Justin Herbert learned a pretty tough lesson about life in the NFL last season. Despite following up his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign with one of the most productive seasons that any quarterback had during the 2021 campaign — Herbert completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns — the Los Angeles Chargers fell just short of making the postseason for the first time in his young career. Los Angeles went 9-8 and lost perhaps the best game of the season in their final matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders, which cost them a spot in the playoffs.
With Herbert under center, it’s pretty easy to see how the Charges can change that in 2022. Uproxx Sports caught up with Herbert last week to talk about the lessons learned from last year’s heartbreak, how he’s grown as a quarterback, his role on Lowe’s Home Team, and whether he gets more nervous during Chargers games or when he’s watching his alma mater, Oregon, which features his younger brother Patrick lining up at tight end.
What do you got going on with Lowe’s?
With Lowe’s, it’s a great partnership that I’m really looking forward to. I’m now a part of the Lowe’s Home Team, it’s a group of players across the country tackling community projects. I was fortunate enough to be a part of one in L.A. for Kid City, helping first generation students go to college. The project that Lowe’s has taken on with them, I’m really looking forward to seeing how that turns out.
Why did you pick the charity that you picked?
I was always so impressed with what after school programs were able to do. I was a part of a couple growing up in Eugene, Oregon, they’ve helped me so much, whether it’s academics, athletics, it helped me be a better person. And the one down in L.A., I think, has done a fantastic job. I’ve been a part of it, able to go see it actually a couple of times, and just the work that they put in, and especially the work that Lowe’s is putting into this project, it’ll be fantastic to watch.
Let’s talk a little bit of football. It’s a very broad question, but what’s your general approach been this offseason?
It’s been to get better, unfortunately, we fell short last year at 9-8, missed the playoffs. So, we need to be better than that. And we have to do everything we can to make the playoffs this year. We certainly feel like we’ve got the talent on our team, but now it’s all up to executing and making sure that we’re in those positions to win games. And so for me, worked a lot on footwork, continuing the timing with the routes of the receivers, and having time with all those guys that we added — Gerald Everett, the rest receivers, Sony Michel, as well. It’s a lot to look forward to.
And kind of going off of that, for how great the NFL is, it could be a really cruel place, and you guys learned that lesson the hard way last season. Is that the sort of thing that has been a source of motivation this offseason, and how does that experience help you guys as you’re heading into this upcoming season?
It definitely has been, that’s a great point that you bring up. We wish that we could have kept playing in the playoffs, and this game that we’re about to play has come six or seven months too late. We’ve had all that time to really think, to get better. But now it’s another opportunity to go out there and play football and do everything we can to hopefully set ourselves up for the playoffs. And that’s the ultimate goal in the NFL, it’s to get there and to keep winning. We’ve done our best this offseason and now it’s time to go out and show it.
And this is a unique offseason for you because it’s your first one with the same head coach and same offensive coordinator. How big of a help is it in that you don’t have to learn a brand new offense, you don’t need to build up those relationships, all the sorts of things that come with those sorts of major overhauls?
I think it’s been huge that we’ve had a year of film to be able to go back and look at, especially having all those installs that we do and all the different verbiage and terminology, we’re comfortable with it, we’re familiar with it, and we’re steps ahead of where we were at this point last year. Camp was was much easier in terms of learning the offense and spending time with the receivers, because everyone was already familiar with it and we kept a lot of the guys. So, I thought that part was huge for us.
You’re entering your third season, where do you feel like you have improved the most from that talented kid at Oregon to where you are now in the NFL?
I think a ton, over the past couple of years. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great quarterback coaches, some great offensive coordinators, and especially the receivers, tight ends, and offensive line that we have, they’ve made my job so much easier. But just doing my best to continue to get the ball out quick, avoid taking sacks, protect the football, you can always cut down on turnovers and being smart with the ball. So, that’s definitely been an emphasis this offseason, as well.
And so much of the excitement when I hear people talk about you stems from how you process the game, how you understand the game before the snap, during a play. Do you feel like that ability is something that can be learned, can be developed? Do you think that’s natural? Do you think it’s something that only comes with playing on the field?
I think it comes with repetition. I think it’s definitely something I’ve had to get better at over the years, and I think, thankfully, spending so much time with Shane Day, our quarterback coach, [he] has done a fantastic job of just teaching me the progressions of reads, of going through it quickly, getting the ball out quickly if nothing else is there, and playing smart football. That’s what’s important to the quarterback, not shooting yourself in the foot and not turning the ball over, not forcing things downfield but playing smart. And if everything’s covered downfield, find the checkdown and give the ball to Austin Ekeler for five or six yards, and that’s really tough for defenses to stop. If everyone’s playing like that, you’re able to move the ball, continually getting first downs, that’s how a quarterback should be playing.
It’s like you read my mind, because my next question was going to be about Austin. Everyone I know who’s played fantasy football has loved him for years, but last year, it feels like the general public started to catch on to just how good this dude is. What is it about him and this super diverse skill set that he has that makes your life easier as a quarterback?
He’s great — if you hand the ball off to him, he’s gonna go get five or six yards every time, which is fantastic. But at the same time, he’s tough for linebackers to cover. If he gets out of the backfield, and he’s got space, he’s gonna break down and you’re gonna find them and he’s gonna go for 15 to 20 yards, and that’s tough, too. But then finally, if he’s able to get out in routes, and he’s the last option where everyone else is covered downfield, and you just give him the ball hoping that maybe you get a couple yards, he’s gonna break a tackle, he’s gonna make the first guy miss. We saw it a couple times last year where he’s the last read, you get him the ball and he goes for 30 or 40 yards. And so for that, for a defense, is so tough to guard. They think they want because everyone’s covered downfield, they did a great job covering everyone, until you get Austin Ekeler the ball.
There’s a lot of excitement around you personally that has popped up this offseason where you’re number 40 in the NFL Top 100, all those sorts of things. Are you someone who notices that stuff? Is it motivational? Is it affirming? Do you get told that this stuff happens that you kind of shrug and then just go back to eating dinner? How do you respond to those sorts of things?
I think it’s really cool, really great honor. But I think it’s more telling of the team. I think the offensive line has done a fantastic job of protecting me and giving me enough time to get the ball off. To have a guy like Keenan Allen, who I think is one of the top players in the NFL, Mike Williams, Gerald Everett, these guys are what really make the team special. I think it is cool, but I try not to let it take away from my focus. I need to be at my best to play quarterback for those guys, and so if I get too worried about what people are saying, I’m going to get lost, so I do my best trying to avoid at all.
I have always wanted to ask an NFL player this: NFL is not back yet, but college football is back. What is the team group chat like when two guys’ alma maters are playing? Like, what was it like last year when Oregon played Ohio State between you and Joey Bosa?
It’s pretty funny, it’s always great competition in the locker room, especially when you get two teams that are going at it where you share a team with a guy in the locker room and there’s a lot of talk. Joey’s been a great guy about that — I haven’t talked too much crap about that game last year to him just because I want to stay on Joey’s good side. But talking definitely to Jamaree Salyer, Tre’ McKitty, he’s another guy on our team that went to Georgia, and so we’ve been talking the past couple of weeks about it. Just looking forward to watching it, I always think really highly of the Oregon Ducks and especially with Dan Lanning, the new head coach there. A lot to look forward to with those guys.
Do you get more nervous during Chargers games are doing during Oregon games?
Probably Oregon games. Now knowing that my younger brother is playing there and that I’m not playing, I think you’ll probably get more nervous for those.