Justin Herbert's improvement now relies on the little things

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) and Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Trey Pipkins.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, slapping hands with offensive tackle Trey Pipkins, has another challenge ahead Sunday against the Cowboys. (Daniel Kucin Jr. / Associated Press)

He opened eyes in 2020, his performance making team history and lasting impressions.

Justin Herbert now enters his first home game of his second season looking to continue being awesome — only, perhaps, in much less eye-opening ways.

“We saw all the spectacular things last year,” former scout and current NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “His improvement this year is going to be made in the mundane, boring, simple stuff.”

Few people have watched the 16 starts of Herbert’s career as intently as Jeremiah. Along with his television work, he also is part of the Chargers’ radio broadcast crew.

Jeremiah explained that Herbert’s strides in 2021 probably will be most visible in throwing to receivers underneath and on intermediate routes, neither of which is a staple of the highlight shows.

He said Herbert refining his touch on shorter passes and being more consistent overall — not exactly tantalizing qualities — are two other areas where the quarterback figures to improve.

Jeremiah suggested that quarterbacking an offense orchestrated by Joe Lombardi can only help Herbert’s progress. Lombardi is the Chargers’ new offensive coordinator after spending 12 seasons over two stints with New Orleans.

“I think it’s cool that Lombardi is here because nobody was better at boring than Drew Brees all those years,” Jeremiah said. “Just never making mistakes on that simple stuff. I think that’s going to be big for Herbert to have that kind of growth.”

In the Chargers’ opener, the offense indeed featured an array of shorter passes, Herbert starting the game with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown.

As it relates to his touch, two of his most memorable incompletions were lasers that bounced off the facemasks of Jared Cook and Jalen Guyton.

Cook explained Friday that he was anticipating a softer toss, but Herbert went with a fastball because a Washington defensive back was looming behind Cook and could have delivered a crushing blow.

“He was just trying to protect me from that safety,” Cook said.

Herbert is about to reach the one-year anniversary of his first NFL start, in Week 2 last season against Kansas City. He also led the Chargers to a touchdown drive to open that game and hasn’t stopped producing.

His 16-game totals — 427 completions in 642 attempts for 4,673 yards, with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — would rank among the best seasons produced by Dan Fouts or Philip Rivers.

Herbert has nine 300-yard games and has thrown for a touchdown in all but one start. He never has had fewer than 20 completions in a game and only once has failed to connect on at least 58.8% of his attempts.

“It starts with his work ethic,” backup quarterback Chase Daniel said. “I’ve been really pleased to see how hard he works, how much he cares. That’s what it’s about. This team really respects the guy.”

Coming off a season that netted him the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award, Herbert faces a level of weekly expectation unlike anything he encountered in 2020.

He began last season as the second stringer to Tyrod Taylor. There was a chance that — if Taylor played well and the team won — Herbert might have spent his entire rookie year on the bench.

The situation changed in Week 2 when Taylor was injured in a medical mishap minutes before kickoff. Herbert entered and has played all but three of the Chargers’ offensive snaps since.

The team is only 7-9 in Herbert’s starts but has won five in a row and is expected to be plenty competitive in the AFC West with a new coaching staff and rebuilt offensive line.

So much of the Chargers’ fate now rests in the right hand of the quarterback who was their backup one year ago.

“I have limited experience with him, but I think he’s got what’s necessary to handle any expectations you put on him,” said Shane Day, the Chargers’ first-year quarterbacks coach. “In fact, I think this guy welcomes those expectations.”

For Herbert, the time appears momentous, even if his next steps come in the monotonous.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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