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Justin Herbert Is Known for His Arm. But His Mental Game May Be Even Better.

The third-year pro is quickly climbing the list of top quarterbacks in the NFL. And Chargers coaches say that’s due to a processing ability matched only by some of the greatest of all time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In hindsight, it was probably a bad question. That became clear as Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach Shane Day looked off into the spotless Costa Mesa sky searching for an answer. I had asked him to pick out the best play he’d seen Justin Herbert make during their first year working together, and he was struggling—not because he had trouble coming up with an answer. There were just too many options to choose from.

We’d set forth some parameters: For example, he couldn’t pick Herbert’s big throw against the Giants, the one when the QB fled the pocket after his left tackle got beat, planted at his own 33-yard line, and then launched a pass that dropped right into Jalen Guyton’s hands for a touchdown.

It was probably the throw of the 2021 NFL season, so I thought it was too easy. “I wouldn’t pick that one anyway,” Day reassured me.

“There were several plays in the red zone,” Day continued. “A lot of times as coaches, when we watch the red zone [film], we’ll talk about how most of the touchdowns are scored off schedule. But [Herbert] doesn’t. He goes through the progressions. He goes, bang, bang, bang and throws touchdowns.”

Suddenly Day started doing an impression of a quarterback going through a progression, bouncing on his feet as he reads an imaginary defense. That seemed to jog his memory, and he finally had an answer: It’s a 4-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of L.A.’s 41-22 win over the Bengals in Week 13. Not a gargantuan throw, a buzzer-beating strike to force overtime in the season finale against Vegas, or the 40-yard hole shot Herbert threw against the Cowboys that looked like CGI. No, this random-ass 4-yarder from a game you probably barely remember.

Day cited that play because of what happened between the moment Herbert took the snap and when he let go of the ball. Most quarterbacks aren’t able to get through a full-field progression in the open field—and doing it in the red zone, where everything is condensed, basically never happens, said Day. But on this play, Herbert considered and dismissed three different options before finally making a throw to Keenan Allen, who was considered a “checkdown” option.

To fully appreciate the work Herbert did to make that touchdown, we need to break down his progression step-by-step, starting before the ball is even snapped. The Chargers motion Guyton across the formation, and the cornerback across from him follows, leaving Mike Williams one-on-one on the outside. Herbert, thinking he’s getting some sort of man coverage, wants to attack that matchup. But right before the ball is snapped, Bengals safety Jessie Bates audibles into a zone coverage that takes away Williams’s post route.

So option one is off the table. Herbert’s next read is running back Austin Ekeler in the flat, but the cornerback had passed Williams off to Bates and was in position to rally and make the tackle short of the end zone. On fourth-and-goal, that’s a no-go.

So Herbert’s eyes move on to tight end Jared Cook, who’s running a shallow crossing route from the opposite side of the formation. Cincinnati had that covered, too: Sam Hubbard, who typically rushes the passer, had dropped back from the line of scrimmage.

At this point, the defense had clearly “won” the play call. Time and space is limited in the red zone, so if the defense can take away even just the first option for an offense, they consider it a minor victory. Cincinnati had smothered Herbert’s first three options. Most quarterbacks in this situation would panic: scramble, throw the ball away, or just take a sack. But Herbert found another answer. His eyes went straight to linebacker Logan Wilson, who was manning his zone over the middle of the field. Allen was running an in-breaking route from the backside of the formation, and there was just enough of a throwing window to fit in a pass.

“If you freeze that, where that ball location was, and you see the type of traffic that he fit that in,” said Chargers coach Brandon Staley, who also brought up the same play unprompted. “That’s the only place it could have been on fourth-and-4.”

It was a perfectly placed pass thrown with enough velocity to beat the multiple zone defenders. But as impressive as the throw itself may have been, the process Herbert used to get to it is what made it so special. That can be hard to appreciate when watching from home without knowledge of the play call or what’s expected of the QB. It’s certainly harder to appreciate than a 60-yard bomb thrown under pressure. But watch that play back at normal speed. There’s just about 2.5 seconds between the time the ball is snapped and when Herbert starts his throwing motion—that’s all he needed to make four-plus calculations before nailing a highly difficult throw.

