Justin Herbert, humble and brilliant, has the Chargers in the playoffs

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COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers, still relocating, occupy a modest training facility for now. It’s a nondescript suburban office building, in an office plaza surrounded by office plazas. Their practice field, more of a big yard compared to the usual palatial NFL grounds, sits about a 40-mile drive from the posh SoFi Stadium that the Chargers left San Diego to share with the Los Angeles Rams. In Southern California traffic, it feels two time zones away.

It’s a very Justin Herbert kind of place.

You could imagine Herbert, the Oregon graduate with a grade-point average as prolific as his football stats, using his biology degree in a building like this. But he’s doing okay at his NFL quarterback gig. In the Chargers’ quaint lab, the unassuming Herbert continues to perfect his own brand of stardom.

On Saturday night, in a sterling matchup of young franchise quarterbacks making their playoff debuts, Herbert will lead the Chargers against Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars. As usual, he’s so chill about the task he makes it seem like NBC is televising a prime time grocery store run.

On Thursday afternoon, about 54 hours before playing on the stage of his dreams, Herbert was asked if he was more fired up for this moment.

“That’s a good question,” he said, making his favorite polite acknowledgment before dismissing the query. “But I think if there was extra fire in my belly this week it would mean that I didn’t have enough during the regular season. So I think we’re treating it like another game because we give our best effort week in and week out. And this is just another great opportunity to go play football.”

Herbert will not have a second career as a promoter, that’s for sure.

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He can be understated because he plays with such effortless panache. From his first start, when he threw for 311 yards in Week 2 of the 2020 season, Herbert made it clear he’s the franchise player Los Angeles needs. Over his first three seasons, he has also developed into the leader he needs, defying the misguided pre-draft belief that, because of his mellow demeanor, he would struggle to command a locker room.

This season has been the hardest and messiest of his brief career, but progress does not come from ease. Herbert showed he could absorb difficulties. He played through the pain of an early season rib cartilage fracture. He scrounged up productivity without some of the offense’s essential starters. He figured out new ways to manipulate defenses that have adjusted to him. He dealt with the ugly performances and led the Chargers to a 10-7 record despite constant misfortune.

“We got a special one in him,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “It’s the toughness factor — the ability to take hits, the ability to stand under pressure and come through in the clutch — on top of all the physical tools. If you don’t have that guy at quarterback, you really don’t have a chance to see everything you can do. But we know we have that guy in Justin.”

In the AFC, that guy has gone from aspirational to mandatory. A fascinating subplot of the current playoff field: the disproportionate amount of elite young quarterbacks who grace the AFC. To win in this conference, the quarterback needs to be great — or flash special skills, at least — and have a birth date no earlier than 1995. At 27, Patrick Mahomes is the grandfather of the group. Look at who’s vying for the AFC title: Mahomes, Herbert, Lawrence, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow. Lamar Jackson and Tua Tagovailoa are injured and unable to play in the first round, but they are also linchpins for their teams.

If you didn’t draft a first round quarterback and quickly develop him within the last six years, you’re not a viable AFC contender right now. The NFC still has room for old men, reclamation projects, pleasant surprises and middling veterans. The AFC monopolizes precocious youth at the position.

Under normal circumstances, the Herbert-Lawrence victor would have next. He would be poised to vault his team into a window of prime contention. But it’s hard to concede the future when Mahomes, Allen and Burrow are only slightly older and directing Super Bowl-caliber franchises. Instead of replicating the old Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry with Mahomes and Allen, the AFC keeps multiplying the quarterback intrigue.

“Everybody has a guy at the helm that can hurt you,” Chargers wide receiver DeAndre Carter said. “We’re blessed to have Justin. I’ll pick him over anyone, any day of the week. He gives us a shot to go win this thing.”

To be 6-foot-6, long-haired and full of captivating talent, Herbert exceeds the modesty of his environment. The Chargers have the quietest and kindest locker room vibe, but everything appears loud and showy next to Herbert. Three years into NFL greatness, he still can shrink into the background.

Herbert emerges and vanishes. He has presence and the power of invisibility. It’s not shyness as much as intense focus and disinterest in blather. As the Chargers have learned, his substance and competitiveness make him easy to follow. As his father, Mark Herbert, once told me: “He’d rather kick your ass quietly and pick you up and say, ‘Hey, good game.'”

Easton Stick, the No. 3 quarterback, sits next to Herbert. They are friends who play golf together in the offseason. Herbert excels at that sport, too. Whenever Herbert hits a bad shot, Stick will poke the competitive bear. Stick also challenges Herbert at trivia and prompts him to recite the periodic table. Herbert thrives on demand.

“He’s a genius,” Stick said, laughing.

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Better yet, he’s accessible. In three seasons playing with Herbert, Stick has witnessed his friend’s evolution into the face of the franchise.

“You see him do stuff every day at practice that, like, there’s no one else in the world — just a handful of guys, maybe — that can do what he does as far as moving the pocket, throwing it back across the field, making throws without his feet and being accurate all the time,” Stick said. “But probably the area he’s grown the most is understanding and really becoming the leader of this locker room and understanding how to connect with everybody. When you’re the quarterback, it’s tricky. I’ve always looked at it as you’ve got to be one of the guys without actually being one of the guys.

“He’s just been himself, and I think that’s why everyone appreciates him so much. He’s a humble, humble guy that genuinely loves playing football, loves his teammates and doesn’t want to do anything else.”

He’s just there, always, excellent and reliable. Since taking the reins, Herbert has made 49 consecutive starts. When he sustained the rib injury in Week 2 against Kansas City, Herbert sat out one play, returned and soon threw a 35-yard dime to Carter. The Chargers lost the game, but Herbert’s tenacity during that agonizing final quarter still resonates with his teammates.

“That’s the kind of stuff he does,” Carter said. “That’s the type of leader he is. You see his heart and his commitment to us. He leads by example, and we follow.”

The Chargers are building a fancy new home in El Segundo. They’ll move to their headquarters in 2024. The Lakers and Kings will be their neighbors. They’ll enjoy state-of-the-art amenities for their players, better curbside appeal to recruit free agents and a more central location to the city they now represent. In the multibillion-dollar sports industry, such extravagance matters. But the Chargers already have the most important asset: a player with impeccable talent and unassailable football character. A quarterback to lift the franchise. An AFC necessity.

“That position elevates everything,” Chargers Coach Brandon Staley said. “I am sure glad we have Justin Herbert.”

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