What If Justin Herbert Isn't All That Great?
NFL Week 14 - Justin Herbert has the traits of an outstanding quarterback. Justin Herbert may be developing into an outstanding quarterback. But Justin Herbert is not yet an outstanding quarterback.
That's the mantra I have been using to maintain my sanity throughout a 2022 NFL quarterback conversation gone cuckoo-vanilla bananapants. It's called the Justin Herbert Doxology. It's a reminder that there's a difference between being predictive when evaluating players/teams and placing the cart 500 light years ahead of the horse.
Herbert may or may not have "arrived." I have no idea what "arriving" means, just as I had no idea what "elite" meant a decade ago. He's very good. No one with an opinion of merit claims otherwise. But he's the third-best quarterback in his own draft class, and it's hard to craft a serious argument to the contrary.
Still, the football world reacts to his every highlight as if they just heard angelic trumpets. It's hard to remember a quarterback who has received so much credit for accomplishing so little.
With Sunday night's Herbert-vs.-Tua Takeageddon looming, it's time to place some guardrails on the Justin Herbert conversation by setting some realistic goals for the Chosen One who has yet to achieve any.
Justin Herbert vs. the Raiders vs. Perceptions
Wins are not a quarterback stat. But neither are viral videos.
Justin Herbert leads the NFL in splooshy highlights and Twitter fawning, and it's not close. Week 13 provided a fine example. On an afternoon when Joe Burrow led a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Chiefs and Jalen Hurts threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout victory over a perennial playoff team, Twitter held a Herbert Rally to celebrate the Chargers' only offensive touchdown in their loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) December 5, 2022
That's from the official account. Other fans/outlets/colleagues stopped just short of offering their first-born to the quarterback who courageously kept things close against the 31st-ranked pass defense. Throughout the night, everyone on my timeline lined up to pay homage.
It was, of course, a spectacular throw. Imagine if Herbert had played well all game: perhaps it might have mattered!
Herbert's Lone Highlight occurred on fourth-and-12 in the middle of the fourth quarter with the Chargers trailing by two scores. It was fourth down because Herbert tossed a flat pass to tight end Stone Smartt for a loss of 2 on first down, couldn't connect with Keenan Allen with a defender in his face on second down, and saw his third-and-12 pass swatted down easily by Chandler Jones, who dropped into coverage.
The Chargers trailed by two scores because, let's see…
- Herbert is stripped by Maxx Crosby on his first dropback of the game but recovers the fumble. The Chargers appear to go three-and-out but convert on a fake punt. They run three more plays before punting.
- The Chargers get the ball at the Raiders 17-yard line after a fumble but cannot pick up a first down. Herbert fails to connect with Austin Ekeler (fine pass, blanketed receiver) in the end zone after scrambling on third-and-2 and gets tripped up while trying to escape the pocket on fourth-and-2. Fortunately, the Raiders throw a pick-six almost immediately to give the Chargers a 7-0 lead.
- Herbert takes a sack at the end of the next series, forcing the Chargers to settle for a field goal. At this point, the Raiders have turned the ball over twice deep in their own territory, but the Chargers lead just 10-0.
- The Raiders drive 75 yards for a touchdown. The Chargers go three-and-out with another sack.
- Both teams trade field goals before halftime.
- Ekeler fumbles to start the third quarter. The Raiders answer with a quick touchdown. They suddenly lead 17-13.
- A fitful Chargers drive stalls at the 34-yard line, resulting in a missed field goal.
- The Raiders score another touchdown. The Chargers execute four plays (one more sack) before punting. The Raiders munch eight minutes and 40 seconds on a field-goal drive to take a 27-13 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. The Chargers grind away six minutes slowly mounting a drive that leaves them trying to convert fourth-and-12.
We have reached the Lone Highlight, which indeed gets the Chargers back into the game. Time for the great young quarterback to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, right?
The Chargers defense gets a stop. Herbert gets the ball back with 5:12 to play. The Chargers are playing hard, with Ekeler and Gerald Everett fighting for extra yards. But a first-down run by Ekeler from the Raiders 43-yard line goes nowhere, and a screen to Ekeler nets just 2 yards.
