With a new NFL season right around the corner, all 32 teams are looking to start the year on the right foot. And while no individual player or front office member can completely shape an NFL team, duos are becoming increasingly important. From the college stars being reunited in the pros to the tense QB-GM dynamic in New York, The Ringer is highlighting the most important, interesting, and, in some cases, baffling NFL duos for the 2021 season. Today, it’s a QB and offensive coordinator that could produce fireworks in Los Angeles.
Justin Herbert won’t play a single snap this preseason. While Herbert is in just his second season (making him the least experienced veteran starting QB to not see preseason action) and is entering a brand-new offensive system, the Chargers already know how special the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year is. Chancing injury in a meaningless game isn’t worth the risk to new head coach Brandon Staley, who enters a promising first-year coaching situation with a young star QB.
Instead, Herbert’s practice snaps this preseason have become pivotal to his development. When Staley arrived, he installed longtime Saints QBs coach Joe Lombardi as his offensive coordinator, tasking Lombardi with implementing a fresh scheme directly influenced by the minds of Sean Payton and Drew Brees. How quickly Herbert learns Lombardi’s offense is key to Los Angeles’s success in 2021, and the pair’s partnership could be the difference between the Chargers rising from fringe playoff contender to legitimate force.
Since the Chargers closed the 2020 season with a 38-21 win against the Chiefs (who were resting starters), only one other team has had the opportunity to face Herbert live: the 49ers, who flew south for two joint practices at the Chargers’ Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, California, before playing a preseason match at SoFi Stadium last Sunday. L.A. participated without its starting offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga (hip) and rookie Rashawn Slater (back) for both days, and backup tackle Trey Pipkins missed the second due to the birth of his child. The Niners’ front seven—missing starting defensive linemen Nick Bosa (torn ACL recovery) and Javon Kinlaw (shoulder)—took advantage, especially on the final day, frequently collapsing pockets and erasing rushing lanes.
At first, it didn’t seem to matter what Lombardi had scripted. Niners defenders harassed Herbert on seemingly every dropback and took turns crunching Austin Ekeler, Joshua Kelley, and Larry Rountree III in the backfield, swarming and hollering each play. Even Kinlaw, who’d been working on an adjacent field designated for injured players, walked over to the practice field where the Niners defense and Chargers offense were playing, and offered his assessment as a Chargers run stalled behind the line of scrimmage. “That shit soft,” Kinlaw crowed in an unmistakable South Carolina drawl. “That shit [looks like] shit paper.” L.A.’s sideline didn’t offer any retort, until a few plays later, when Herbert connected with Keenan Allen for a decent gain.
“If they don’t get to the quarterback,” Allen said, walking off to the sideline, “they’re in trouble!”
Even when teams do get to Herbert, they can still be in trouble. The former Oregon star was unbelievable in the face of pressure last season, posting a league-leading 57 percent completion rate under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, including 1,468 yards, 13 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. The 6-foot-6 Herbert is one of the most physically gifted signal-callers in the NFL, and this season he’ll lead an offense featuring a deep group of playmakers such as Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton, Josh Palmer, and Jared Cook. Last season, he threw for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions while completing 66.6 percent of his passes and posting a 69.5 QBR.
Later, in seven-on-seven drills against the 49ers, that offense started to show its promise. Herbert sprayed passes all over the field with ease, finding Allen, whose voice boomed loudest on the field, and Cook almost at will. On one red zone rep, the shifty Allen ran a corner route out of the slot and fooled a 49ers linebacker with an inside step off the line. He then skied over him to snag a touchdown pass from Herbert. “I’mma remind y’all every time,” Allen proclaimed after spiking the ball, “I’m really like that!” Herbert, who’d been animatedly clapping after big plays during the series, ran over to offer Allen an “Atta boy!” The sides began full 11-on-11 play during the two-minute drill period, and the Chargers’ offense continued moving the ball. Herbert, unfazed by pressure, connected with Allen for another touchdown pass. Herbert clapped. Lombardi, situated behind the offense on the field, remained dialed in while expressing content over the result. The Niners defense went quiet.
“That’s a top-five defense in the league,” Staley said. “I expect them to be one of the top defenses in the NFL. So I felt like it was a really good measuring stick for us. I love the way Justin Herbert played over the last few days, I know that.”
“To start a little slow, but to bounce back in seven-on[-seven] and some of those red zone periods, I think showed a lot of toughness, dealing with adversity,” Herbert added. “We might not always start perfectly, but for us to come back and kind of battle through, I thought it was really good.”
Herbert’s slow start and strong finish to L.A. and San Francisco’s joint practices—his lone opportunity to face a different team’s defense until Washington in Week 1—somewhat resembles his acclimation to Lombardi’s system. Herbert described it as “trial by fire,” in which he understood he’d make mistakes. Learning to improve on them has been the key.
