COSTA MESA, Calif. — Justin Herbert let his performance and statistics do the talking during his first three years in the NFL.
The Los Angeles Chargers quarterback has found his voice as a team leader heading into Sunday’s season opener against the Miami Dolphins.
Herbert, the former Oregon standout, became one of the league’s highest-paid quarterbacks when he signed a five-year, $262.5 million extension at the start of training camp. The security of a long-term contract — which includes $218.7 million guaranteed — and being on a team that returned most of its starters have given Herbert an extra jolt of confidence.
At the end of practices during training camp, it was common to see Herbert break down the team huddle. While most starters did not make the trip to San Francisco for the final preseason game on Aug. 25, Herbert was on the sidelines to lend support and help mentor backup quarterbacks Easton Stick and Max Duggan.
“I’ve taken my time to understand what a unique situation I’m in, and I’ve tried to do my best to enjoy it,” Herbert said. “I’ve let everyone know that helped me along the way that I’m super thankful for them. Football is the best, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Herbert is the first quarterback in NFL history to begin his career with three consecutive seasons of at least 4,000 passing yards and is one of two players to throw 25 touchdown passes in each of his first three years.
Since entering the league, he is second in the league in completions (1,316), third in passing yards (14,089), and sixth in TD passes (102).
Despite those numbers, Los Angeles is 25-25, including the playoffs, with Herbert under center.
Herbert this season will attempt to lead the Chargers to consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2009. Los Angeles has posted winning records the past two years — including a playoff trip last season — but the memories of disappointing finishes still stand out.
The Bolts most recently blew a 27-point lead in last season’s wild-card round and lost 31-30 to Jacksonville.
The playoff loss was among a series of tests Herbert had to face during the past 12 months. After being relatively injury-free his first two years in the league, Herbert suffered a rib injury in a Week 2 loss at Kansas City and then tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in a Week 17 game against the Rams.
The labrum injury required surgery in late January that limited Herbert’s throwing during the early portion of offseason workouts.
The Chargers did finish 10-7 last season, but there were many weeks when the offense was limited. Wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams were on the field together for only eight games. Neither was at his best until late in the year before Williams suffered a season-ending back injury in the regular-season finale at Denver.
There were two games where Allen and Williams weren’t in the lineup, but the Chargers managed to split those. Left tackle Rashawn Slater suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3.
Instead of playing the blame game, Herbert took it as a challenge.
“It was a great opportunity for guys to step up,” he said. “Josh Palmer stepped up and made some huge plays against the Falcons, which allowed him to come out with a whole new attitude and confidence, which was awesome to see. Jamaree Salyer stepped up at left tackle, and we found out that he could play. So, going into this year, we know injuries are a part of it and are going to happen. It’s all about how you react to it.”
Despite being limited most of the season at receiver, Herbert was second in the league in passing yards and completions. The Chargers also joined the New Orleans Saints as the only teams with six players with at least 500 receiving yards in a season.
Herbert is 1-1 in his career against Miami. He completed a career-high 39 passes for 367 yards and a touchdown in last season’s 23-17 win.
He goes into the regular season with his third offensive coordinator in four years. Kellen Moore, who spent the last four seasons leading Dallas’ offense, worked with Herbert to keep many of the passing game concepts intact, but it will feature a more aggressive mindset, especially when trying to get the ball downfield.
A more consistent run game should also help take pressure off Herbert. The Chargers led the league in rushing during the preseason as Joshua Kelley and Isaiah Spiller vied for more playing time behind Austin Ekeler.
A new coordinator and the response to last year’s adversity give Herbert some confidence the Chargers have learned their lessons and are ready to take the next step.
“Experience is the best teacher. To be able to go through that and see the other side, I know that we’re better because of it,” Herbert said. “Whether it’s a fourth-quarter drive or a play that we need late in the game, I know these guys have been able to fight through it. Whenever this adversity comes, we’ll be ready.”