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  1.  
  2. theathletic.com
  3. Chargers QB Justin Herbert learned to believe in his skill
  4. Daniel Popper
  5. 18-22 minutes
  6.  
  7. The Chargers were less than a week into training camp when Justin Herbert had his epiphany.
  8.  
  9. He was on the phone with his personal quarterback coach, John Beck, after one of those late August practices at Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex in Orange County. Herbert had spent the spring, the start of his NFL career, learning a new offense over Zoom calls — the life of a pandemic rookie — and before training camp began, he had not participated in an official NFL practice. These training camp days represented Herbert’s first chance to measure himself against professional talent.
  10.  
  11. Beck recalls Herbert’s words clearly because they were important. Looking back now, they represent a watershed moment that paved the way for Herbert’s rapid ascent.
  12.  
  13. “I can do this. I know I can do this,” Beck remembers Herbert saying. “I know I can be a really good player at this level.”
  14.  
  15. That it took Herbert until his first week of training camp to come to this realization reveals so much about who he is, where he comes from and what allowed him to have one of the greatest rookie quarterbacking seasons in NFL history.
  16.  
  17. “Justin is just the kid from Eugene that had no idea that he’s in the smallest percentile of his abilities, of what he can do,” Beck said.
  18.  
  19. Herbert is 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds. He runs a 4.68 40-yard dash. He can throw a ball 62 yards without taking a step. He was the starting quarterback at Oregon for four years, winning the Rose Bowl and the Rose Bowl offensive MVP as a senior. He was a prized prospect, featured and exalted by virtually every outlet in sports media, from local newspapers to national magazines. The Chargers then selected him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 draft. And yet at no point — despite his physical gifts, despite the attention and praise, despite carrying his hometown program back from irrelevancy, despite the investment the Chargers made in him — did he understand just how he good he really is.
  20.  
  21. Until this moment. Until this phone call.
  22.  
  23. “I just remember feeling like, wow, that’s awesome that he has that belief right now, because that’s going to carry him through the difficulty that every rookie has to face,” Beck said in a phone interview.
  24.  
  25. What came next was merely opportunity. Before the Chargers’ Week 2 game against the Chiefs, starter Tyrod Taylor experienced a complication when, published reports said, a team doctor accidentally punctured his lung while administering a pain-killing injection for his injured ribs. Herbert found out he would be starting against the defending champions minutes before kickoff, when then-head coach Anthony Lynn told him on the sideline. He scored a rushing touchdown on his first possession. Fifteen games later, Herbert holds the records for most total touchdowns (36), passing touchdowns (31), completions (396) and 300-yard passing games (eight) in a rookie season. He finished 39 yards short of the passing yards record.
  26.  
  27. “For him to go have a rookie season like this, when he didn’t even get an offseason, to me, it’s remarkable, because reps are the most important thing for quarterbacks,” Beck said. “So to go out there and play without reps, it’s pretty unbelievable.”
  28.  
  29. Before then, though, Herbert had to grasp and understand the full breadth of his talents.
  30.  
  31. “That was a huge moment for him,” Beck said. “None of us knew that four or five weeks later he would be the starting quarterback. But to have that moment before becoming the starting quarterback, it’s big. Because I bet there’s been a lot of guys in this league that don’t have that moment before they become a starting quarterback.”
  32.  
  33. That awakening is the secret behind this astonishing season.
  34.  
  35. Herbert started working with Beck shortly after leading Oregon to a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin on New Year’s Day 2020.
  36.  
  37. Beck — an instructor at the 3DQB training center, which is based in Huntington Beach and has hosted the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan — spent six years as an NFL quarterback before shifting to coaching. He spearheaded Herbert’s pre-draft and combine preparations. Beck was the first personal quarterback coach Herbert ever employed.
  38.  
  39. Herbert’s talent was glaring from their first session together.
  40.  
  41. “He has one of the most unbelievable arms I’ve ever been around, and he’s so athletic. There’s just so many pieces all in one,” Beck said. “There’s just not many guys that can just make deep balls down the field that are driven just look easy. It looks like he’s throwing a 10-yard in when he’s throwing a 20-yard in.”
  42.  
  43. What was going through his mind?
  44.  
  45. “This is what we’re dealing with,” Beck said. “This is one of the most talented guys we’ve ever coached.”
  46.  
  47. Beck knew how much raw ability Herbert possessed. But it was evident early on that Beck would need to open Herbert’s eyes to this fact.