Allen stumbles running a sluggo route on third-and-9. There appears to be significant contact from the defender, but no flag. On fourth-and-9, Herbert leads DeAndre Carter a yard out of bounds on a go route up the right sideline.
That's all, folks, except for some tomfoolery in the final seconds. Herbert finished with 335 yards but 19 incompletions and five sacks. It was, charitably, a non-noteworthy game. DYAR preferred Tyler Huntley and Russell Wilson in Week 13, among many others:
Top QBs of Week 13 by DYAR 🎯 pic.twitter.com/3aFY2QAssr
— Football Outsiders (@fboutsiders) December 6, 2022
Sunday's loss was not unusual for Herbert and the Chargers. In fact, it was typical. Their loss to the 49ers was similar, as were victories over the Falcons and Cardinals, a pair of weak opponents who kept graciously giving the ball back to the Chargers until they got around to engineering late-game comebacks in low-scoring victories.
The Chargers passing offense has registered negative DVOA five times and single-digit positive DVOA three other times this season. The Chargers passing game's three big positive performances came against the Browns, Raiders (first meeting), and Texans.
Now, the Chargers offensive line is undeniably a mess. Someone named Foster Sarell is starting at right tackle, and he makes Storm Norton look like Lane Johnson. Rookie Jamaree Salyer filled in admirably for Rashawn Slater earlier in the season, but opponents now have a book on him. And the fact that Herbert is targeting people such as Stone Smartt and DeAndre Carter is a reminder of how thin the Chargers are at the skill positions.
Herbert is in a challenging offensive environment. But does that mean that he deserves hosannas just for showing up?
Every quarterback has dud games. Herbert is unique because random highlights are cherry-picked from his dud games for OMG THIS MAN IS AN UNSTOPPABLE CYBORG viral videos, while all criticism is deflected or scoffed at. That's common for young prospects, and there's some merit to using, say, Justin Fields' highlights to support an argument that he could turn into a viable franchise cornerstone given better receivers. Herbert is a third-year starter for a team that entered the season with some Super Bowl buzz, and his isolated highlights are used by some to place him on a bronze medal platform beside Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.
Sorry, Herbert Nation: Walkthrough knows groupthink when we see it. And we're not going to wait for the end of the Sunday's takeocalypse to call it out.
Justin Herbert vs. DVOA
Neither wins nor Twittergasms are quarterback stats, but DVOA and DYAR are.
Herbert ranks 20th in DYAR and 21st in DVOA. He's in a neighborhood with freshly benched Marcus Mariota, Daniel Jones, and Andy Dalton, three other quarterbacks with shaky offensive lines and limited firepower.
Herbert is better than Mariota, Jones, or Dalton. It would be silly to suggest otherwise. But the grouping is revelatory. If Herbert is performing at a similar level to those quarterbacks under comparable circumstances, what's the justification for moving him 10 or 15 full rungs up the ladder? Highlights? Traits? Priors? Vibes?
DYAR also tells us that Herbert had the third-greatest early career of any quarterback in the last 40 years. The preseason Herbert hype was justified. So is the hope for a long, productive future: Herbert's 2020/2021 placed him on a list among Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, and others. But neither the encouraging past nor promising future justifies rewriting the present.
There's a chance that Herbert is regressing, or at least stagnating: defensive pressure may be leading to suspect decisions, or his high success rate on "hero balls" is causing him to overlook some easy opportunities.
At the very least, it should be impossible to assert that Herbert is improving or progressing in the way Burrow, Hurts, and Tagovailoa have in their third seasons.
Ah, but have we considered the receivers, the scheme, the offensive line, the economy, and all the other factors holding Herbert back?
That's the very problem: if Herbert is holding the ball too long, selecting the wrong target, or making other tiny errors that could lead to bigger problems down the road, those errors will be blamed on every other factor but Herbert.
Quality quarterbacks are often pulled down by their circumstances. Outstanding quarterbacks overcome them; that's pretty much the definition of an outstanding quarterback. Right now, which kind—quality or outstanding—is Justin Herbert supposed to be?
