, Mitch says, "We won't hear from Justin this week."

"I've got to come to accept that there's more to this job than just playing football," Justin says, "and that's something I'm continuing to work on. I still have plenty of room for improvement, but my responsibility is to my team and the Chargers organization, and my first priority is always football."

Asked if he is getting more comfortable with the ancillary requirements of the job, he says, "I'm trying to. I just don't like talking about myself. I was the middle of three brothers -- they got a lot of attention and I kind of got picked on. I deserved it, but having those brothers kind of pushed me to become a better human. My older brother [Mitch] did everything right: great grades, incredible athlete, just a great human being. I tried to live up to that."

He is 24 years old and famous in a city that defines it. He's incredibly wealthy, 6-foot-6, handsome and playing the most glamorous position in sports. And yet he seems to navigate the world in a state of uncomfortable self-consciousness, keenly aware of every eye that lands on him.

"Yeah," he says. "I feel like I've gotten better at that."

THE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN will be watching film of practice, ostensibly for their own improvement, but inevitably something will catch their eye. It's a constant reminder that they miss so much; heads down, legs pumping, the best parts of the game taking place outside their field of vision. So someone will interrupt. "What was that? Run that back." So they do, and this room full of massive humans will sit back, shake their heads and laugh at the ball spinning through the air. "If you watch some of the throws," Pipkins says, "it's just absurd."

The question would be ridiculous in any other context, but somehow pertinent in this one: Does Herbert understand what everybody else sees?

"I don't know," Pipkins says. "And that's his thing: He wouldn't tell you if he did or he didn't."

Whether he knows it or not, whether the world knows it or not, the ball still spins, farther on a line than anyone thought possible. It tears almost violently through the air, providing the only validation needed. Linemen point at a screen. Wait -- run that back. Quarterbacks watch from behind him and suppress the temptation to make a scene. Guys -- that's not normal. Broadcasters gush and coaches swoon. The stage will only get bigger, but none of it matters.

Its nose forever down, the ball's apparent lightness belies everything it carries with it: promise, expectations, demands. It continues along its way -- at 12½ rotations per second -- to wherever it will take him. Each throw is a marvel to everyone except the man who creates it. He stands back, unimpressed, perhaps knowing this ball -- this gift -- has the power to take him places he isn't entirely sure he wants to go.

Additional reporting by ESPN Los Angeles Chargers reporter Lindsey Thiry.