In the midst of contemplating his son's ascension into one of the most gifted and polarizing NFL quarterback prospects in recent years, a memory drifts into Mark Herbert's head. It goes back to the time when his son Justin was in middle school, and Mark was coaching his youth football team. They'd won every game they played up to that point, but they trailed late in this one. Mark gathered Justin, looked him in the eyes and said, "It's time for you to lead this team and win this game."
But as Justin led his team on what should have been a prophetic game-winning drive, the end proved deflating.
"We didn't score," Mark says. "We lost."
This is not, then, the typical tale of a young quarterback who embraces his role at a precocious age and rallies his team to victory by sheer force of personality. Justin Herbert has never really been the prototypical natural-born leader we tend to think of at the position. He did not wind up playing quarterback because he was the most charismatic figure on the playground. He was a quiet and cerebral kid who started out at wide receiver and only switched to quarterback after some parents of the other kids on Mark's youth team told him his son had the best throwing arm out of anyone in the neighborhood, and he was crazy not to move Justin to quarterback.
As Mark Herbert leans back in his chair inside the sprawling Oregon football complex adjacent to Autzen Stadium, his son's origin story feels increasingly distant, even if it's not geographically distant at all. The campus is a familiar place; it's less than a 10-minute drive from the Herbert family's house in Eugene. He can walk it in 23 minutes, which he knows because he's done it so often that he has it timed down to the minute. For years, he walked here with his children when they were young fans. Then he walked here with his wife as Justin and his brother Patrick, a freshman tight end, wore Oregon uniforms.
That's part of the reason it feels so strange to be talking about Justin in this way, as a potential NFL commodity ripe to be picked apart by overzealous scouts. To Mark, Justin is still a neighborhood kid who attended nearby Sheldon High School. It hasn't fully sunk in that his son has just completed a career as one of the all-time great quarterbacks at Oregon.
"I wasn't a quarterback," says Mark, a former all-state wide receiver from Eugene who was briefly a member of the football team at the University of Montana. "We didn't have these dreams that he was going to do this. He never had a quarterback coach in high school. He didn't really go to any camps. I didn't even know what a college quarterback looked like because I'd never seen one up close when he was in high school."
For a moment, lost in thought, Mark forgets why he started telling his long-lost story about Justin's middle school failure. But then he remembers—that he was describing Justin's evolution from a timid teenager into a Heisman candidate. How he forced himself to become more vocal and assertive during his senior season, and how he gathered the Oregon offense together multiple times throughout the course of the year and assured them that they could come back to win a football game. Justin had proved his growth multiple times in wins over Washington State and against Washington. And even when the Ducks fell short against Auburn in their first game of the 2019 season, and later in the year against Arizona State, Justin never lost that sense of faith.
He'd always had the physical gifts. He played three sports in high school and grew up to be 6'6" and 240 pounds. He proved his NFL bona fides by engineering three key scoring drives in a career-culminating 28-27 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. But what matters most to Mark Herbert is that it feels as if Justin has begun to fully shed the timidity that defined him for so many years—that his son has begun to think like a big-time quarterback.
"You know, sometimes I wonder if those things stick with you a little bit," Mark says. "Like, 'Last time I did that, I did fail.' But to have his teammates say that he was the one saying, 'We're going to score,' that's awesome to hear."
He breaks into a laugh.
"That tells me," Mark says, "that he finally put aside that stupid eighth grade football game."
Part of the reason Justin Herbert chose to come back for his senior season rather than declare for the NFL draft at the end of the 2018 season was because he'd grown up dreaming of leading Oregon to a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl win. But he also came back because he was intelligent enough to recognize the perceptions that trailed him. One scout told Bleacher Report's Matt Miller in 2018 that Herbert was "quirky, not really a leader of men." Others said that he was "soft" and "immature."
What we know for certain is that he doesn't fit the classic archetype of a quarterback. He's a natural introvert, so much so that before this season his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Marcus Arroyo, bought Herbert a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. In the skeptical world of NFL scouting, Herbert's personality—combined with his on-field inconsistency over the course of his development—has given some evaluators pause. Is he too fragile? Can he handle the criticism? Any other quarterback who shuns social media like he does might be viewed as mature beyond his years. With Herbert, the question can easily be twisted into, What's he hiding from?
"Quarterback is the toughest position in sports, both on the locker room and on the field," Arroyo says. "You can't fake it when things are bad, and you can't fake it when things are good. Everyone's looking at you all the time. With a kid like Justin, you have to make him feel comfortable when he's being looked at."
In addition to giving Herbert the book, Arroyo also borrowed some tactics from his wife, Kelly, who works as a psychologist. He talked frankly with Herbert about how and when he should be more vocal, and how to shed his perfectionist tendencies and become less self-critical. Arroyo and Herbert even went through workbooks filled with exercises to help him figure out how he could become more comfortable with his mistakes.
