Since 2000, the Oregon Ducks football team has reached double-digit wins 12 times. That’s more than a lot of schools in that span, including college football programs laden with tradition like Michigan (eight seasons), Florida (nine), Notre Dame (nine), and USC (11). There have been many unforgettable moments, coaches, and players from Chip Kelly to Heisman winner Marcus Mariota to the National title loss to Cam Newton to De’Anthony “Black Mamba” Thomas to Dennis Dixon, and LeGarrette Blount.
However, when I say “Justin Herbert” what yellow and green-clad memories come to mind? Of those 12 seasons with 10-plus wins, Herbert was only involved in one of them: His 12-win senior season when Oregon lost the opening contest to Auburn and blew any chance at the College Football Playoff with a late-season loss to Arizona State. Shit, I have more memories of Jeremiah Masoli in the shotgun than anything the current Chargers star did at Autzen Stadium, and that’s likely due to the upheaval during Herbert’s tenure, playing for three different coaches his first three seasons, with the team winning 20 games over that time frame, tied for the program’s worst three-year run since the turn of the century.
I’m not knocking Herbert or questioning Eugene’s own Oregon card, I’m just saying it’s weird that of all the talent that’s popped off the screen for the Ducks, Herbert will probably be the NFL face of the school’s recent success. (Shout out OGs Dan Fouts and Ahmad Rashad.) Sure, there’s Haloti Ngata, Patrick Chung, and the couple of years Jonathan Stewart was relevant in Carolina, but a defensive tackle, a cog in the Patriots system, and a guy who split carries with DeAngelo Williams aren’t exactly Wheaties Box material in the same fashion that Mariota or even Royce Freeman was.
We all remember how much of a beast Derrick Henry was at Alabama, right? The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner finished the year with 2,219 yards rushing, 91 yards receiving, and 28 total touchdowns. Freeman, a sophomore at Oregon that year, totaled 2,184 yards from scrimmage — only 126 less than Henry’s 2,310 — and 19 scores. We know how Freeman turned out, unfortunately.
Herbert definitely put up his fair share of numbers, finishing second in school history in career passing yards (10,796) and second in career passing touchdowns (95). Mariota, of course, holds the first-place records for those respective stats.
There also was an odd amount of slander going into the draft, with critics bemoaning his honesty; unnamed scouts calling him “soft,” “Immature,” and “quirky;” and Desmond Howard dropping the Joey Harrington comp.
Former Oregon coach Willie Taggert said during his short time in Eugene that he is looking for a leader, someone who does more than just throw touchdowns — and maybe he’s found what he’s looking for at Florida Atlantic, where he now coaches after getting canned at Florida State, the school he left Oregon for after one season.
Fast forward a handful of years, and it’s hard to find a Top Five NFL QB list without Herbert on it.
Through two seasons, he’s amassed 9,350 yards passing (including topping 5,000 yards in 2021), 69 touchdown passes, eight rushing TDs, and 25 interceptions.
To put that in perspective, Joe Burrow, the QB taken first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft (Herbert was taken five picks later), has 7,299 yards, 47 passing TDs, five rushing scores, and 19 picks in 26 starts. He needs to average 342 yards and three-plus TD throws in his next six games to match Herbert’s pace.
Los Angeles’ struggles with late-game collapses have been the defining trait of the Chargers since Philip Rivers, and ask any Ducks supporter about how much they trusted Mario Cristobal in a big game. Putting the blame on Herbert is misplaced and unfair.
The idea for this piece came from me pondering who is the most famous — not best — pro sports Duck of the contemporary era, and before my brain un-farted and I was reminded of Herbert, there’s an argument it’s the New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu. (Have you seen her Nikes? They are cleannnnn.)
However, after only two seasons in the NFL, there’s no doubt who’s the face of Oregon athletics in pro sports. It’s Herbert, and it’s great to see a school that’s been incredibly successful finally get a star worthy of that form.