Highlight reel throws have accelerated Herbert’s climb up the quarterback hierarchy. Everybody loves a good deep ball. And his coaches concede that his generational arm—which helped him finish second in both completion percentage and yards per attempt on deep passes (20-plus air yards) in 2021, per Pro Football Focus—allows him to pierce windows that other quarterbacks can’t. But the real magic is having the imagination and foresight to make those throws in the first place. Staley brings up one of the many season-saving throws Herbert made late in the Week 18 game against the Raiders:

The velocity is unreal, but Staley was in awe that Herbert knew exactly where to place it to navigate the gauntlet of Raiders defenders standing in the way—and to do it while allowing Williams to catch it in stride and pick up a big chunk of yards. In that way, there’s an underappreciated depth to Herbert’s game that can be obscured by his overwhelming physical talent. The throws are awesome, but if you ask his coaches, it’s the young quarterback’s advanced mastery of the position that makes him so special.

“So we kind of get numb to the splash plays—the deep throws, the runs down the sideline, all that,” Day said. “But I think what’s most impressive about Justin [is] when you watch him play quarterback … he goes one-two-three through progressions, and I think that’s what he does better than anything.

“It’s not the splash plays; it’s playing quarterback.”

Before Staley started on the defensive coaching track, he played quarterback at Mercyhurst University and Dayton. That gives him a unique point of view when analyzing the job his young passer is doing. The Chargers coach knows how difficult it is to play the position at a high level … and just how difficult it is to stop a quarterback when they’re operating like that.

“Hitting five in the progression” is a phrase Staley used several times during our conversation after the Chargers’ annual intra-squad scrimmage. On any given passing play, there are five eligible receivers for the quarterback to throw to. It’s rare that a quarterback will even get a chance to look at three of them before getting rid of the ball or taking off. Tom Brady does it every now and then, but even for the GOAT, it can be tough to process all of that information in a matter of seconds.

Brady has been running these plays for more than 20 years, so it’s not a surprise that he’s able to do this. But Herbert just finished his first year in offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s scheme and is already doing it with regularity.

“He’s getting through five in the progression, and you just know that many young quarterbacks in their first year in an offense aren’t getting there,” said Staley. “I know that because I have to defend them. So I know who’s making it through and who isn’t. Most guys, they get one-two-three and then they’re out of there. They’re moving, they’re running, and they’re escaping. They’re getting out of trouble. Where what this guy [is doing] is playing quarterback at the highest level already.”

Staley says knowing that a quarterback is willing and able to exhaust all the options available to him puts tremendous stress on a defensive play caller. There are no perfect calls, and every coverage has a weak point. But the top quarterbacks sniff out those vulnerabilities quickly and exploit them with ruthless efficiency.

“I know that our margin of error is so small on defense,” Staley said of playing against quarterbacks who can hit five in the progression. “If we’re not connected, if we’re not on it, and if the rush isn’t coming, like, he’s gonna make it.”

While studying the playbook certainly helps Herbert get through his progression quickly, he also possesses the innate spatial awareness that’s required to do it in the heat of a game. The 2020 first-round pick says when he’s reading a defense from the pocket, he’s reacting to stimuli rather than actually going through the thought process the coaches design for him. Those instincts are honed by putting in the work and taking coaching well, Herbert says, but there’s obviously a limit to that.

“He sees a lot more than I can coach,” Day said. “He has just a great feel for, Hey, this guy’s open. I’m going to put the ball there and I’m going to progress through the read like this. He just has a very good sense of the whole position at a very young age.”

Day brought up Herbert’s game-winning touchdown pass to Williams in a pivotal mid-season win against the Steelers as an example. Williams was so open it looked like Pittsburgh had blown a coverage. It hadn’t. Early in the game, Los Angeles had called an identical pass pattern with the outside receiver running straight down the field and the slot receiver running a quick out. Herbert had noticed the corner “getting nosy,” as Day puts it, trying to jump the out route for an interception—what coaches might call a “trap” coverage. So when the Chargers, trailing by three, dialed up the concept late in the fourth quarter, Herbert was ready to take advantage. As soon as he saw the corner flip his hips toward the out route, Herbert fired off a far-hash hole shot that arrived early enough for Williams to erase the safety’s tackling angle with ease. After the score, the NBC broadcast cut to a tight shot of Herbert nodding at the Chargers sideline, as if to say, “Did you see how easy that was for me?”

