At any given moment, the NFL’s quarterback landscape provides several archetypes.
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You have quarterbacks whose playing styles ooze flash (Michael Vick, Brett Favre), quarterbacks with an unexciting but effective playing style (Chad Pennington), quarterbacks who command attention more for their personality than play (Johnny Manziel), and quarterbacks whose playing style and personality are similarly captivating (Peyton Manning).
I’ll contend that there is yet another category of quarterback: those with elite talent but a personality that simply isn’t conducive to superstardom.
Today’s crop of elite young quarterbacks provides similar variance.
You have Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Kyler Murray, quarterbacks whose playing style is ultra-exciting. Joe Burrow has shown a Pennington-like ability to post solid numbers and make his team better without any Herculean physical attributes.
Baker Mayfield’s polarizing personality has commanded just as much attention as his play. Patrick Mahomes has flashed an advertiser-friendly persona with elite play to match.
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And then you have Justin Herbert, who fits squarely into that final category—an elite talent who’s play is exciting but often overshadowed by more dynamic players like Murray and Allen.
Then there’s Herbert’s personality, a subtle combination of sly wit, extreme politeness, and boundless humility. Though beloved by his teammates, Herbert does nothing to draw attention to himself.
Everything about Herbert the person is headline kryptonite in a media age driven by controversy.
Increasingly, though, Herbert’s play is making him impossible to ignore. The 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year has continued his upward trajectory, converting one-time critics into believers.
With phrases like “Hall of Fame” and “future of the NFL” now creeping into conversations about Herbert, it’s worth asking: where, exactly, did this wunderkind come from? How did he sneak under the radars of not only NFL scouts, but virtually every Division-1 college program?
Herbert’s story is one of unflinching resilience in the face of skepticism and doubt. The ultra-humble quarterback is not known to speak about himself. He doesn’t have to—we’re here to tell the story, and predict the trajectory, of Justin Herbert’s rise to NFL stardom.
The Oregon Kid: Herbert Chooses Football at the Very Last Minute
The path to that destination, though, was not always clear-cut.
Before he could fulfill his prophetic vision of becoming an NFLer in LA, Herbert would have to progress through adolescence in Eugene, Oregon.
Sports was a way of life in the Herbert household. Athletic fields, sports-themed t-shirts (including Chargers gear), baseball helmets, football pads, and rubberized running tracks make appearances in Herbert’s childhood photo album.
Also making appearances in the scrapbook: Herbert’s two brothers, Patrick and Mitchell. Brothers, as only brothers know, breed competitive spirit. The brother Herbert would also come in handy as scab teammates when coronavirus prevented Justin from engaging in the typical pre-draft workouts.
As he progressed beyond pickup basketball games in the family driveway, it became clear that Justin Herbert might have a shot at more serious athletic pursuits.
He showed talent as a football player, on the basketball court, and on the baseball diamond. Though talented as a quarterback, Herbert was not a precocious phenom in the mold of Arch Manning. For a while, Herbert’s star remained buried on the Shelton High depth chart.
Herbert did not receive significant playing time until his Junior year, and even then he only started three games. His senior year provided the opportunity to shine, as Herbert played in 11 games and threw for 2,915 yards and 36 touchdowns while only logging three interceptions.
Herbert’s senior-year production was impressive, as was his apparent athletic prowess. And yet as the college commitment deadline approached, the 6’6″, cannon-armed Herbert was receiving scholarship offers from the likes of Portland State and Northern Arizona.
To be fair to recruiters, Herbert had only one year as a full-time starter under his belt. Most highly-recruited Division-1 quarterbacks today enroll in quarterback camps as soon as the doctor cuts the umbilical cord.
Coaches undoubtedly had questions: Does this kid love football? Is his senior season a flash in the pan? Will Herbert be able to develop into a starting collegiate quarterback with such limited starting experience?
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Even more importantly, scouts wanted to know: Is this kid even going to play football if we offer him a scholarship?
You see, Herbert also excelled at baseball at Eugene’s Sheldon High, so much so that he bypassed early enrollment at the University of Oregon so that he could pursue a 6A State Title in his final season of high school baseball. For a time, the multi-sport athlete believed that he may have a clearer path to pro baseball than to collegiate or pro football:
“I thought it was going to be a baseball player for quite a while actually until late my senior football season when Oregon came around and offered,” Herbert says via Sports Illustrated.
Had Oregon not coming knocking, Herbert has said that he would have likely joined the football team at FCS-level Montana State, where his older brother Mitchell was playing wide receiver.
Instead, at the last minute, Oregon and Nevada extended the only Division 1 football offers that Herbert would receive. As a native of Eugene and a diehard Ducks fan, the choice was obvious—Herbert, a quarterback known for throwing tight spirals, would become a Duck.
Herbert Went from Sixth String to Freshman Starter. But Was His Collegiate Career More Decorated or Disappointing?
Those who paid close enough attention would have recognized Justin Herbert’s beyond-his-years maturity and resilience. They wouldn’t have to look past the two-year period encapsulating Herbert’s senior season of high school and freshman year at Oregon.
