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Justin Herbert Cements His Place Among NFL's Elite in Sophomore Season

After his Rookie of the Year season in 2020, Herbert avoided a sophomore slump and broke numerous records.

Most touchdown passes (69) through the first two seasons of a career in NFL history.

Most passing yards (9,350) through the first two seasons of a career in NFL history.

Most completions (839) through the first two seasons of a career in NFL history.

Los Angeles Chargers single-season records for touchdowns (38), passing yards (5,014), and completions (443).

Not bad for a guy who former head coach Anthony Lynn said "was a backup for a reason."

Justin Herbert accomplished this (and more) during his second season in the NFL, continuing to prove his critics that predicted he would be a bust prior to the 2020 NFL Draft horribly wrong.

But even with his electric 2020 season that earned him the Rookie of the Year and his fantastic encore, the Chargers have fallen short of the playoffs in each of his two seasons as the starting quarterback.

It was undoubtedly an improvement from year one to year two, as the Chargers were 7-9 in 2020 and finished 9-8 this season, needing just one more win (or a tie) to clinch a playoff berth. They had a chance to do so on Sunday night against the Raiders in the NFL regular season finale, but despite a rather heroic effort from Herbert, who completed all six of his attempts on fourth down, they fell short 35-32 in overtime.

On Monday, Herbert took time to reflect on the season and the sting of falling just short of a trip to Buffalo in the AFC Wild Card game.

"It's unfortunate that we fell short, and we didn't execute as well as we could have and as well as we would have wanted to," Herbert said. "We got some penalties and turnovers and some things you can't have and expect to win."

The Chargers entered the season with a new coaching staff led by new Head Coach Brandon Staley, new offensive coordinator and scheme with Joe Lombardi, and during the season they endured several injuries to starters on both sides of the ball, including Herbert's protection along the offensive line. For most young quarterbacks, having to learn two different playbooks in their first two years can be damaging and can stunt their development and growth.

For the second year in a row, the offense was also hindered by an excessive amount of drops. According to PFF's Mike Renner, Herbert had the second-most completions lost due to receiver error (drops, misplay, etc.) in 2021 with 46, just behind Tom Brady's 47.

But despite those obstacles, Herbert finished second in the NFL with 5,014 passing yards and third in touchdown passes with 38.

It wasn't just the gunslinger with the golden mane that carried the team. There was a different energy from the whole team compared to the 2020 season, and the Chargers were in the playoff hunt from the jump, winning multiple games over playoff teams like the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles, and Steelers.

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"I'm really proud of the way the guys battled," Herbert said of the team's effort. "It's been a tough year for sure, but everyone stuck together, they worked hard, and they showed up to work and gave their best effort every day."

So what will the Eugene native and former Oregon quarterback take away from this season?

"A lot of growth," he said. "I thought we got a lot better as a team, and unfortunately, we fell short. We didn't make the playoffs, and that's the ultimate goal of this league and this organization. And so for us, it's going to be an important offseason of working together and going into year two with Coach Staley and Coach Joe Lombardi and this whole organization because I know that we've got the talent. It's just all about going out there and executing."

For once in Herbert's football career, he gets to enjoy a rare offseason of stability within a coaching staff. He played for three different head coaches and three offensive coordinators in four seasons at Oregon, as well as two different head coaches and two offensive coordinators in his first two years with the Chargers.

But now, Staley and Lombardi will be back, giving Herbert some time to watch film and dig deeper into the playbook. The young quarterback said that he hadn't reached the comfort level within Staley's and Lombardi's systems that he would have liked, which raises the question: what kind of numbers he would have put up if he was fully comfortable?

With Staley and Lombardi returning, Herbert's goal to improve is much simpler to accomplish than in previous offseasons. 

"I still think that's something that we've got to work on," Herbert said of feeling comfortable in the new system. "It's year one of that system, and there's going to be mistakes. There's going to be errors. It's all about getting better, and as close as we were, it is year one, and there are a lot of things that we need to fix and get better at."

Herbert mentioned that the offense was an "awfully tough offense to learn," but if he can shatter Chargers passing records set by Philip Rivers and Dan Fouts while not feeling completely free within the offense, the sky is not the limit for him once he inevitably reaches that point.

Whoever rewrites the NFL's record books better be well-equipped at working at a fast pace, because Justin Herbert is smashing records faster than his critics can write apology notes.

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