To Arroyo, there's a certain amount of laziness in the views of scouts who question Herbert's ability to lead. All they see is what's in front of them, not what Herbert has grown into. Arroyo spent much of his career in California, where he was once a quarterback at San Jose State; he points out that quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff weren't as naturally outgoing when they were younger. It didn't help that Herbert cycled through three different head coaches during his time at Oregon, which gave him another reason to question where and how he belonged, and to fixate on his mistakes.
"I think it's a simple out for some people to say he's an introvert," Arroyo says. "Big f--king deal. I'll give you a list of successful entrepreneurs who are introverted. It's completely overblown. You have to know these kids from the beginning and see how they develop."
Yet the irony is that this may be where some of the NFL angst about Herbert stems from: At times, even he seems legitimately surprised that he's developed this much as a quarterback.
As Justin Herbert takes the same seat in the same room where his father spoke to me for nearly an hour, his scraggly hair tied back into an unruly knotted bun, it's clear that he's a little more circumspect than his dad. It's not that he isn't genial; it's more that everything we're talking about—developing leadership skills, breeding confidence in his abilities—feels like a work in progress.
Herbert admits he hasn't yet read all of Quiet, mostly because of the academic obligations that recently won him the Campbell Trophy as the premier student-athlete in college football (he has a 4.01 GPA in general science with a specialty in biology). But he and Arroyo made leadership a point of emphasis before Arroyo left at the end of the season to become the head coach at UNLV; from the press box, Arroyo would occasionally call down and advise Herbert to improve his body language on the sideline. And Herbert insists he spent much of his senior season willing himself to become more of a vocal presence.
"I think that's just the way the quarterback position has to be played," he says. "Other than the center, the quarterback is the only guy who touches the ball on every single play. You have to carry yourself a certain way. You have to speak up and direct traffic."
For Herbert, learning how to do this was a process. And it still is. In 2016, he became the first true freshman starting quarterback for the Ducks since 1983; after coach Mark Helfrich was fired, he started under new coach Willie Taggart in a season interrupted by a broken collarbone. Then Taggart left for Florida State after one season, and Herbert found himself playing for Mario Cristobal, his third head coach in three years. All of that made an impact on his development, and his psyche. It isn't easy to find your comfort level, Herbert admits, when the faces around you keep changing.
"I think when I first came here, I was a little nervous," he says. "I didn't want to step on anyone's toes. Now I've caught myself saying things to the team, and I think, 'If it's that easy, I can do it again.'"
One of the first times Herbert shouted at his teammates, they were so taken aback that they broke into laughter. Even as a junior who entered the season on Heisman Trophy short lists, he didn't feel fully there yet. But over the course of his senior season, with Oregon embroiled in a handful of close games, his developing instincts took over.
"You could tell when he threw a pick his freshman or sophomore year, it would be really hard on him," Oregon offensive lineman Shane Lemieux says. "But now, if I felt any concern, I could look at him and see his body language. Maybe it felt a little forced at first, but now it's natural."
Of the three quarterbacks who are drawing the most attention heading into April's draft, Herbert is unquestionably the biggest conundrum. LSU's Joe Burrow has had a nearly flawless season; Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, presuming he recovers from his hip injury, could wind up as a generational talent. But while ESPN's Mel Kiper has said Herbert might be the most physically talented quarterback of them all, the questions about him are more nebulous and will no doubt generate more noise through the NFL combine and the interview process.
The odds are still high that some team will take a chance on Herbert early in the first round because of his physical gifts. (As of now, B/R's Matt Miller projects him as the sixth pick to the Los Angeles Chargers.) But the perception of him could evolve over the coming months—in terms of demeanor and raw intelligence, one natural comparison is to Andrew Luck, the Colts quarterback who stepped away from football last season at age 29.
That's another thing about Herbert that will no doubt polarize scouts: He almost certainly doesn't need to succeed in the NFL to become a success in life. If it doesn't work out, he can apply to medical school and establish a career based on his academic credentials. In an ideal world, that would be nothing but a plus—but the NFL is not like real life. And as much as he would like to think he's done everything to prepare himself for a professional future, those close to him admit that it will depend on the kind of situation he lands in and the kind of coach he winds up playing for.
"Do you need an outspoken catalyst?" Arroyo says. "Maybe your coach isn't a big talker. Maybe he needs an outgoing guy. But if your only issue with a guy is that he doesn't yell? Then sweet. Now I hear people say: 'Dude, he's grown. He made a great decision coming back [as a senior].' And maturity is a big piece of it. And it's a big piece of the things we've worked on."
That maturity is still a work in progress. But in the right situation, under the right circumstances, there's reason to believe Herbert can will himself into becoming an NFL quarterback. Maybe he won't ever fit the cliched mold of the "field general," but maybe, given the constantly evolving dynamics of the position, that won't matter.
"Mentally, it's still coming," Mark Herbert says. "He's still figuring out, 'What can I do, how do I lead, how do I motivate people?' But the worst thing of all is if your highlights are in middle school."