Essentially given the cold shoulder by every D-1 program, Herbert wasn’t even in the top-five quarterbacks on his Oregon Ducks team when he entered Oregon’s Football Performance Center in 2016.
Those who’ve watched Netflix’s Last Chance U or monitored college football’s transfer portal know that far lesser hurdles have sent far more highly-touted prospects into a tailspin of self-sabotage.
Oregon’s athletic staff couldn’t even spell the kid’s name right upon his first official visit, inscribing “Hebert” on his name tag—during his recruiting. Some recruiting trick, huh?
It was no sweat for Herbert, who needed little convincing to attend his hometown university.
In short order, Herbert became the first true freshman to start for the Oregon Ducks in 33 years. Herbert would overcome turmoil during his tenure at Oregon to become the second-most prolific quarterback in school history, behind only Marcus Mariota.
And yet, many analysts voiced skepticism that Herbert was a sure-fire NFL prospect heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Why?
A review of Justin Herbert’s college stats reflects the accurate, turnover-averse, and big-armed quarterback we now know him to be.
Freshman: 8 games, 63.5% completion, 1,936 yards, 19 TD, 4 INT, 148.8 passer rating
Sophomore: 8 games, 67.5% completion, 1,983 yards, 15 TD, 5 INT, 167.5 passer rating
Junior: 13 games, 59.4% completion, 3,151 yards, 29 TDs, 8 INTs, 144.6 passer rating
Senior: 14 games, 66.8% completion, 3,471 yards, 32 TDs, 6 INTs, 156.8 passer rating
Extrapolate the stats for the two shortened seasons, sprinkle in one-hundred-plus rushing yards each year, and you have statistics that are more than worthy of a first-round pick, especially given Herbert’s athletic and cognitive gifts.
Even with a bit of a dip in completion percentage during his Junior season, there appears to be reasonable year-to-year growth, with his Senior season being the healthiest, most productive of his college career. Herbert also won a Rose Bowl in his senior season, which would presumably silence any critics inclined to claim that he is not a proven winner.
So why did so many football fans view Herbert’s college career with a collective “meh”?
One possible explanation for Herbert’s good-not-great college career was his refusal to give up other sports that he loved while in high school. He played football, baseball, and basketball throughout his high school career.
As scholarship-hungry parents increasingly pressure their kids into focusing on one sport throughout the calendar year, Herbert did it the old school way. Developmentally, though, you have to wonder if this put the Oregon quarterback behind the eight ball. 10,000 hours and all that.
Experience is valuable, particularly for young quarterbacks learning complex defensive tendencies. However, Herbert’s immediate success in the NFL suggests that most problems in his college career likely lied beyond the quarterback’s control.
More likely explanations for any underwhelming aspects of Herbert’s career at UO include:
- Instability: Herbert’s freshman season came under lame-Duck coach Mark Helfrich, who was unable to carry the torch from his predecessor Chip Kelly. Herbert’s second season saw Willie Taggart take the reins, only to depart for Florida State following the season. Head coach Mario Cristobal provided some stability in Herbert’s Junior and Senior seasons, which proved to be his two best.
- Inconsistency: Herbert’s career seemed full of starts and stops. Despite an underwhelming final record, Herbert showed flashes of massive potential as a freshman. Then, his coach gets (rightfully) fired, injury strikes (more on that in a second), his coach leaves, and suddenly a promising college career is a disjointed, uncertain college career. Though he’d re-establish forward momentum to finish his career, early chaos likely created lasting impressions of Herbert that hard-headed fans find tough to shake.
- Injury: It’s not as if Justin Herbert has a reputation as injury-prone. However, the timing of a fractured collarbone during Herbert’s sophomore campaign could not have been worse. Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense was averaging nearly 50 points per game, compiling a noteworthy 4-1 record when the injury happened. Rather than putting together a potential Heisman-worthy season, Herbert’s—and Oregon’s—seasons ended in disappointing fashion.
There is a theme here: most of the adversity that hamstrung Herbert’s potential as a college quarterback was out of the young man’s hands. More high-level analysis of Oregon’s offensive schemes throughout Herbert’s tenure may reveal even more explanations for any unfulfilled potential.
As the 2020 NFL Draft approaches, you have to wonder whether analysts placed more criticism on Herbert than he deserved.
Why Wasn’t Herbert the Top Pick in the Draft? The “Experts” Simply Got it Wrong
We’ve covered many of the reasons why an NFL franchise would draft Justin Herbert—the 6’6″ frame, deadly accuracy, ball security, and elite arm talent being “pros” in the Herbert column.
Knowing what we know now about Herbert’s Extreme preparedness for the NFL game, one has to ask: what were the “cons” in draft analysts’ analyses of Justin Herbert, again?
Draftniks, not known for latching onto the positives, did not hold back when it came to Herbert’s perceived shortcomings:
- “All the issues scouts have with Oregon QB Justin Herbert came to bear in a loss to Arizona State on Saturday night: the unsightly picks, followed by the furious comeback (the Ducks defense couldn’t do quite enough to give him a chance to complete it) telling the tale of a Jekyll-and-Hyde player,” Albert Breer told Sports Illustrated
- “I was in Detroit when they drafted Joey Harrington in the first round, similar qualities with great arm strength and skills — but he couldn’t win the locker room,” ESPN personality Desmond Howard said pre-draft. “That’s my concern with the quarterback out there at Oregon, Justin Herbert. Not sure he can win the locker room like Burrow.”
