From Drew Brees to Justin Herbert: Chargers coordinator Joe Lombardi ready to work

Drew Brees and Joe Lombardi, right, spent 12 seasons together with the Saints before Lombardi was hired as the Chargers' offensive coordinator. Gerald Herbert, pool/AP

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Joe Lombardi likes thinkers and quarterbacks who like to ask questions.

Which seemingly will make him love Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, who loves to think and loves to ask questions. A lot. Often he fills up note books with notes from practice, games, meandering thoughts in the middle of the night (OK, don't really know that; it just sounded good), and Lombardi (yes, grandson of that Lombardi, although he died before Joe could meet him) believes that's what makes a good quarterback great.

"Yeah, I'm pretty used to that," he said. "That's pretty much a quarterback trait. That's normal."

Lombardi was working with Drew Brees as the New Orleans Saints' quarterbacks coach and offensive assistant, as he has from 2007-2013 and 2016-2020, when new Chargers head coach Brandon Staley came calling. Lombardi was the Mercyhurst offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Staley played quarterback at Mercyhurst in 2005 -- transferring from the University of Dayton for a chance to play a year with his twin brother.

In coaching Brees, Lombardi learned about the importance of the preparation factor, something he will stress to Justin Herbert as the Chargers' new offensive coordinator.

"The details, the exactness, of footwork and timing," he said. "How Drew communicated with his receivers and how they were on the same page as him."

That was something Herbert was intent on establishing his rookie year, when he started unexpectedly in Week 2 because of an injury to Tyrod Taylor and kept the job from that point on. And it was something Staley and Lombardi reinforced.

"It's all about relationships," Staley has said.

As for what Lombardi plans to tell Herbert about the offense?

"Let's look at where he was most comfortable with last year and in his time at Oregon, and what he's had the most success with," Lombardi said. "Starting with those building blocks, here's a series of plays that you already know that you can find a completion because you know exactly where to go with the football. Just give him that comfort level at the start, knowing that he's starting with what he's been successful at."

And that could include some no-huddle offense. Herbert played without a huddle almost exclusively at Oregon, to the point where he initially wasn't sure about huddles or huddle management when arriving in the NFL.

"No-huddle option is something that Brandon [Staley] has discussed and I'm all for," Lombardi said. "I think these spread systems that play with that tempo is something that we're building with here."

That tempo and the ability and willingness to change things up at a moment's notice is something that Herbert is good at. He had a 4.01 GPA in biology at Oregon, tutored fellow students and won the equivalent of the Academic Heisman. Smarts are not a problem. Nor is passing excellence, having set an NFL rookie record with 31 touchdown passes (to only 10 interceptions) this past season and falling 38 yards short of breaking Andrew Luck's rookie passing yardage record, as Herbert threw for 4,336 yards.

Herbert's success caused Peyton Manning to say on a tongue-in-cheek phone conversation with Staley, "glad to see my rookie interception record (28) hasn't been broken."

It hasn't.

And Lombardi plans to pull the trigger on fourth down, something the past coaching staff appeared to be flummoxed by. For example, on fourth-and-inches at their own 34-yard line, tied with the Chiefs in overtime in Week 2, the Chargers played it safe and punted. Kansas City (who just happened to be Super Bowl champs and could be again come Sunday) drove 39 yards and kicked a 58-yard field goal to win the game.

It was the surprise "Justin Herbert starts game" and he was rolling. That opportunity to keep the ball away from Patrick Mahomes and go on a game-winning drive for an early season-defining win was ruined.

"Whenever Sean [Payton] asks if we should go for it on fourth down, I usually pipe in, 'Yes,' Lombardi said. "Now, he's the one that’s going to get booed if we don't make it ... but I'm a huge fan of going for it. I always think, 'What would I want if I'm on the other sideline?' I always feel like, 'I wish they were just punting it.'"

He said he’s aware of all the data analysis that says coaches are not aggressive enough.

"So I'm in favor of moving in that direction," Lombardi said.

Lombardi also said if you lined Herbert up with all the quarterback skill sets in the NFL, he'd be among the top QBs in the league.

"Like I said," Lombardi said, "The sky's the limit with what he's able to do."