Chargers update: Offensive vision, Ben Herbert impact, physicality expected

The Sporting Tribune's Fernando Ramirez on what the vision for Harbaugh and Roman is for the offense and Ben Herbert for conditioning the players.

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Jim Harbaugh has been the Los Angeles Chargers coach for about three months. His coaching staff is complete, free agents are being signed and the draft is on the horizon.

One thing is certain: He has a vision for this team. 

The new additions are mostly tied to either him, offensive coordinator Greg Roman or his brother, John. This means they understand his long-term plan.

“When you get to the point where the players know that they’re physical, they’re dominant, they’ve trained themselves to be there, in that place, then I won’t have to get up here and say anything, they won’t have to get up here and say anything,” Harbaugh said. “It’ll be what they do. We think we can get there.”

That is how University of San Diego, Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers, and Michigan won. They were physical and Harbaugh prides himself on his team’s toughness.

“I know his mentality — he wants to win,” running back Gus Edwards said. “He’s been very into everything.

“He’s been in the meeting rooms with us. He hasn’t been staying away from the team. He’s been in the weight room with us. It’s been great to just see his face around.”

The main topic has been physicality. The coaches expect this team to be tough.

“That’s the mantra of this place; we’re going to be physical,” tight end Hayden Hurst said, “we’re going to come at you. When you see us pop up on the schedule, it’s going to be a long Sunday.”

While Hayden Hurst smiled when questioned about the team’s physicality. 

“We want to out-physical teams. We want teams to fear us. We want teams to end up giving up in the fourth quarter, where we’re just hitting our stride,” Hurst said. “I think that’s where you get the most productive football, when you’re just out-physicaling people.”

The Chargers have a ways to go, as the brass is still building their squad. Right now, they are building the foundation.

That foundation was lacking before Harbaugh. Players were frustrated with the previous regime and felt a divide, according to numerous players.

Physicality will be necessary, but so will staying healthy. The Chargers haven’t had the best of luck with injuries. Last season alone, quarterback Justin Herbert, edge rusher Joey Bosa and receiver Mike Williams, among others, sustained injuries that knocked them out for a sustained period.

Harbaugh brought Ben Herbert from Michigan to be his executive director of player performance. It is believed to be a steal of hire because Herbert is seen as the best at what he does.

“Ben Herbert is huge in this phase one,” Harbaugh said. “When I say baseline training, I say finding out where everybody is, where is their baseline, where they need improvement on.

“One thing about Herb is you know he’s going to be there every day and you know he’s going to be ready to train guys and have the energy to train anybody that’s there. There’s nobody that combines the cutting edge, scientific, with the old-school discipline strength and conditioning coach like he does.”

There is much work to be done, but Herbert told the media two weeks ago that he wants to help the players withstand the rigor of the NFL season. He will focus on specific areas of the body: neck, shoulders, hips, hamstrings and ankles.

When describing his program, it was easy for Herbert to know what he was looking for.

“Consistency, attention to detail, emotional stability, bigger, faster, stronger and more mobile and flexible,” Herbert said. “That’s how you can describe our program.”

Michigan lost two players to season-ending injuries its national championship run (15 games) while the while the Chargers lost 12 players (17 games) last season.

“I’m not really into luck,” Herbert said. “I like to control the things that I can control, which is why we emphasize the things that we emphasize in training because, over time, it has proven that our guys, especially the guys that are playing the most football, are available to do that.”

Health will be crucial, but the biggest question surrounding the team is what the offense will look like under Roman as the offensive coordinator.

“This morning in our team meeting with the offense, [Roman] used the word ‘epic’ in front of the guys and defined it,” run game coordinator coach Andy Bischoff said. “Why not create something different than has ever been done.

“As much success as we’ve all had in different places doing different things, none of that really matters. All that really matters is right now and creating that here.”

Whether it is Harbaugh, Roman, Bischoff, or Hurst, the message regarding Justin Herbert is clear: Protecting him is critical.

“We want to protect him [Herbert] so that he can be at his best,” Bischoff said. “We want to provide a run game that can give us balance.

“And we want to be an offense that’s different and unique for him to be able to function at his best.”

Herbert’s talent is well-known. Whether under Anthony Lynn or Brandon Staley, Herbert was the main guy, but despite an improved offensive line in 2021, it was tough to protect him.

Herbert has been sacked 130 times and hit 246 times. Injuries include a right index finger fracture, a finger fracture (non-throwing hand), and a rib cartilage fracture, to name a few.

“Not everyone needs to function like Peyton Manning did to win football games,” Bischoff said. “Can [Herbert] do that? I mean, the guy’s brilliant. … This is a guy with rare intelligence.

“However, in our system of football, do we really need to put him under that much stress on every single down? The answer is ‘no.’ How do you do that? You have a balanced offense that brings out the greatest strengths in everyone.”

The coaches want to make life easier on Herbert and not have to carry the offense the way he has since being drafted.

“He’s deadly,” Hurst said of Herbert. “I mean, you give him a run game, and he’s going to be able to throw it all over the place.”

The coaching staff brought in former Ravens running back Gus Edwards, who scored 13 touchdowns last season. He runs as hard as a bus and could be an essential addition, having played under Roman.

The Chargers aren’t done adding to the backfield because even though they have Isaiah Spiller, there is a big need for running backs. They had free agent J.K. Dobbins in the building for a visit. He could be another low-risk, high-reward because he has been dangerous in the past but hasn’t been able to get over the injury bug.

“This offense and this building is an O-line-centric space,” Bischoff said. “Whatever it was in the past, I don’t know. I didn’t live here. I’ve been here for five weeks, but I can tell you this: This is going to be an O-line-centric building.

“When it comes to our strength program, it’s built around the O-line. Everybody else fall in line. Some people don’t value offensive linemen; we do. That will be shown in how we approach everything.”

That approach is led by Rashawn Slater at left tackle and Zion Johnson at left guard. They signed Bradley Bozeman as their center.

For the right side, there are question marks. Jamaree Salyer played right guard, but he struggled. will he be there again? Could Jordan McFadden be the guy? Or is there an option outside of the roster?

Looking at right tackle, that is the biggest question mark. Trey Pipkins has been serviceable and is under contract for two more seasons. They do have a potential out after this season, but could they decide to keep him?

Yes, but the Chargers could also trade down and draft a right tackle in the first round. That right side has a lot of questions.

“They’re relying upon their tight ends, receivers have got to get open,” Hurst said. “It’s going to be a hell of a run game. It’s just cool seeing that playbook pop up there, familiar words, just kind of getting back to my roots.”

The team has three tight ends, Hurst, Will Dissly and Donald Parham, but expect the Chargers to make moves at this position. Hurst and Dissly are exceptional run blockers, but they need a pass-catching tight end.

The Chargers also need help with their receivers with Keenan Allen is now in Chicago and Williams left for the New York Jets. Today, the wideouts would feature Josh Palmer and Quentin Johnston.

“Excited to see that,” Harbaugh said. “Same for every position, it’s been some good conversations, but like I said, now we get some action. We get to meet with guys and start on football.” 

Moves are expected there, especially because Palmer has yet to make it through a full season and Johnston is getting his feet wet in the pros.

The coaching staff and players have a clear vision for this offense. Efficient run game, protecting Herbert, physicality and being a fourth-quarter team.

“In general, he’s embracing everything we’re doing,” Bischoff said of Herbert. “I think he feels a fresh perspective that’s centered on providing the best offense that he’s played within.”