When Justin Herbert returned to the field after sitting out only one play, Keenan Allen — probably like a lot of Chargers fans — figured things couldn’t be too bad.
But, just a few minutes later, Herbert rolled to his right on third and one and, with room to run for the first down, instead gingerly and feebly tossed the ball into 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 moment Herbert suffered fractured rib cartilage last week against Kansas City.
But then recalling the throwaway on third down, Allen said he concluded, “OK, he must have a real problem. He’s hurting. He’s hurting for sure.”
Allen was, indeed, like a lot of this team’s fans a week ago. He watched Chargers-Chiefs on television at home after not traveling because he had been ruled out because of a hamstring injury.
So Allen sat in amazement too, when Herbert immediately followed the most anemic-looking play of his young NFL career with one of the most dazzling.
Herbert perfectly dropped a rainbow deep over the middle into the waiting hands of DeAndre Carter to convert a fourth and one with a 35-yard gain.
From not being able to go at all to going long, Herbert put the Chargers in position to pull to within 27-24 in the last two minutes.
“It would have been an amazing throw even if he wasn’t injured,” Allen said. “But the fact he was able to do it with the game on the line and everything that was going on made it much more magnified.”
Everything around Herbert has remained magnified this week as he tries to prepare himself to play Sunday against Jacksonville at SoFi Stadium.
Herbert was limited in practice for the second consecutive day Thursday after he was seen throwing a variety of passes in the portion of the workout open to the media.
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 seemed to be a step in the right direction since Herbert didn’t make any throws Wednesday during the period where reporters were allowed to observe practice.
“He plays with a lot of heart,” Carter said. “I’d go to war with that dude any day of the week, man. He’s a fighter, and I’m going to go ride with him.”
Herbert showed the Chargers and the NFL plenty in his first 34 career starts. But last week against the Chiefs, he showed something new as a pro — an undeniable toughness in being able to persevere through injury.
On the drive after he was hurt, Herbert completed seven of nine passes for 73 yards and connected with Joshua Palmer for a seven-yard score on fourth down.
Although many people had not seen Herbert succeed under such dire conditions, one of his former Oregon teammates said the performance was nothing new.
“No surprise at all,” tight end Hunter Kampmoyer said. “He’s been doing that since I’ve known him.”
Now a member of the Chargers practice squad, Kampmoyer played with Herbert for three seasons with the Ducks.
“That’s just how Justin is,” Kampmoyer said. “He’s been doing that since college. There were plenty of times he got banged up like that and played through it. That’s just the type of player he is, type of person he is.”
The lone 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 through his first two-plus seasons.
No teammates asked Thursday expressed surprise regarding the grit Herbert displayed last week. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi called Herbert and fellow quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford “the three toughest guys that I have ever been around.”
Safety Derwin James Jr. noted Herbert’s rookie season during which the quarterback absorbed several big hits after scrambling from the pocket.
“Justin’s a tough kid,” James said. “He lifts hard in the weight room. I wouldn’t say he’s a quarterback. I mean, he does everything that a normal linebacker or receiver does as far as working.”
Said Carter: “You can tell the guys who it really means a lot to. That’s Justin. I wouldn’t say 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 cornerback JC Jackson on Sunday.
Linsley is dealing with a knee issue that sidelined him for the second half in Kansas City. He has not been on the practice field this week during media viewing.
Jackson sat out the Chargers’ opener while recovering from a surgical procedure 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 on the field Wednesday and Thursday but not working 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.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.