When Drew Brees said Justin Herbert’s “physical tools are as good as anybody I’ve ever seen,” it wasn’t hyperbole. Herbert is on a short list of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL, right up there with Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Josh Allen. And he’s more polished at this point in his career than any of those three were, completing arguably the greatest rookie season by a quarterback in NFL history last season.
The big arm on its own isn’t what made Herbert’s rookie season so impressive, though. The history of the NFL is filled with big-armed quarterbacks that didn’t amount to anything because the other elements of their game weren’t good enough.
Instead, it was his accuracy on downfield throws and his ability to deliver the ball in the face of pressure that was most eye-opening.
We saw it immediately in his first career start. Everything Herbert is capable of was visible on the below play. This was 3rd-and-10. The Chiefs were showing a blitz look but bailed out at the snap into “Cover-2 Robber” to try and confuse Herbert. The disguise didn’t phase him.
Neither did the pressure that came from his right. You can see that Herbert felt it and calmly slid left to buy just a split second more of time before delivering a perfect strike. This throw showed off all of his traits – anticipation, velocity, accuracy, coverage recognition, pocket movement, poise, and toughness.
This touchdown against the Buccaneers in Week 4 gives you an even better look at Herbert’s high-level traits.
He out-threw the defense, and did so with pressure in his face. You can see that he had two white jerseys bearing down on him right as he started his motion. Then he took a big hit.
No big deal. Just a 65-yard deadly accurate throw with two defenders about to drive you into the ground.
This was something we saw consistently throughout 2020. Herbert was willing to take a big hit if it meant completing a pass to an open receiver. That’s not a skill that generally can be taught.
When evaluating a quarterback, it’s important to focus on his ability to complete passes that others can’t. What throws are open to him that aren’t open to other quarterbacks? How often and consistently can he create completions?
Herbert is near the top of the league in this category. He doesn’t require huge windows because of his combination of arm strength and accuracy, as you could see above.
Herbert also creates completions with his ability to make throws in those situations where perfect footwork isn’t a possibility (e.g in a collapsing pocket or on the run). This allows him to keep plays alive, both from inside and outside the pocket.
You can see an example on this touchdown against the Dolphins in Week 10. Miami was bringing Cover-0 blitz pressure. The Chargers could not protect against every potential rusher. Herbert saw that, recognized it, and back-pedaled to buy time. He then delivered a perfect throw from an off-balanced position.
Both his feet were in the air when he released that ball and he still was able to throw an accurate pass with good velocity. No defenders were able to get close to him.
Here’s another example of the importance of being able to deliver accurate downfield passes from off-balanced positions.
If Herbert stepped into that throw and didn’t try to buy any time, that play doesn’t happen. Also notice the great touch on that throw. We haven’t spent a ton of time focusing on it, but Herbert isn’t a one-trick pony as a thrower. He can drop the ball in the bucket, as we saw countless times throughout his rookie season.
Herbert also created plenty of completions outside of the pocket.
That play should have been a sack or a throw away. But Herbert was able to escape and fire a dart 30 yards downfield while his momentum was taking him away from the throw. That’s some unbelievable arm strength.
The below touchdown was another ridiculous throw into a tight window. This time, Herbert was moving to his left.
The ability to throw with pinpoint accuracy on the move was something we saw regularly during Herbert’s rookie season. Not shown here are the 230 yards and 5 touchdowns the 6’6” athletic quarterback also ran for.
So where exactly did Herbert struggle in 2020? In the same area that most strong-armed quarterbacks struggle: He trusted his arm too much at times. This led to some bad decisions, like on this interception against the Broncos.
Herbert tried throwing that deep post like it was a 10-yard hook (He has the arm strength to do so). But the window there was a little too small for a pass traveling 40 yards through the air. I saw a few of these types of plays in Herbert’s worst moments last season.
The other circumstances in which Herbert struggled were when he faced teams that used lots of disguised coverages or post-snap movement. I mentioned above that Herbert doesn’t flee the pocket early in the face of pressure. He’ll take a hit. However, when he doesn’t get a clearly defined picture or recognize what the defense is doing, he loses his nerve a bit. It doesn’t happen all the time, as you could see on the first play we showed against the Chiefs. But when he does get into trouble, it’s on these types of plays.
Below is a great example. Pre-snap, Miami had no defenders in the deep middle of the field as they were threatening with a blitz look.
They gave Herbert lots of looks like this throughout this game, by the way. A few times, they even showed him looks with no down linemen, making it even tougher to decipher who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage.
On this play, they ultimately bailed out of the pressure look, with four potential rushers dropping into zone coverage. One potential blitzer even sprinted from the line of scrimmage to become the deep middle safety.
Without a clear picture due to the Dolphins’ disguise, Herbert wasn’t willing to sit in the pocket and work through his reads. He was ready to run almost immediately. Had he stayed in the pocket, however, he would have found a wide open Keenan Allen to his left.
Instead, he moved into a sack.
The great news for the Chargers is that Herbert’s issues are very correctable. The ability to predict what defenses are doing and not be as susceptible to complex disguises will come with more experience and exposure.
With a quarterback as talented and versatile as Herbert, there are really only two main ways you can screw him up. The first is bad pass protection. The Chargers smartly made this an area of focus this offseason, drafting left tackle Rashawn Slater with the 13th overall pick, signing former Packers center Corey Linsley, and adding guards Oday Aboushi (Lions) and Matt Feiler (Steelers) via free agency.
The second way to screw up a talented quarterback is through paralysis by analysis. The Chargers brought in Joe Lombardi from the Saints to take over as Offensive Coordinator. Already, we’re hearing that in Lombardi’s system, “a lot more [is] put on the quarterback.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The more a quarterback can control the game mentally, the higher his ceiling can be. But for a second-year quarterback, the added responsibility brings the risk of a rocky transition. Will having more on his plate freeze up Herbert mentally and hurt his ability to perform physically?
One of the reasons Herbert had such a great rookie season was that he was often free to let his talents take over. The Chargers did a great job of helping him out with schemed throws, defined reads, and clear progressions, making the mental aspect of playing the position less burdensome. This allowed him to focus more on execution.
So this is the big question for 2021. Will Lombardi be able to enhance Herbert’s game and take him to the next level? It’s a fair question. Lombardi’s experience and track record with Drew Brees suggests he has a lot to teach him. However, in his only other stint as an NFL offensive coordinator (2014-15 with the Lions), Lombardi failed to enhance the performance of another supremely talented quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
In 23 games with Lombardi as his offensive coordinator, Stafford played to an 86.0 QB rating. After Lombardi was fired mid-season, Stafford went off. In his 9 games after Lombardi’s firing, he completed nearly 70% of his passes, threw 20 TDs to just 4 INTs, and played to a 105.1 rating.
It’s hard to know exactly what the Chargers Offense will look like this season. I have to assume that Lombardi learned from that experience with the Lions, as well as his last 5 years under Sean Payton. If he can find a way to enhance Herbert’s game, the Chargers might just have the NFL’s next star quarterback.