Justin Herbert vs. the Ghosts of Quarterbacks Past
Remember when Baker Mayfield's only issue was a bum shoulder? Or was it a lack of weapons? Or a bad system? Baker Boosters, many of whom had plenty of GIFs and diagrams to back up their assertions, kept making excuses for Mayfield until he found himself on the waiver wire this week.
Remember when offensive genius Joe Brady was going to UNLOCK Sam Darnold's potential? Well-informed experts believed that would happen. Folks also insisted Brady was freakin' Einstein for designing game plans for Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, and Justin Jefferson that could rock Mississippi State, but I digress.
Remember when Carson Wentz was still a great quarterback in 2019, but his receivers were just terrible? Remember when Mac Jones was basically Tom Brady Jr.?
I'm old. I remember when Mark Sanchez was The Sanchize. I was still hearing about Sam Bradford's 2008 college scouting report in 2016. I remember the Dolphins swapping out everything in an effort to make Ryan Tannehill more than, well, Ryan Tannehill. I remember Vince Young's rise, fall, rise, and fall. Much of it all was documented here at Walkthrough, sometimes with detailed stats and diagrams. I was on both the right and wrong sides of debates.
Herbert is better than all of the quarterbacks just mentioned; DYAR made that clear in 2020/2021. But the "argument from absence" surrounding Herbert is all-too familiar after nearly 20 years in the take-mines. Tools-'n'-traits-based Herbert arguments have started to sound so much like mid-career Bradford and early (ultra-toolsy) Tannehill arguments that it leaves me wanting to scream "SHOW ME SOME ACTUAL RESULTS!"
The Chargers might not yet be a playoff team in Herbert's third season? Fine.
They at least have some signature wins, right? Oh, they beat the Chiefs once last September, and the 2021 Bengals before they got hot? That's not … nothing, I suppose.
But Herbert is taking care of business against weaker opponents, right? Oh, the Chargers lost 38-10 to the Jaguars a few months ago, with two Herbert turnovers. Well, he was playing hurt in that game, so it doesn't count. Everything must be perfect for it to count. And there was last week's Raiders game. And so on.
At least the Chargers are scoring lots of points. Oh, they are 14th in points per game in 2022? And 13th in yards per game? And 21st in yards per passing play? Damn that Joe Lombardi.
Still, the tape clearly shows that Herbert is better than his 2022 stats; I'm not some box-score scout or QB Winz philistine. Herbert deserves mention among the top 10 or 15 quarterbacks in the league. What? That's not enough? You want to place him above Burrow and Hurts, who are actually winning games and have led their team to the playoffs? You want to have Herbert-Mahomes debates?
Justin Herbert has the traits of an outstanding quarterback. Justin Herbert may be developing into an outstanding quarterback. Yet Justin Herbert is not yet an outstanding quarterback.
Justin Herbert vs. the Nature of the Business
Everyone in the sports media industry strives to be predictive. Fantasy gamers and gamblers want next week's winners and scorers. Editors insist on spinning everything forward. If you're writing about last Sunday for Friday (as I just did a few segments ago), you are doing it wrong. Yesterday doesn't click. Tomorrow does.
Everyone in our industry also strives to be bold, from the shoutiest talk show personality to the most methodical tape-grinder. "Maybe" doesn't get likes or shares.
Walkthrough likes to pretend to be above the fray, but I will prematurely bury Derrick Henry or Dan Campbell with the best of 'em. I wrote about Herbert in June purposely to be ahead of the conversation. I color within the lines of good taste and common sense, but sober and detailed reflections on the 1977 Houston Oilers or the Jaguars linebacker rotation don't really pay the bills.
So I get it. Sometimes, I feel the urge to type "He's the GOAT" atop a random highlight just to feel alive. Cheerleading for Herbert is a solid business model. He's still enough of an "up and comer" to drive engagement in a way Mahomes no longer does. But Herbert is in danger of getting trapped in perma-prospect puberty, and the cheerleading is starting to sound a little self-conscious and shrill.
