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How Justin Herbert’s emotional spike added to punch of juiced up Chargers

There were signature throws, signature scrambles and a signature clock-consuming, game-sealing drive.

After writing his name all over the Chargers’ 23-17 victory Sunday over Miami, Justin Herbert provided a final exclamation point too.

As is standard, NBC presented Herbert with a ball for his postgame on-field interview. When he returned to the locker room minutes later, Herbert walked in and emphatically spiked the thing, igniting his teammates in celebration.

The punctuation capped a night of high energy and higher emotion as the Chargers finally defeated an opponent with a winning record and boosted their playoff chances with a dominant effort.

Herbert also scored a cartoonishly one-sided triumph over his quarterbacking counterpart, Tua Tagovailoa, who was drafted by the Dolphins in 2020 at No. 5 overall, one spot before the Chargers took Herbert.

“Our team played a very hungry game,” coach Brandon Staley said Monday. “There was a lot of energy that we used in all three phases. It started with Justin and how he played in the game — not just the passing and the playmaking — but I’m talking about affecting his teammates in a positive way. Our team comes alive when he plays that way.”

Herbert completed 39 of 51 passes for 367 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. He secured 16 first downs through the air and converted two third downs with connections to Keenan Allen as the Chargers put the game away.

Herbert also ran for 10 yards on third and eight for the Chargers’ final first down, setting up a 28-yard field goal on a series that lasted 17 plays, covered 79 yards and ate up nearly nine minutes of the fourth quarter.

At the end of his scramble, Herbert rose and signaled first down — the ball still in his right hand — in a gesture that also worked well as punctuation.

“When you see Justin out there showing that emotion, you can see that we’re in a rhythm,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “It’s always a plus to see any of the guys, especially Justin out there, having fun.”

The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler breaks free against the Dolphins secondary. The running back said coach Brandon Staley preached playing with emotion going into the game.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Ekeler said Staley emphasized performing with emotion before the game, showing his team highlights that featured the Chargers’ skill position players displaying on-field energy at various points in their careers.

The images included Herbert catching a pass from Allen for a two-point conversion last season in a victory at Cincinnati. Following that play, Herbert also slammed the ball into the turf in celebration.

“I could feel it [Sunday] night,” Ekeler said. “The energy, let’s keep it going because that stuff is contagious. The sideline feeds off of it, and the offense feeds off of it.”

Ekeler said Herbert was particularly animated Sunday night, noting that he broke from his usual even-keeled postgame demeanor and routine, which typically includes Herbert sitting quietly at his locker for several minutes to unwind.

After beating Miami, Ekeler said Herbert even spoke up as the team gathered around Staley, something Ekeler said he couldn’t remember happening in the past.

After Staley announced that — as a reward for their win — the players didn’t have to lift weights Monday, Ekeler said Herbert playfully objected, saying, “ ‘We should be booing’ because he is like ‘We should be in there lifting’ because everyone’s cheering.”

Following the Chargers’ victory at Arizona in Week 12, Ekeler talked about Herbert’s on-field growth, pointing to an audible he called to convert a third down on the team’s late, game-winning drive.

Ekeler was asked if Herbert’s infectious behavior Sunday marked more growth for the third-year pro.

“Yeah, we all have grown,” Ekeler said. “We all look toward him. He is our leader out there on the field. So we always want to hear what he has to say. … I think as he’ll play more, he’s going to realize that we are looking for him to lead us, whatever that looks like.

“Whether it’s encouragement. Whether it’s on the field, just something. He has been doing a better job of that this year. … It will take some time because there is a high demand on that position. He’s coming along.”


Staley said right tackle Trey Pipkins III (knee), cornerback Bryce Callahan (core muscle) and defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day (knee) will return to practice Thursday. The Chargers are off Tuesday and have a walk-through scheduled for Wednesday. … Staley indicated that safety Derwin James Jr. (quadriceps) is farther behind in returning than that trio. … Tight end Donald Parham Jr. (hamstring) is expected to be available Sunday when the Chargers play Tennessee at SoFi Stadium.

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