Chargers QB Justin Herbert Stiff Arms Doubters After Historic Rookie Season

The rookie quarterback turned heads after his first season.
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The rookie season of quarterback Justin Herbert was a wild roller coaster ride with everything he had to endure in his first season. The adversity he faced since that fateful night in Los Angeles when he lifted the Rose Bowl trophy is truly unique.

Herbert was a polarizing figure during the 2020 NFL draft process. After winning the Rose Bowl MVP award and basically used his legs to score three touchdowns, there were still questions about him.

During the week leading up to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, Herbert impressed many scouts and players. He had yet another MVP performance, but the questions were still there.

The NFL Combine was next in Indianapolis, where the young quarterback impressed on the field yet again. Though, questions still popped up about the former Duck.

On March 12, he had his pro day in front of basically the whole NFL world, and he performed at a high level, but the questions only began getting louder.

Those questions were not only about his on-the-field performance but also about Justin Herbert the person. He was being labeled as an introvert, which he took exception to and deservedly so.

"I wouldn't say that's fairly accurate," Herbert said. "I think on the surface it might appear that way, but when I really get to know people and the team, I think a lot of the guys on the team would tell you differently."

Herbert is a different kind of player. He may not be the player who shows his emotion like Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady or talk as much as former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, but that doesn't mean he isn't fired up.

There were also questions about his performance on the field. In a draft featuring the LSU quarterback Joe Burrow along with Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, it is easy to be looked at as the outlier.

Burrow was coming off a record-breaking season with LSU, where he won the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship. After the game, he sat with a cigar relaxed, which showed off some personality. Tua was coming off an injury-riddled season, but his work was done. He had come into the National Championship in 2017 at halftime and led the Crimson Tide to victory yet again.

Burrow went first overall to the Cincinnati Bengals. The toss-up was after his selection would the Miami Dolphins jump up and take Herbert while the Bolts would draft Tua? Well, the Chargers had signed right tackle Bryan Bulaga and traded for right guard Trai Turner, so they must want Tua.

Ultimately, the Dolphins took Tua fifth overall, and with the next pick, the Chargers took Herbert out of Oregon.

That means they believed that Herbert played very stiff and more machine-like than smooth.

When going back to training camp, it is true. When looking at number 10 on the field, it did seem a little machine-esque. It seemed like he relied on his arm strength more than his accuracy. He overthrew passes at times.

Herbert practiced with the twos and threes during a practice open to the media, so there wasn't a chance to see him with receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

He got a chance to face the first-string defense a couple of days into training camp, and on the very first play, he faced pressure. He threw an interception that defensive end Melvin Ingram ran back for a touchdown.

The first week of the season goes by with quarterback Tyrod Taylor facing the Bengals in Cincinnati. The Chargers won thanks to a missed field goal by Randy Bullock.

There were some issues with Taylor pregame that forced him to be taken to the hospital. Lynn came over to Herbert five minutes before the game and told him, "You are in." Herbert ran for his first touchdown on the opening drive of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

So, what were the questions about Herbert's game?

NFL.com says, "play is more mechanical than maestro."

Before halftime, Herbert dropped back, looked off the safety, and hit receiver Jalen Guyton for his first career touchdown pass.

He showed more two games later against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bolts used play-action, so Herbert went to his left and waited until Tyron Johnson was open to hit him for a 53-yard touchdown pass.

He led the team 97-yards a couple of drives later and threw a nice pass to tight end Donald Parham for the 19-yard touchdown. In the second half, Herbert faced a third and long when he hiked the ball while five defenders got through his offensive linemen, but he stood solid until he threw a laser to Jalen Guyton for a 72-yard touchdown catch and run.

He went throw-for-throw against the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady.

"I told [Chargers Head Coach] Anthony [Lynn] after the game – I said, 'You've got a great one.,'" said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. "That retreating play – that looked like [Chiefs QB Patrick] Mahomes where we had an all-out blitz, and he just kept retreating and threw a dime down the field. For rookies to make plays like that, you know they're special."

That was significant praise from a Super Bowl winning head coach.

Herbert followed it up the following week in front of the whole country on Monday Night Football against the New Orleans Saints. His first touchdown, he rolled out to his right and threw a cannon to Allen. Monday Night crew couldn't stop raving about him.

The game was tied late in the fourth, the rookie quarterback found a wide-open Mike Williams to score a 64-yard touchdown. After the Saints answered, he threw up a nice ball to only where Williams could catch it. Unfortunately, kicker Michael Badgley missed the potential game-winner.

Even future hall of fame quarterback Drew Brees was impressed by the rookie quarterback.

"I told him, I was really impressed with him ... he's got a really bright future," Brees said, via KGW TV's Orlando Sanchez.

The next issue scouts saw was "ball placement to lead receivers can be better."

During his first start against the Chiefs, there was a play in the first quarter that Herbert rolled to his left and threw a deep pass to what he thought was a wide-open Mike Williams, but he didn't put more on it and all-pro safety Tyrann Mathieu was able to knock it down.

Herbert knew he had to learn from this, and he did.

The rookie quarterback completed 32 passes of 25 yards or more. After facing most of the NFC South, the Bolts faced Jacksonville in a matchup where they were down on the scoreboard but made their way back into the game.

