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Shane Steichen Explains What He Looks For In Young Quarterbacks, And What His Advice To Justin Herbert Was In 2020

Justin Herbert set an NFL rookie record with 31 passing touchdowns in 2020, when Shane Steichen was his offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Chargers. 

The first quarterback Shane Steichen directly worked with was Philip Rivers – who, by the way, was older than him when he took over as the San Diego Chargers' quarterbacks coach in 2016. Rivers had over a decade of banked experience at that point. There wasn't a coverage he hadn't seen, or a blitz package he never faced.

Rivers' knowledge forced Steichen to dive deep into film and opponent tendencies to find little nuggets to help him on gameday.

"(Rivers) made me a better football coach," Steichen said.

Rivers signed with the Colts as a free agent in March 2020, and a month and a half later the Chargers snagged Justin Herbert with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Steichen, then the Chargers' offensive coordinator, was tasked with helping scheme an offense around the talents of the rookie quarterback after Herbert took over as starting quarterback in Week 2.

One piece of advice Steichen gave Herbert: "Your best friend is gonna be the tailback."

As Herbert adjusted to NFL defenses – and NFL defenses adjusted to him – Steichen drilled into his quarterback the importance of simply completing passes to stay ahead of the chains and give his offense a chance to move the ball.

"It's all about getting completions, completions, completions," Steichen said in an interview with Matt Taylor and myself this week. "Hey, we go max play-action and it ain't there, just check it down and shoot, tailback makes one miss, you might get 15-20 yards and that's a chunk play. So just keep the sticks moving as much as we can and that's how we go."

Herbert took that lesson and ran with it: His 126 completions to running backs led the NFL in 2020; 44 of those completions resulted in first downs, also the most in the league. And about one in every four times Herbert targeted a running back, it was on play-action.

Further proving Steichen's coaching point: Herbert had four completions to running backs on play action that gained 20 or more yards; no other quarterback in 2020 had more than two.

The upshot here: Herbert had the fourth-lowest percentage of turnover-worthy throws among regular starting quarterbacks in 2020, per Pro Football Focus. And his 31 touchdowns set an NFL rookie record; he finished Year 1 with 4,336 yards and a 98.3 passer rating, the latter of which remains a career high.

New Indianapolis Colts head coach Shane Steichen arrived at the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center on February 14, 2023.

With their head coach in place, the Colts will move forward in addressing their quarterback room for 2023 and beyond armed with a head coach who has experience developing young quarterbacks. Jalen Hurts, too, was in Year 2 – and his first full season as a starter – when Steichen took over as the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator in 2021. A year later, he was a legitimate MVP candidate, established as one of the most dynamic players in the NFL.

Steichen, on Tuesday, laid out what traits he values in quarterbacks – and what similarity there was between the three different quarterbacks he's worked with in his coaching career.

"I think accuracy, decision making and the ability to create are the three things that I look at in a quarterback," Steichen said. "I think those all three things are very important but obviously, above the neck, the players that I've been around – Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert and Philip Rivers, they all have one thing in common. They're obsessed with their craft. If you can find that in a quarterback, you'll probably have some success."

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