Justin Herbert's Excellent Second Season

Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 15 - Justin Herbert had an excellent rookie year in 2020. Herbert ranked eighth in the NFL with 861 passing DYAR last season. It was the sixth-best passing DYAR total ever put up by a rookie.

This preseason, the conventional wisdom said that the Chargers would be major contenders in part because Herbert would take a second-year leap. In many of my preseason appearances, I instead suggested that you fade the Chargers because Herbert was not likely to take that leap. The problem? Most second-year quarterbacks take a leap because they sucked as rookies. The best rookie quarterbacks, on average, do not actually improve in their second season because they were already pretty good to begin with.

Well, I was wrong and Herbert has gotten better this year. He's not challenging the greatest seasons in NFL history or anything like that, but Herbert is going into tonight's game against the Chiefs currently fourth in the league with 999 passing DYAR. He has higher passing DYAR and DVOA than Patrick Mahomes this year, and not just because of interceptions: Herbert's 11 interceptions almost match the 12 Mahomes has thrown.

If we prorate Herbert's numbers to 17 games, he would finish the season fifth all-time in passing DYAR by a second-year quarterback, and sixth overall. (He's got rushing value this year, but he's no Lamar Jackson.) Here are the top second-year seasons by quarterbacks since 1983. I'm leaving off the specific rushing stats for space, just including rushing DYAR.

Top Second-Year QB Seasons by DYAR, 1983-2021
Player Year Team Pass
Rk DVOA Pass Yds TD INT C% NY/P Run
D.Marino 1984 MIA 2437 1 53.0% 579 4961 48 17 64.2% 8.57 -36 2401
P.Mahomes 2018 KC 2031 1 39.9% 607 4910 50 11 66.4% 8.09 39 2070
P.Manning 1999 IND 1581 2 34.0% 548 4021 26 14 62.3% 7.34 32 1613
D.Culpepper 2000 MIN 1352 3 30.1% 512 3734 33 16 62.8% 7.29 209 1561
L.Jackson 2019 BAL 1261 5 34.9% 422 3021 36 6 66.4% 7.16 273 1534
J.Herbert* 2021 LAC 1307 4 17.2% 693 4765 39 14 67.2% 6.88 135 1442
B.Esiason 1985 CIN 1089 5 25.3% 469 3124 27 12 58.2% 6.66 44 1133
J.Goff 2017 LAR 1125 6 24.0% 500 3619 28 7 62.6% 7.24 -6 1120
C.Wentz 2017 PHI 1047 8 23.8% 471 3100 33 7 60.5% 6.58 52 1099
N.Foles 2013 PHI 1011 5 35.6% 347 2690 27 2 64.4% 7.75 72 1084
B.Kosar 1986 CLE1 1044 5 17.8% 571 3564 17 9 58.5% 6.24 -17 1027
T.Eason 1984 NE 956 5 18.1% 493 2800 23 7 60.2% 5.68 27 983
B.Roethlisberger 2005 PIT 885 7 35.8% 292 2249 17 9 62.7% 7.70 38 922
*Prorated to 17 games

Do note that Herbert's passing DVOA is the lowest of the quarterbacks on that list. Part of the reason Herbert has so much value this year is that he throws the ball so darn much.

You may remember from the first part of the season that Herbert's success early on was fueled by very good efficiency on third and fourth downs. We postulated at the time that this could not continue. Guess what: It has continued! From Week 1-7, Herbert's passing DVOA on third and fourth down ranked fourth in the league behind Matthew Stafford, Kyler Murray, and Dak Prescott. Since Week 8, Herbert's passing DVOA on third and fourth down ranks fourth in the league behind Murray (in limited time), Tom Brady, and Jimmy Garoppolo. Check out Herbert's splits by down in the early part of the season and then recently:

Justin Herbert Passing DVOA
by Down and Week, 2021
Down Weeks 1-7 Weeks 8-14
1st Down -9.9% 6.0%
2nd Down 20.6% 16.4%
3rd/4th Down 44.1% 47.4%

Some other tidbits about tonight's big game between the Chargers and Chiefs:

  • This game is hugely important in determining who wins the AFC West. In playoff simulations where the Chiefs win this game, they have a 94% chance of winning the AFC West with the Chargers at just 5%. In playoff simulations where the Chargers win this game, they have a 63% chance of winning the AFC West with the Chiefs at 30%.
  • After that period in the middle of the year where they struggled, the Chiefs are up to fifth in the league in passing DVOA since Week 10. But the Chargers are even better, third in passing DVOA since Week 10.
  • The Chargers' run defense still ranks dead last by DVOA, but they did have a good game-and-a-half until the Giants started gashing them in second-half garbage time last week. The Chargers had -36.3% run defense DVOA against Cincinnati and -24.4% run defense DVOA in the first half against the Giants.
  • The Chargers have strong adjusted line yards against runs to the left but get killed by runs up the middle or around right end. And the Chiefs' running game is at its best when it runs up the middle.
  • When it comes to pass pressure, this game is strength against strength. On defense, the Chiefs are fourth in pressure rate according to Pro Football Reference, and the Chargers are sixth. On offense, the Chargers have the sixth-lowest pressure rate allowed and the Chiefs are ninth lowest.
  • The Chargers defense ranks 22nd covering tight ends; Travis Kelce had over 100 yards when these teams first played, and Derwin James is questionable and may miss the game with a hamstring injury.
  • Special teams are a colossal mismatch here, with the Chiefs ranked second on the year and the Chargers ranked 31st.
  • In case you aren't aware, a number of important players will be missing this game. For the Chargers, that's not just James but also left tackle Rashawn Slater (COVID) and possibly running back Austin Ekeler (questionable, ankle) and cornerback Asante Samuel (questionable, concussion). The Chiefs' missing persons list begins with defensive tackle Chris Jones (COVID), linebacker Willie Gay (COVID), and cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (personal reasons).


8 comments, Last at 22 Dec 2021, 1:07pm

1 Kurt Warner

Aaron-that is a very interesting list and I get it that you are talking Regular season only-at least I think it is. The real story for 2nd year QB's would be those similar numbers in the playoffs.Unless Herbert comes through this year none of your top guys had a whole lot of success in the playoffs.

That lack of success was due in a large part to the way they played in the playoffs. That is where the story for 2nd year QB's shifts to Kurt Warner and Russell Wilson and to a lesser extent Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. But nobody can match Warner's total 2nd year raw numbers-Reg. Season and playoffs. 

I wonder if that holds for DVOA and DYAR also ??

I guess I should have said nobody can match Warner's total raw numbers combined with his 2nd year success in the playoffs-a S.B. win and MVP.

5 Warner's story is impressive…

In reply to by Bob Smith

Warner's story is impressive but it could hardly be argued he was a 2nd year player straight out of college. He did spend 1994 on Mike Holmgren's practice squad and three years of at least semipro play. Maturity and has a lot going for it. Wonderful that advantaged that into a very successful career.

6 Good points

They are good points you are making. I guess my bigger overall point is this: these studies and charts that show these guys had a very good Reg. Season-that is all well and good but the only thing that does is allow said QB to play good enough to help his team qualify for the playoffs. 

The much bigger picture each year is which QB's then play good enough to help themselves and maybe more important-help their teammates- to accomplish their biggest goal for playing in the NFL.

I think Dan Marino said it best with this quote: "I'd trade every Record we broke to be S.B. Champs". If that is how a Record breaking QB looks at it, then that is good enough for me.

Taking this 1 step further-if you were to ask Aaron's Top guy on his list above (Marino) which QB had the Best Year in '84 he would say Joe Montana.

8 Ok... and?

In reply to by Bob Smith

I don't see why this distinction (or point) is relevant to the article. 

The analysis shows exactly what was intended....  

Herbert had a very good rookie year. He's backing it up with a very good sophmore year.

His team has a shot at the postseason.  

It's not Dan Marino's second year, but it's still impressive

If anyone was wondering who else has historically had a similar 2nd year in the league... list is provided.  

Talking about how it doesn't mean anything unless they go to post season etc etc is irrelevant, it's his second year and he's in good company so far.

7 Kurt Warner

I would imagine that the NFL officially considered Warner a 2nd year player, but beyond that, no matter what year he was in, that is still the Best Year by a QB in the NFL ever ('99)  IMO. For starters he was MVP in both the Reg. Season and the Super Bowl.

He is the only QB to throw more than 40 TD passes in the Reg. Season and then win the S.B. that year. His Defense gave up 37 pts. in the 1st playoff game so Warner throws 5 TD passes and helps his team win 49-37.

His running game was so bad throughout the playoffs that the ratio for Passing yds. vs Running yds. ended up being 10 to 1. Kurt ended up with almost 1100 yds. passing and his backs ended up with just over 100 yds. rushing for 3 games.

Tom Brady is a very close 2nd however after last year and Steve Young in '94 is up there also.

4 Chargers must be avoiding…

Chargers must be avoiding pressure by getting the ball out quickly, because going by ESPN's Pass Blocking Win Rate, they're only 18th best in protection (and that's notably higher than they were earlier in the season).