In one sense, Justin Herbert is simply the subject of another runaway quarterback narrative. But he's also a unifying figure for stat nerds, film hipsters, thirst-Tweeters, draft geeks, anti-establishment doomers (never forget: Herbert was supposed to be "soft" coming out of Oregon), and anyone who doesn't want to be lumped among those who don't get it. They all think he's a righteous dude. Those disparate groups form the ultimate echo chamber, and gushing praise for Herbert becomes the secret handshake that everyone knows.
No one wants to stand up and say "Even accounting for all the offensive line and receiver injuries, Justin Herbert has been a little disappointing this season."
There, I just did. That wasn't so hard.
Justin Herbert vs. Reasonable Expectations
Sunday night will be excruciating on the socials. You are invited to hang out at the Football Outsiders Discord, where the conversation may still be painful, but in more of a "cousins arguing at Thanksgiving" way than a "weirdos shrieking to the mountaintops for four endless hours" way.
My guess is that Tagovailoa will mix a few big plays with lots of stalled drives because his offensive tackles are hurt, Herbert will do roughly the same thing for the same reasons. One of them will be treated like the Last Son of Krypton and the other like a toddler in a Gundam suit.
For the record: I think Herbert is a better quarterback than Tagovailoa right now. Little can happen on Sunday night which will change my mind or any other. I'm too old to get sucked into a manufactured conversation without getting paid extra for it.
But that just begs the question: what standards ARE we measuring Herbert against? There has to be some objective criteria for evaluating him. And Walkthrough is here to establish some guardrails.
- The Chargers face the Titans, Colts, Rams, and Broncos down the stretch. They need to win three of those games. They also need to claim a wild-card berth. Herbert would have led the Chargers to the playoffs but the Mike White Jets got TOO DARN HOT? Don't wanna here it.
- Herbert also needs to climb into the top 15 in DVOA and DYAR by season's end. He cannot stay on the Mariota/Dalton scrap heap. Both DVOA and DYAR are important because we need evidence from DVOA that Herbert is "above average" and from DYAR that his bulk production over a full year was worth more than two-thirds of a season from Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett.
If both of those things happen—a wild-card berth and a top-15 DVOA/DYAR finish—Walkthrough will drop the whole Twitter Teflon and Prince of Zero Expectations routine. Those are not huge lifts, even accounting for an offensive line full of rookies and randos.
As for "top 10" or "top five" quarterback status, Herbert needs to do a little more, especially in a season when Burrow and Hurts are outclassing him in every measurable way. Win a playoff game, surge back into the DVOA top 10, and we'll talk about glorious traits and miraculous throws. Until then: impressive young quarterback, need to see more results and fewer excuses.
And if Herbert fails to meet those meager milestones? The Chargers offensive line will be blamed. Joe Lombardi's head will be called for. A million mock drafts sending Jordan Addison to the Chargers will be posted. But perhaps the Herbert Hive will rediscover healthy skepticism. Three years is an awful long time to wait for a playoff appearance. The Next Big Thing should really produce better metrics than Andy Dalton. Perhaps Herbert was crowned a tad too swiftly, and his future is a little cloudier than we once thought.
Let's talk about one more quarterback of the "past" before we wrap: Matthew Stafford.
Stafford's first two seasons were marred by injuries, so he's not a typical comp for Herbert. He threw 41 touchdown passes for a 10-win Lions team in his third season, however, so he belatedly earned some Next Big Thing buzz. Young Stafford was as toolsy as Home Depot, and he had Calvin Johnson to throw to, yet he spent a decade accumulating stats, splashing mega-highlights, and only occasionally leading his team to the playoffs.
Stafford led the Rams to the Super Bowl last year, of course, but it takes some enthusiastic retrofitting to suggest he was anything more than a second-quartile quarterback for the entire decade before that. Before you blame the Lions for being the Lions, take a long look at their rosters from 2011 to about 2015: a capital-g Great quarterback would have led that team much further.
I am certain Herbert is better than all of the failed prospects cited earlier in this piece. I am not at all certain that he is better than the young Stafford.
And if the rest of the Internet plans to spend the next decade explaining how the Chargers just never quite surrounded Herbert with the perfect supporting cast needed to get past the wild-card round, then saying "I told you so" on whatever replaces Twitter when he has a great year in 2034: have fun with that! I'll be focused on the quarterbacks who do stuff.