- An anonymous scout branded Herbert as “immature”, “quirky”, and “not really a leader of men”, despite coaches and players at the Senior Bowl praising virtually every aspect of Herbert’s leadership.
In hindsight, the critiques of Herbert’s personality seem puzzling. By virtually every credible account, Herbert is thoughtful, respectful, deferential, and an underrated leader, whether by nature, upbringing, or both.
Herbert was never the rah-rah type, and likely never will be. But his last head coach at Oregon—the coach who interacted with Herbert the longest and at the time when he was an imminent NFL draftee—described Herbert this way:
“Driven, determined, hungry, off-the-charts smart, can make every throw, can run, can run the entire offense, can manage the run game, can flip protections — he can do it all,” Mario Cristobal told OregonLive. “He really is that kind of a guy. He’s loved by his teammates —everyone just thinks the world of him. He’s a grinder.”
Those who knew Herbert best, like his former tackle at Oregon Penei Sewell, went so far as to describe certain pre-draft criticism of Herbert as “slander”.
If anything, Herbert displayed restraint and humility that—you would think—NFL franchises would covet as traits in their starting quarterback. Just consider this response to a question about his readiness for the NFL:
“I’ve never played a down in the NFL,” Herbert told reporters via NBC Sports. “I couldn’t tell you what the speed of the game is like. I’ve watched as much as I could and I feel confident with my abilities but I’ve never played in the NFL before, so to give you an answer on whether I could play right now, I don’t think that would be in my best interest.”
The answer is honest and self-aware. And yet, you could fill several NFL stadiums with critics who still viewed Herbert as a certain NFL bust, even faulting him for such honesty.
It remains difficult to decipher the authenticity of these critiques. We know that franchises will not hesitate to spread disinformation about a prospect they are fond of, hoping that negative reports deter other franchises from selecting the player.
However, most of these critics put their names on their negative analyses of Herbert, suggesting they truly believed their critiques. Wrong as these doubters appear to have been, many of those same critics deserve credit for changing their tune.
Herbert’s Play Positions Him as the Next Face of the NFL…
There is no doubt that Herbert’s play to date suggests he has a special career ahead of him.
He had no preparation for his first NFL start, thrust unexpectedly into the lineup after a Chargers’ team doctor unintentionally punctured starter Tyrod Taylor’s lung, ironically, with a pain-killing injection.
How did Herbert perform with no forewarning? He threw for 311 yards and accounted for two touchdowns while nearly defeating the reigning NFL champs.
The remainder of his rookie season went similarly well. Herbert completed 66.6% of passes, throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions in 15 games.
His rookie performance earned Herbert the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award over Joe Burrow, who was drafted with the first overall pick, Tua Tagavailoa (also drafted ahead of Herbert), and all other rookies drafted in 2020.
…But Does Herbert Have the Personality for Stardom?
Would you say that Tom Brady has a star’s personality? Before you respond, think about it.
He has a supermodel wife, movie-star looks, and the confidence that only a true alpha can espouse. But, for most of his career, Brady made an art form out of remaining mum with the media.
Though he’s become more open since his move to Tampa, it is the winning that is most responsible for Brady’s stardom.
Again, Gisele doesn’t hurt his Q score, but does Tom from Foxborough have a shot at the model without the stardom that his winning created?
So no, Herbert’s muted demeanor does not alone preclude him from stardom. However, without winning in a major way, Herbert’s personality makes true stardom virtually impossible.
If Herbert continues to progress as a quarterback, the Chargers’ chances of success will remain great year-in and year-out. For the first time in a long, long time, many pundits believe that the Bolts have the leadership infrastructure in place for prolonged success.
Herbert has enough Pro-Bowl caliber teammates—Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Keenan Allen—that he is unlikely to endure the experiences of Calvin Johnson, Archie Manning, or Barry Sanders, superstars whose careers were squandered by woebegone franchises.
Make no mistake, though: Herbert is not going to saunter into any Super Bowls, let alone superstardom.
With his natural gifts, competitive makeup, and history of overcoming long odds, it’s clear that Herbert has a shot at greatness if he does not already qualify.
Even if he does not ever become a household name like Patrick Mahomes or offer the same brand of dazzling play that Kyler Murray does, Justin Herbert will be a fixture among the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks for the next decade-plus.
He’ll continue to navigate the pocket effortlessly, deliver pinpoint passes to every square yard of the field, and he’ll remain one of the most talented, intelligent quarterbacks in the NFL.
Like Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers have shown us, there is room for more than one superstar quarterback in the NFL. When the sculptor carves the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks spanning roughly 2021 to 2035, will Herbert be on it?
The one they call “Herbie” went from a one-year starter in high school to freshman starter at Oregon, from heavily criticized draft prospect to Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Considering Herbert’s penchant for rapid ascendance and proving doubters wrong, ask yourself: Would you confidently bet against the Oregon Kid?