“You’re gonna watch the film, and as the weeks go on, it’s gonna seem like less and less, until the point now where it’s just, you know, second nature,” Herbert said. “[Lombardi’s] calling the play, we’re going in the huddle. We’re gonna still make mistakes here and there. But that’s what practice is for, and I think that’s the great thing about going up against the 49ers today. I learned a lot from it.”
This marks the second-straight offseason Herbert has had to master a new offensive scheme. It’s also Lombardi’s first time dealing with a starting QB with fewer than five years of NFL experience. Brees was a 28-year-old coming off an All-Pro season when Lombardi first joined the Saints staff in 2007. Matthew Stafford was entering his sixth year and had led the league in completions once and pass attempts twice prior to Lombardi’s offensive coordinator stint in Detroit. Herbert has 15 games’ worth of experience. Properly easing and nurturing Herbert’s growth in a complex scheme is a critical point for Lombardi.
“I think we probably did overload him early in camp,” Lombardi said. “But he’s really smart. Once he starts getting the reps, you know, it becomes easier and easier for him. So it helps that he’s so intelligent, and that he works so hard.”
Lombardi spent 12 seasons (2007 through 2013, and 2016 through 2020) on Sean Payton’s Saints staff, serving as Brees’s QB coach for a combined decade. He briefly left to work as the Lions’ OC for two seasons (2014 and 2015), guiding offenses that ranked 19th and 13th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA ratings. The 50-year-old said that the no. 1 draw to the Chargers’ gig was working with Staley, who played QB for Division II Mercyhurst in the early 2000s while Lombardi was the OC and QBs coach there. That made the two naturally compatible, and Lombardi’s previous stint as an NFL OC armed him with experience.
“Being in New Orleans and doing things one way, you kind of get used to that,” Lombardi said at his intro press conference in January. “And when you’re put in a new situation where the schedule is different and maybe you’re around coaches that weren’t used to doing things the way that you’re used to, [you get] the flexibility to adjust a little bit better maybe than we did back then.”
Lombardi’s goal with the Chargers is to construct an offense that caters to Herbert’s strengths (such as his giant arm and good mobility), while incorporating tempo and a bevy of changing personnel groupings and formations to adequately highlight the Chargers’ versatility and depth at skill positions. While his offense won’t be a direct replica of Payton’s, the influence is undoubtable; the presences of backup QB Chase Daniel, who played four years in New Orleans, and Brees, who’s visited the Chargers facility throughout the offseason and training camp, are welcomed commodities for Herbert.
“I think it’s been very crucial,” Herbert said of his relationship with Lombardi. “He’s such a smart guy. Having him, [QBs coach] Shane Day, and even Drew Brees has come around a little bit—his offense that he’s brought in here is the real deal.”
Brees, who began his storied career with the Chargers, thinks that the sky’s the limit for a player like Herbert, who possesses such great physical tools. Last year, Brees and Lombardi were on the opposite sideline as Herbert threw four touchdowns against the Saints on Monday Night Football. New Orleans needed overtime to win. During a minicamp visit in June, Brees said that he was impressed by what he’d seen from Herbert since that evening.
“I think the good thing about this offensive system is it allows for a lot of flexibility,” Brees said. “It’s like looking at the greatest restaurant menu that you’ve ever seen. But at the end of the day, you may not like this, you may not like that—let’s just find the things that you really like, find the things that you’re really good at, and make that our bread and butter. Let’s make that the basis of what we do, and then we can build and evolve off of that.”
Identifying which play designs make Herbert most comfortable is essential. Keeping him comfortable in the pocket is also a priority entering the 2021 season. The Chargers offensive line—which finished 31st in ESPN’s pass-block win rate (47 percent) and 32nd in run-block win rate (67 percent) last season—has been completely overhauled this offseason. While Staley commended Herbert for looking strong in the pocket and getting the ball out when his pockets were muddied by 49ers pass rushers, L.A. is banking that its offseason decisions—namely the drafting of Slater and free-agent signings of center Corey Linsley, guard Oday Aboushi, and guard Matt Feiler—will ensure that Herbert isn’t pressured on 36.6 percent of his dropbacks like he was last year.
According to Herbert, facing Staley’s Chargers defense—a unit that boasts All-Pro–caliber players in Joey Bosa and Derwin James—in addition to facing the 49ers defense for two days, has been invaluable in advancing his comfort operating Lombardi’s offense. The OC calls plays from the booth, and during practice radios in his playcalls to Herbert. Lombardi tries to not over coach, using the meeting room as the place to offer detailed corrections for mistakes.
“Training camp ends up being a lot more plays and looks than maybe a game,” Lombardi said. “So he’s handled the big volume great, and I think it’ll become easier for everyone once you’re in a regular-season game and that game plan becomes much more specific.”
Two weeks remain until Herbert officially takes the field for his second regular season at FedExField. And there’s reason to believe that, as Allen recently said, there is no ceiling for a player like him.
“There’s so much room to grow at quarterback,” Herbert said. “It’s an awesome opportunity, because there’s so much more about the game that you keep learning about. And as much as I think I know, there’s always more.”