I had some time to kill before kickoff Saturday night, so I looked up one of the first columns I wrote about Justin Herbert, back when he was a schoolboy sensation but not yet a future NFL millionaire.
It was Herbert’s senior year at Sheldon, not long after he’d committed to play for Oregon. Just having a local quarterback land a scholarship from the Ducks was a big deal. I don’t think anyone expected Herbert to make an immediate contribution; if he could redshirt and get some snaps as a fifth-year senior, most people would have deemed that a success.
“I didn’t expect to go to a very big school,” Herbert said then.
You know how it turned out. Herbert was thrown into the fire as a freshman and grew up before our eyes. In the span of three years the shy, skinny freshman became a shy, muscle-bound flame-thrower.
As the Ducks recognized their seniors Saturday night, the unspoken question was whether this would be Herbert’s Autzen Stadium finale as well. If so, his farewell was a mixed bag: two touchdowns, two interceptions — including a costly one in the fourth quarter — and one well-timed clap to draw Arizona State offsides, sealing a 31-29 victory for the Ducks.
Watching Herbert and the Ducks hang on for a seventh victory, I found my mind drifting back to another chilly November night in 2015. Sheldon was playing Clackamas in the playoffs. Lane Johnson, Herbert’s high school coach, had given him a pointed challenge: to become a great leader and not just a great player.
That’s a challenge Herbert would hear more than once. One of Willie Taggart’s first moves was to throw down a public ultimatum to his quarterback, demanding more leadership from Herbert. It worked, I think; Herbert has grown more confident and poised, though if you’re looking to pry more than three sentences out of him, I’d still advise bringing a crowbar.
An interesting phenomenon in football is the way we hold quarterbacks personally responsible for a team’s success or failure. When the NFL draft rolls around, no one will be talking about whether a left tackle had a winning record in college. But there’s still a belief that some quarterbacks have the “it factor,” that special gene that delivers fourth-quarter comebacks and championship seasons.
You can find plenty of examples to undermine that theory. Patrick Mahomes, the hottest quarterback in the NFL, was 13-16 as a starter at Texas Tech. Jared Goff of the Rams was 14-23 at Cal. John Elway, considered one of the greatest comeback artists of all time, had a losing record at Stanford.
Much of what we believe about quarterbacks is psycho-babble, which doesn’t make it entirely untrue. When Mel Kiper and his ilk talk about Herbert, I suspect they’ll ask whether he’s ready to be the face of an NFL franchise. I think it’s a valid question.
Herbert showed all the things we’ve come to expect Saturday night. On Oregon’s opening drive, he escaped a sack and scrambled for a first down to set up a score. With a rusher bearing down on his blind side, he stepped into a 57-yard touchdown pass to Dillon Mitchell. He also threw an ill-advised interception that set up an Arizona State touchdown before halftime.
The most glaring mistake came in the fourth quarter, with the Ducks facing third-and-five and needing two or three first downs to exhaust the clock. Herbert’s pass to a well-covered Jaylon Redd was tipped and intercepted, giving ASU a chance to drive for a game-winning field goal.
The Ducks survived thanks to a huge defensive play from linebacker La’Mar Winston and a costly mental mistake from the Sun Devils. But they were hanging on by their fingernails at the end, leaving scratch marks all over the turf as they tried not to let another victory get away.
Games like this show why Oregon has been so frustrating this season. The Ducks can look great one moment and helpless the next, which puts them in the same category with a bunch of Pac-12 teams.
If Oregon wins the Civil War next week, Herbert will have taken the Ducks from 4-8 to 8-4 in the span of three seasons. That’s no small turnaround, and still, it feels like a bit of a tease.
I think back to what Herbert’s high school coach said in 2015, when it was clear Herbert was entering rarefied air for a local prep quarterback.
“He has come a long way as a leader,” Johnson said. “I guess the one thing he hasn’t done is lead our team to that state championship. He hasn’t had a chance to finish.”
Sheldon beat Clackamas 33-0 that night to advance to the state semifinals, where the Irish lost to Jesuit. Herbert’s career ended without a state championship.
If this was Herbert’s last game at Autzen, he’ll depart without leading the Ducks to a Pac-12 championship or a North Division title, either. Focusing on what he hasn’t done seems shallow, because with three head coaches in three years, you can make the case that he’s been the one holding Oregon football together.
And still, watching Herbert leave the field Saturday night, he didn’t look like a quarterback who was ready to say goodbye. He’s accomplished more in three years than anyone would have dreamed, but now that we know what he can do, it’s hard not to ask for a little more.
Somehow his story feels unfinished.