  48.  
  49. “He was,” Beck said, “probably a little bit unaware of just how naturally good he was.”
  50.  
  51. Justin Herbert had eight games with at least 300 passing yards, one of several NFL rookie records. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)
  52.  
  53. So he and Adam Dedeaux, the CEO of 3DQB, made it a goal to build up Herbert’s confidence — to make him fully conscious of his preeminent physical abilities.
  54.  
  55. After a particularly impressive throw, Beck said he and Dedeaux would put it into proper context.
  56.  
  57. “We would say, ‘Look, I’ll tell you right now, Justin, there are maybe five guys in this league that can make that throw,'” Beck said.
  58.  
  59. Justin would respond so innocently and so unknowingly: “Really?”
  60.  
  61. “He did not know that, and the thing that I believe is you need to know that about yourself,” Beck said. “Aaron Rodgers knows that. Patrick Mahomes, he knows that. Josh Allen, he knows that. Matt Stafford, he knows that. Those guys know that, and that’s an edge that it gives them, right? And we’ve all witnessed it this year, some of those throws that Justin has made. Not everybody can make those throws.”
  62.  
  63. Beck then took it a step further after the combine in February. He did not want to simply tell Herbert about his elite traits. He wanted to show him how he compared to successful NFL quarterbacks.
  64.  
  65. So Beck took Herbert to watch one of Ryan’s workouts. Ryan is meticulous in how he trains. Beck wanted Herbert to see that process, first and foremost. But there was another motivation.
  66.  
  67. “Here’s a guy that does not have some of the physical abilities that you have, but has been extremely successful in the NFL for a long time,” Beck said. “Has been an MVP. Has gone and played in a Super Bowl. His team has led the league in offense. He’s a great person to just (look at and) say, ‘OK, how does he approach what he does?’
  68.  
  69. “What I didn’t want Justin to have was this picture in his head of what an NFL starting quarterback looked like and have that be unrealistic, or have that be perfect. You can’t play like that, and you can’t think like that. No, these are guys, just like you’re a guy. All of these guys once were juniors and seniors in college that were the top of college, they came to the NFL and they just kept working, working, working working. But you need to see that where they are now is not light years ahead of where you are right now. That’s not the case at all.”
  70.  
  71. Beck was determined to show Herbert that reaching these levels — Pro Bowls, Super Bowls, MVPs — was not some unattainable goal.
  72.  
  73. “You can step on this field right now and make throws they can’t,” Beck said. “I’m not saying that as a knock to Matt. I’m saying that as a plus to Justin. There’s just not many people that can do that. I felt like it was gonna be good for him to know that because, one thing about Justin, he tries hard in all the things that he does. And I love that he wants to be really good and his attempt to be really good is ‘I want to push myself to be as perfect as I can.’ And I like that attribute.
  74.  
  75. “But at the same time, I also think that there’s strength in (knowing) the reality: All of those guys that you watch on Sundays that have won Super Bowls, that have had a ton of success, they’re human too. And they have limitations, they have mistakes that they’ve made, they have things that they’re trying to work on. They don’t throw every pass perfect. And I wanted him to know that.”
  76.  
  77. This was the mental foundation upon which Herbert built his rookie season.
  78.  
  79. It might be hard to conceive how a player as talented as Herbert could be blind to those talents. But there are a few things you must know about him.
  80.  
  81. First, Herbert’s childhood was inextricably intertwined with Oregon football.
  82.  
  83. He was born and raised in Eugene, Ore. His childhood house was a mile and a half from Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks have played since 1967. As a kid, Herbert walked to Oregon games with his father, Mark, and his brothers, Mitchell and Patrick. His grandfather, Rich Schwab, an Oregon legend who played wide receiver for the Ducks in the 1960s, had season tickets. Herbert would attend player barbecues and banquets. On holidays, he and his family would head to the house of Dave Wilcox, a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker who played at Oregon with Papa Rich, as he was known to his grandchildren.
  84.  
  85. While most kids dream of professional sports fame, Herbert’s lifelong goal was to play in the stadium down the street, because that is what his heroes and role models did.
  86.  
  87. “It was Oregon. That was it,” Mark Herbert said in a phone interview. “It was everything.”
  88.  
  89. The NFL, as he put it, “wasn’t on the radar at all.”
  90.  