“I think what he does better than a lot of players, when they see that, they’ll come out and predetermine it,” said Day, who’s worked with cerebral quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith while coaching in the NFL. “And then it won’t be there and they’ll get stuck. He really plays it straight, and if he reacts to the defense and the defense makes a mistake, he makes them pay.”

You would think a young quarterback making rapid-fire decisions like that would make more mistakes, but Herbert rarely does. He threw 15 interceptions last season, but that was the product of throwing a ton of passes while trying to keep a porous defense in games. The Chargers’ typical rotten luck also played a part. Herbert had the lowest turnover-worthy play rate of any quarterback in 2021 and was the only one who finished with more interceptions than turnover-worthy plays, per Pro Football Focus.

If you just look at Herbert’s pressured dropbacks, his 1.9 percent TWP rate would have still been tied with Tom Brady’s overall figure for second lowest in the NFL.

2021 Turnover Worthy Play Rate Leaders

Rank Player TWP%
Rank Player TWP%
1 Justin Herbert 1.60%
2 Justin Herbert when pressured 1.90%
2 Tom Brady 1.90%
4 Aaron Rodgers 2.00%
5 Kyler Murray 2.10%

No quarterback is immune to pressure, but Herbert is the closest I’ve ever seen. The numbers in the last paragraph show he doesn’t throw dangerous passes into coverage. He finished top 10 in pressure-to-sack rate last year, so he doesn’t take hits either. He doesn’t really even scramble as much as he probably could, finishing around the middle of the league in scramble rate on pressured dropbacks. Herbert is consistently able to find answers built into the design of the play—the “break glass in case of emergency” options that quarterbacks rarely have the poise to consider.

“He ‘plays the play’ better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Day. “If you want to take something away in man coverage, he’s gonna make you pay with his legs. But it’s not forcing it. And he never does that, which is very rare for a young quarterback. Usually [they] lean on those physical gifts.”

So where does Herbert go from here? How does he get better after throwing for 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns last season? There aren’t any glaring issues that need to be addressed before his third year. Herbert said on The Ringer NFL Show this spring that sharpening his footwork, and how it syncs up with his receivers’ routes, was his big focus of his offseason training regimen. Both Staley and Day pointed to pre-snap operation—getting in and out of the huddle faster, fixing pass protections, checking out of bad play calls before snap, etc.—as an area of growth for the third-year pro. But these are just small improvements here and there. There is no need for wide-scale corrections.

“I think the second year in the offense, you got the terminology down, you know what the coaches expect, and now you can really concentrate on the fundamentals,” Day said. “You can concentrate on fixing protections, making checks in the run game, but we put a lot of that on him last year, too. … I think he’ll continue to grow in those areas.”

By all accounts, Herbert is a diligent worker who is constantly tinkering with his game, finding ways to get better. Last season, it often seemed like he was just running the offense as it was designed on paper, and in 2022, he should have more creative freedom to put his own twist on the scheme. Staley says that more than anything, though, it’s the quarterback’s desire to learn and improve that has driven his early success.

“It’s not just natural passing—like, this guy is pouring into his game,” Staley said. “It’s not God-given talent. It’s God-given work ethic. He’s got an incredible will to be a great player. And I think that’s what people don’t realize because of his physical gifts. They don’t realize the will that he has inside.”

Herbert’s lore will soon spread to the masses. Playing in the AFC West, the league’s toughest division, he’ll have quite the platform to prove himself in 2022. The Chargers are scheduled to play five prime-time games, including a Thursday-night showdown with Patrick Mahomes’s Chiefs in Week 2 and a Sunday-nighter against Russell Wilson’s Broncos in Week 6. Herbert has already beaten Mahomes in his own stadium, but that game was played at 1 p.m. in September. Outplaying top quarterbacks (especially ones with rings) on the national stage will give the QB’s reputation a boost. And getting this cursed franchise to the postseason would likely push Herbert into the MVP discussion and get more people comfortable with the idea that he is elite. But Day is already there.

“I have this huge folder [on my computer] called ‘Why Justin’s the greatest quarterback of all time,’” Day says. “It’s like 67 plays. If I’ve had a bad day, I just watch that.”

If Day is right about Herbert’s ceiling, the Chargers won’t have too many of those in the foreseeable future.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the season a Herbert throw occurred in.

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