He was terrible. He was tortured. He threw two interceptions. He tossed a ball off a face mask. He flung passes to nowhere. He couldn’t find the end zone. He couldn’t find himself.
In the final minutes against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert was beaten.
But he was still barking.
“I got it!” he screamed at his teammates on the sideline. “I got it fellas! You just give us a chance and we got it!”
Moments later, with the score tied and 44 seconds remaining and the ball on their 23-yard line, the Chargers gave him that chance.
And, yeah, he got it.
Wrapping the team in his giant hands, owning the city on his giant shoulders, doing it all with the tiniest of smiles, Justin Herbert got every inch of it.
“There was no flinch,” he said.
No blink, all bling, his three perfect passes executed with no timeouts leading the Chargers on a drive that resulted in a game-winning 43-yard field goal by Cameron Dicker to give them a 17-14 victory and put them on a direct path to the playoffs.
“It’s like poetry in motion, watching Justin,” said Chargers defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day.
It’s lyrical and meaningful and fun. It’s like witnessing a young Kobe Bryant, a fresh Mike Trout, a clean-shaven Clayton Kershaw, a cradle filled with greatness, the start of something enormous and enchanting.
“It’s magic,” said Drue Tranquill. “Every Sunday he’s doing something.”
In only his third season, these somethings have added up to position Herbert as potentially the greatest young quarterback in NFL history.
He just passed the Rams’ Matthew Stafford for the most completions through 50 games. He just became the first player to throw for at least 4,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.
As if that’s not enough, with three more touchdowns he will pass Dan Marino for the most combined touchdowns in his first three seasons.
“You’re watching the best of the best … it’s masterful,” said Joseph-Day. “When you have a quarterback like that, you always have a chance.”
Even when you don’t. Entering the fourth quarter Sunday, the Chargers were locked in a 7-7 tie with the pounding Titans, and Herbert appeared mostly overwhelmed by the relentless pressure, throwing two picks in Titans territory, including one in the end zone at the end of the first half.
“We didn’t play well as an offense and it starts with me,” Herbert said.
But, as usual for his 8-6 team, it ended with him.
“You have to stay at it,” said Herbert. “You have to keep pushing the ball down the field.”
Early in the fourth quarter, he dumped a perfect 31-yard pass to Keenan Allen to set up Ekeler’s three-yard touchdown run and give the Chargers a brief lead.
“The cool thing about Justin is, it doesn’t matter how bad he’s played throughout the game or how tough it’s been to move the ball, he finds a way to make it happen,” said Tranquill.
Then, after the Titans had used a bruising drive to tie the score on a sneak by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Herbert really had to make it happen.
You’ve scuffled all day and now you’re going to drive the team 52 yards with 44 seconds remaining and no timeouts?
“You saw all the things that make him special,” said Brandon Staley.
Let the coach count the ways.
“His resilience …”
Herbert dropped a perfect 16-yard pass down the left sideline to Mike Williams.
“His poise …”
Herbert threw a short pass for six yards to Gerald Everett.
“His playmaking …”
While outracing furious Titans defenders, Herbert connected on an impossible laser down the right sidelined to a leaping Williams for 35 yards to set up the field goal.
Williams just laughed, saying, “It ain’t over till it’s over with us.”
Herbert just shrugged, saying, “Mike kind of pointed up like he wanted a jump ball … and I was able to lock eyes on him. If you’re able to put it anywhere around him, he’s going to go up and get it.”
Staley just marveled, concluding, “You find out about your quarterback in two-minute … that was an amazing two-minute drill for him.”
Considering all the obstacles the Chargers have faced this season, from Herbert’s rib injury to a depleted defense, the team has embarked on an amazing late-season journey. In the last two weeks they’ve defeated playoff-bound Miami and Tennessee, and now they will finish with three non-playoff teams in Indianapolis, the Rams, and Denver.
They win those three winnable games and they’re in the postseason, an unlikely spot just a month ago, but a seemingly perfect place now for a team just starting to party.
The music in their locker room after Sunday’s victory was deafening. The laughter was constant. The hugs were real.
This is what happens when a high-powered offense is buffeted by consecutive brilliant performances by a maligned defense. This is what happens when the entire team is rooting for each other. This is what happens when your quarterback barks.
“Today’s performance was a good example of, we’re a connected team,” said Staley. “Because we’re connected, it’s allowed us to endure all that’s happened this season, because that is the only explanation. There’s no other way to explain it.”
Well, that, and they have the NFL’s best young quarterback, who Sunday threw two interceptions with no touchdown passes yet produced yet another unquantifiable feeling that something special is happening with this 24-year-old athlete and his starry-eyed team.
Whatever that is, yeah, Justin Herbert’s got it.