  91. The second thing you must understand is the type of values that were instilled in Justin Herbert from a young age — by Papa Rich, Mark, his mother Holly and his paternal grandfather Roger Herbert, who coached football and track at Sheldon High in Eugene for three decades.
  92.  
  93. “We set realistic expectations,” Mark said. “We set goals for him and he set goals for himself that were based more on process, on your day to day. Take care of your weights today. Take care of your grades today. Take care of everything today, and if you build your foundation on rock and stone and brick, you’re going to be way better than if you build it on sand.
  94.  
  95. “Do the things that will leave those doors open down the road.”
  96.  
  97. The Herbert family represents the antithesis of self-promotion.
  98.  
  99. “Justin grows up in this family of football guys that are quiet, unassuming leaders,” Mark said. “If you’re good, people will know it. You don’t have to tell them. … It wasn’t just me. I got it from my dad, who shared these same old-school beliefs with my father-in-law, who happens to share the exact same belief as Justin’s high school coach, Lane Johnson.
  100.  
  101. “I learned kind of from Lane, from my dad, from my father-in-law, from Dave Wilcox, kind of this quiet leadership that says, ‘Come with me because of what I’m going to do.’ Anybody can tell you what they’re going to do, but few are the people that can do it. And we always said, ‘Hey, I’d always rather go with the guy who does it than the guy that tells you he’s gonna do it.’”
  102.  
  103. Justin Herbert played baseball, basketball and football in high school. While other quarterbacks were playing in seven-on-seven tournaments and participating in camps like the Elite 11 in the summer, Herbert was in Eugene throwing with his high school teammates. He wanted to win an Oregon state championship like his brother Mitchell did. And spending time on the field with his Sheldon receivers was more productive toward that goal.
  104.  
  105. Herbert played junior varsity as a sophomore. He broke a growth plate in his leg in the third game of his junior season, his first as the varsity starter, and that set his recruitment back some. Before Oregon gave him an offer, Herbert, a three-star recruit, had his choice between Northern Arizona, Montana State and Portland State. Herbert likely would have joined Mitchell at Montana State if the opportunity did not open up at his dream school.
  106.  
  107. His profile emerged on a national scale at Oregon. But by this point, the importance of humility was ingrained in Herbert’s psyche. He threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns as a junior and led the Ducks to their first bowl win since 2014. He returned for his senior year to get his degree in biology — he was also a teaching assistant — and polished off his college career with a 12-win season.
  108.  
  109. Justin Herbert ran for three touchdowns in a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)
  110.  
  111. Perhaps Herbert should have been aware of his prowess by this point. But humility can be a detriment, too. He was taught to covet the process.
  112.  
  113. “You build a brick wall, which is almost imperviable and impenetrable, one brick at a time,” Mark said.
  114.  
  115. To look too far ahead was to depart from that fundamental family ideal.
  116.  
  117. “He was raised the right way,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said.
  118.  
  119. But it is these same life pillars that enabled Herbert to flourish as a rookie. His humility endeared him to his teammates. His focus on process helped him fight through nine losses in his first 11 NFL starts to finish 2020 on a four-game winning streak.
  120.  
  121. And once he realized — truly realized — what he was capable of doing on an NFL field, Herbert let his natural ability to take him to heights no one, not even he, imagined.
  122.  
  123. “He can process things quickly,” Beck said of Herbert. “Even for his height and size, he has a great escapability. He can put himself in tough situations and make difficult throws. He’s actually very big and hard to bring down. So within the pocket, no one is going to arm tackle him. His ability to run away from somebody and then make the throw on the run, also elite. So he’s got all these elite tools, and that’s why those guys, they get to just go play. The people that don’t have elite tools, they don’t always get to just go get tossed in the fire and, ‘Hey, you just go be you.’
  124.  
  125. “Justin can.”
  126.  
  127. Herbert’s pre-draft training days were long and arduous. Wake up. Throwing workouts in the morning. Then physical therapy. Then on-field running, including sprints and starts. Then back to the facility — Proactive Sports at The Marke in Santa Ana, near John Wayne Airport — for weight training. Then to the film room to study tape. By the time that was over, it would be 7:45 p.m.
  128.  
  129. Herbert would ask Beck to go to the roof of the Proactive facility, where there is a small turf field. He wanted to work on drops.
  130.  
  131. “That’s who Justin is,” Beck said. “Those are the things that outside of just his physical talents make him special.”
