Justin Herbert set to make more Chargers history vs. Texans

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  • Justin Herbert
    Justin Herbert
    American football player (1998–)
  • Brandon Staley
    American football coach
Inglewood, California December 16, 2021: Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert beats the Chiefs defense to score a touchdown in the second quarter at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood Thursday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, scoring on a run against the Chiefs, was selected to the Pro Bowl in his second season. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Entering his 30th start, Justin Herbert already has done things no one else has done in NFL history.

On Sunday at Houston, he’ll do something he has never done before — play a game as a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Herbert was named to the AFC team Wednesday, one of six Chargers recognized during this bounce-back season that has put the team in position to make the playoffs with three games remaining to play.

“He takes it so seriously,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “I think sometimes, when you’re as talented as him, it’s easy to be like, ‘I don’t need to do that. I can rely on all this talent.’ He does not take that approach.”

Herbert played well enough in 2020 to be selected as the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. He had more completions, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns than any first-year NFL player.

He responded to the elevated attention and expectations that followed by producing a season just as stellar while leading the Chargers to more on-field success. Herbert’s five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime are second in the league.

“The thing that I am so impressed with is how much he improves week to week and how rapid that improvement is,” coach Brandon Staley said. "I think people realize how gifted he is and how special he is. But I don't think people are appreciating how much he's improving each week, and the little things that he's improving at.”

Asked specifically for one of those “little things,” Staley pointed to Herbert “playing with a base in the pocket” and how having a sturdier foundation can help with accuracy and ball security.

So here’s a coach touting his quarterback, the one everyone celebrates for possessing a phenomenal arm, by talking about Herbert’s feet. That’s how complete his commitment is to getting better.

“You don't know that until you get with a player, just his hunger and that drive and will that he has to become his best,” Staley said. “That's what's been impressive for me this season. … There’s still so far to go with his game.”

Herbert has 32 touchdown passes and needs only three more to set the Chargers’ single-season record. And this is the same franchise for which Philip Rivers and Dan Fouts played.

The mark could fall Sunday against a Texans team that has struggled to remain competitive while compiling a 3-11 record, two of those wins coming against 2-12 Jacksonville.

The other victory was a stunning Week 11 triumph at Tennessee when the Titans turned the ball over five times and lost despite amassing an advantage of 420-190 total yards.

The Chargers entered the weekend with significant roster issues: 12 players on the COVID-19 reserve list plus the addition Saturday of wide receiver Mike Williams. Pro Bowl edge rusher Joey Bosa was ruled out for the game after testing positive. Running back Austin Ekeler announced on social media that he was out as well.

Yet the situation was even worse for Houston, which had more than 20 players on the list, the total prompting speculation that the NFL could postpone this game.

Even with so much uncertainty and the Christmas holiday arriving, Staley said Friday that the Chargers appeared to be ready based on their preparation.

“I think we've had maybe our best week of practice since the beginning of the season,” he said. “That's what you're after as a head coach when there are some circumstances, some obstacles.

“Whether it’s COVID, Christmas, etc., we've just been able to really navigate it full speed and make a lot of improvements. I've been very impressed with our group this week.”

The Chargers came into Week 16 sitting sixth in the conference, a spot that would have them playing at New England in the opening round of the postseason.

They had a chance to take over first place in the AFC West in Week 15 but lost in overtime to Kansas City. Even with that defeat, the atmosphere around the Chargers’ facility appeared upbeat, something Keenan Allen attributed to Staley.

“After the game, I felt good about it,” the veteran wide receiver said. “I don't know. It just feels good. The energy’s changing, just the morale. The confidence that he's bringing, he's instilling, it's real.”

After missing the playoffs in Anthony Lynn’s final two seasons as coach, the Chargers can take another step toward clinching a spot Sunday in Staley’s rookie year as a head coach at any level.

Herbert has led the bounce back, but so many others have contributed as well.

“I know that we feel really confident in the team that we have because I know that we’re battle-tested,” Staley said. “I think our team still has another gear it can get to. That’s your goal as a coach, for your team to truly play its best at the end.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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