With his team being down a touchdown, Herbert dropped back, hit Guyton in stride for a 70-yard touchdown pass to tie things up. The Bolts eventually won the game.

One of his more impressive throws was week 11 when the Bolts faced the New York Jets. Chargers were in the RedZone, so Herbert rolled to his left and threw a missile towards Keenan Allen for the touchdown. The impressive part? Allen had Jets cornerback Lamar Jackson all over him, but Herbert only put it in a place he could catch it.

"It's been special," explained Allen. "He's a special player. He's been making some special plays. Throwing it. Running it. Throwing it out of bounds when he needs to. Throwing to the check down when he needs to. He's evolving into a great player."

In week 15, the Chargers played the Raiders in Las Vegas. The Bolts offense was missing Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who both were on a limited snap count due to injury. In overtime, the Raiders kicked a field goal to take the lead.

Herbert dropped back and waited for Guyton to get open and throws a 55-yard missile down the field. Guyton was tackled two yards away from the end zone. Herbert ran it in for the game-winner.

The Rookie of the Year really showed out with his long-ball hitting his receivers in stride and not making them wait like in college. His only mistake was that week two matchup against Kansas City with the long ball.

According to NFL.com, "scouts say he leads by example but is not a commanding presence."

This was a big question mark held over Herbert's head from the Rose Bowl to probably midway through his first season. They said he was an introvert, which he quickly denied.

"I wouldn't say that's fairly accurate," Herbert said. "I think on the surface it might appear that way, but when I really get to know people and the team, I think a lot of the guys on the team would tell you differently."

He is just a different guy.

After winning his first career victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars in week seven, Chargers social media caught Herbert running by Allen and slapping his backside yelling, "YES SIR!" That doesn't sound like an introvert.

"I think a lot of introverts get labeled with that word shy, lack of leadership," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "My son is an introvert, so I raised one. I know what the tags are, but you just look at how people respond to them. That's all you need to know."

It took him time, but Herbert began integrating himself more and more. The rookie quarterback kept getting more and more comfortable with the offense.

"He got a lot more vocal," said receiver Mike Williams. "He started calling some plays on his own and making a decision on himself. So, that was good to see what a young quarterback coming in, not expected to come in, and this being vocal, telling people where to go putting people in the right places, and making plays happen. So, I say the leadership role came on pretty early."

The players responded to their quarterback. When he won Rookie of the Year, a lot of his teammates congratulated him on social media.

During the season, there was a point where running back Austin Ekeler went out with an injury for six games. When he returned, he noticed that things had changed.

"I think we have an identity, and I think a lot of it stands from our rookie quarterback, who's been really playing well," Ekeler said. "He's taken a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and proven he can take that, and I think our identity is coming through Herbert right now.

"Obviously, we're trying to run the ball, but Herbert is out there taking control and doing it with his arm and legs, too, at the quarterback spot."

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There were a lot of negative things about him coming out. Many experts believed he had the highest potential for being a bust, and some even thought he was the fourth-best quarterback. He didn't pay attention during the process.

"I think I did a pretty good job of kind of staying away from all that stuff, all the noise outside of what was really going on. As soon as the Rose Bowl was over, I knew that it was time to get better in time to prepare for the combine for the senior bowl and really to prepare for the NFL."

After being drafted sixth overall, Herbert came in working and studying. He won the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy but for academia, called the William V. Campbell Trophy. He is intelligent and understands whatever is thrown his way.

"So, I spent all those times with coaches and just working on football," said Herbert. "I think that's the greatest thing I stay busy did my job, and good things happen when you put in the work. So, over these past couple of months with Coach Steichen and Coach Hamilton, I think we've put in a lot of good work. I think because of those guys, because of a great offensive line and receivers that make a lot of plays. I think you're only as good as the guys around you."

It wasn't all easy. Herbert went through a spell where he struggled against the AFC East (except the Jets). The team lost by eight points or more in each game. The Patriots blew them out for a franchise-worst 45-0.

Herbert, along with the team, didn't quit and decided to pull together. They finished the season on a four-game win streak.

"I think the past four weeks, the game-winning field goals, being able to set up special teams for them to come up big like that and especially in the locker room, just celebrating with those guys and kind of realizing that it hasn't been tough here but just so proud of the guy the way the guys battled back," said Herbert.

His former head coach was impressed with the rookie quarterback during the win streak.

"Justin and his work ethic, I mean, he took all that on his shoulders, and he just got better every single week," said Lynn. "At one point, he went through a little rough patch. I believe he came out of that a better quarterback, you know, all rookie quarterbacks going to go through something like that. I like the way he went through it, the way he came out of it."

Going into his second NFL season, Herbert will have his sixth different offensive coordinator and fifth head coach. New head coach Brandon Staley seems to have a plan for him and could help continue the growth of Herbert.

The now second-year quarterback will look back at an interesting rookie season and probably smile. He went from being the quarterback that had a lot of question marks to the rookie of the year and quite possibly already a top ten quarterback in the league.

For now, he intends on not only getting better but reaching out to former or current quarterbacks to continue improving.

"I think anytime you're able to talk with some of those guys that have had so much success over the past decade or so, and anything you can pick up on them is huge," said Herbert. "So, I'll definitely try and reach out to as many guys as I can. Just so I can be the best quarterback I can be for the Chargers.”