  132.  
  133. Herbert took one snap from under center in college. It was a QB sneak at the goal line. He had to learn the intricacies of this skill — one absolutely essential to NFL quarterbacking — in the months before and after the draft.
  134.  
  135. Just another brick in the wall.
  136.  
  137. “Those nights that we would stay up on the roof,” Beck said, “were working on dropbacks from under center.”
  138.  
  139. The Chargers selected Herbert with the sixth overall pick on April 23. Not long after, he packed up his car and drove 15 hours from Eugene to Costa Mesa to be closer to the Chargers facility. While the team was limited to virtual meetings, Herbert and Beck would take to the field. He was learning the offense over Zoom and applying it on the field with Beck.
  140.  
  141. “It basically was just his offense,” Beck said. “Let’s take his offense and every time that we step out onto the field, let’s run that offense. Let’s let him hear the offense. Let’s make him call the offense.”
  142.  
  143. Chargers teammates, like tight end Hunter Henry and wide receiver Keenan Allen, would stop by.
  144.  
  145. Just like Herbert knew the value of throwing with his Sheldon teammates in the summers in high school, he also understood the value of being in Southern California in the spring when he could have stayed in Eugene.
  146.  
  147. “Justin, that’s his personality,” Mark said. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to lift at 5 in the morning. I’m going to throw. I don’t have to tell you how good I am. You’re going to see it. And you come with me or not. That’s your choice. You want to come with me? Come with me. I’ll take you places you want to go.”
  148.  
  149. All this work paved the way for Herbert’s record-breaking rookie season. But what cannot be lost is the impact quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen had on Herbert’s development.
  150.  
  151. “A lot of it is obviously getting to know him as a person and how he learns,” Steichen said on Dec. 22 about Herbert’s development. “Because everyone learns differently, and once you learn how they learn, then it helps the process. … Obviously, he’s a very smart guy, but to understand how he sees the game and how he processes information is big. And then it helps you as a coach. Ultimately, we’re teachers.”
  152.  
  153. “Between Shane and between Pep,” Beck said, “those guys were scheming stuff so that Justin can play at that level that well. It’s always about a team of people, the guys around him, everybody.”
  154.  
  155. The Chargers are likely to build their next coaching staff around Justin Herbert. (Robert Hanashiro / USA Today)
  156.  
  157. The Chargers fired Lynn a day after the season ended, and a coaching search is underway. Hamilton and Steichen are unlikely to return.
  158.  
  159. Herbert’s continued development will be the priority as the Chargers make their next hire. It is a delicate situation. But Herbert proved capable and proficient at improving his game in less-than-ideal circumstances. He is a perfectionist, to a fault at times.
  160.  
  161. “When he was dialed in,” Beck said, “you had to tell him when to stop.”
  162.  
  163. For Mark Herbert, his son’s rise is “just like a tree.”
  164.  
  165. “It grows,” he said. “You drive by it 10 times and you don’t pay any attention. Then the 11th time you look at it and say, ‘Son of a gun, look at that. It’s higher and bigger than I thought it was. Look at the size of that tree. I never paid any attention.’ I think that’s what happened with Justin. It just grew and grew.”
  166.  
  167. “We planted it in the right soil,” he added. “We gave it the right fertilizer, we gave it some water, boom, and nature took its course.”
  168.  
  169. This might seem like an oversimplification of Justin Herbert’s life, but it is the truth.
  170.  
  171. He is just a kid from Eugene who never bothered to consider what existed beyond Autzen Stadium.
  172.  
  173. “We didn’t think this was coming,” his dad said.
  174.  
  175. Herbert built his wall, day by day, brick by brick, never straying from the process, never stopping to check himself out in the mirror, always staying true to the lessons he was taught.
  176.  
  177. “I’m genuine,” Herbert said the day he was drafted. “I’m real.”
  178.  
  179. Herbert does not try to be anything more or less than himself.
  180.  
  181. And, as he learned in those early days of his pro football career, that is more than enough.
  182.  
  183. (Top photo of Justin Herbert: Mark Brown / Getty Images)
  184.  
  185. Daniel Popper is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Los Angeles Chargers. He most recently covered the Jacksonville Jaguars for The Athletic. Previously, he followed the New York Jets for the New York Daily News, where he spent three years writing, reporting and podcasting about local pro sports. Follow Daniel on Twitter @danielrpopper.
  186.