When Justin Herbert returned to the field after missing just one play, Keenan Allen, probably like many Chargers fans, thought things couldn’t be that bad.
But, just minutes later, Herbert rolled to his right on third-and-one and, with room to run for the first down, cautiously and weakly threw the ball onto the Arrowhead Stadium turf to kill the play.
“It didn’t look like a real injury because he landed on his butt,” Allen said Thursday of the time Herbert suffered broken cartilage in his ribs last week against Kansas City.
But then, recalling the third-down discarded shot, Allen said he concluded, “Okay, he must have a real problem. He is suffering. I’m sure it hurts.”
Allen was, in fact, like many of the fans of this team a week ago. He watched Chargers-Chiefs on television at his home after not traveling because he had been ruled out with a hamstring injury.
So Allen, too, was stunned when Herbert immediately followed up the most anemic-looking play of his young NFL career with one of the most dazzling.
Herbert perfectly dropped a deep rainbow over the middle into the waiting hands of DeAndre Carter to convert a fourth-and-one for a 35-yard gain.
From not being able to go at all to going long, Herbert put the Chargers in position to pull within 27-24 in the final two minutes.
“It would have been an amazing pitch even if he wasn’t injured,” Allen said. “But the fact that he was able to do it with the game on the line and everything that was going on made it that much more magnified.”
Everything around Herbert has been magnified this week as he tries to prepare for Sunday’s game against Jacksonville at SoFi Stadium.
Herbert was limited in practice for the second straight day Thursday after he was seen throwing a variety of passes in the open-to-media portion of practice.
His official designation for the game will be determined Friday when the Chargers release their latest injury report. If Herbert can’t play, veteran backup Chase Daniel is expected to start.
Thursday appeared to be a step in the right direction as Herbert didn’t throw a pitch Wednesday during the period reporters allowed to watch practice.
“He plays with a lot of heart,” Carter said. “I’d go to war with that guy any day of the week, man. He’s a fighter and I’m going to ride with him.”
Herbert showed a lot to the Chargers and the NFL in the first 34 starts of his career. But last week against the Chiefs, he showed something new as a pro: an undeniable toughness to persevere through injury.
On the drive after being injured, Herbert completed 7 of 9 passes for 73 yards and connected with Joshua Palmer for a 7-yard touchdown on fourth down.
Although many people hadn’t seen Herbert succeed under such dire conditions, one of his former teammates from Oregon said acting was nothing new.
“I’m not surprised at all,” tight end Hunter Kampmoyer said. “He’s been doing that for as long as I’ve known him.”
Now a member of the Chargers’ practice squad, Kampmoyer played with Herbert for three seasons with the Ducks.
“That’s right Justin,” Kampmoyer said. He has been doing that since college. There were plenty of times he was beaten like that and played through him. That’s the kind of player he is, the kind of person he is.”
The only significant injury Herbert suffered at Oregon came in 2017 when a broken collarbone forced him to sit out five games. He has managed to stay healthy with the Chargers for his first two seasons or more.
None of the teammates asked Thursday expressed surprise at the value Herbert showed last week. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi called Herbert and fellow quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford “the three toughest guys I’ve ever been with.”
Safety Derwin James Jr. noted Herbert’s rookie season during which the quarterback absorbed several big hits after shooting out of the pocket.
“Justin is a tough guy,” James said. “He gets up strong in the weight room. I wouldn’t say he’s a quarterback. I mean, he does everything a normal linebacker or receiver does as far as working.”
Said Carter: “You can tell the guys who it means a lot to. That’s Justin. He wouldn’t say that he showed me anything new. But at the same time, it’s one of those things you don’t know for sure until you see it. Justin showed everyone.”
Although Herbert’s status remains uncertain, it appears the Chargers will be without center Corey Linsley and perhaps without cornerback JC Jackson on Sunday.
Linsley is dealing with a knee problem that sidelined him during the second half at Kansas City. He has not been to the practice field this week during the media viewing.
Jackson sat out the Chargers’ opener while recovering from surgery on his right ankle. He then played all 57 defensive snaps against the Chiefs, and after the game he said he felt fine.
But Jackson hasn’t practiced the last two days. He was in the field Wednesday and Thursday, but did not work out with the team.
Allen (hamstring), starting right tackle Trey Pipkins III (foot) and backup tight end Donald Parham Jr. (hamstring) were all limited in practice.