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A deep dive into the Justin Herbert vs Joe Burrow debate

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

About a week ago, I read this BFTB article: Justin Herbert ranked as 7th-best QB in the NFL by execs, coaches, and scouts, which was in reaction to this ESPN article: Ranking the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks for 2022: Execs, coaches, players make their picks for the best passers.

My initial reaction was that it seemed like a reasonable ranking for Herbert, especially since there are so many ways to look at such rankings.

In the comments of the BFTB article, one poster took offense to Burrow ranking higher than Herbert (Burrow ranked #5). In response to his post, I posted this:

I wouldn't trade Herbert for Burrow, but I don't know why Chargers fans feel compelled to get fired up about Herbert vs. Burrow comparisons. Burrow is great.

Burrow had ~150 fewer pass attempts than Herbert last season, which largely invalidates comparing their seasons. That said, Burrow was better at completion percentage, TD percentage, YPA, NFL passer rating, and PFF grade. Herbert was better at interception percentage, sack percentage, and QBR. IMO they should be viewed as neck and neck in any comparison, and IMO there is no clear reason today to strongly argue one over the other... though in a close comparison, it seems reasonable that Burrow winning more games and playing in the Super Bowl in year 2 is a fine tiebreaker.

Later in the week, I listened to a couple Guilty as Charged podcasts that talked about this subject.

This one was a solo podcast by Alex: Bolt Breakdowns: ESPN's Top 10 QB List-Burrow over Herbert? + Justin Herbert ranked at #7. He made a couple strong assertions with which I intuitively disagreed, so I decided to take a closer look.

Assertion #1 - Herbert Was Statistically Superior in 2021

Alex said a lot about this, but he opened this tangent with this statement:

...Justin Herbert was better statistically in every area than Joe Burrow other than completion percentage over expected...

That is a strong statement, but it loses some impact once you realize that Alex seemed to really only focus a few metrics at RBSDM (more on this later).

So let's take a look at some metrics and discuss. All metrics and data I present will be for the 2021 regular season only; Burrow's postseason performance is not included.

Context

First, let's set the stage with some useful context:

Herbert played 1 more game and, more importantly, had 152 more pass attempts, which was about 29% more pass attempts for the season. So it should be expected that Herbert will have higher numbers in all accumulated metrics (a.k.a. "counting stats").

The Chargers needed all of the completions, yards, first downs, and TDs that Herbert produced to maximize their on-field results last season, even though that sadly resulted in just a 9-8 record and missing the playoffs. But it isn't really fair to give Herbert much, if any, credit for exceeding Burrow's accumulated statistics when it was simply what we would expect given so much more opportunity.

Next, we must acknowledge that Burrow played behind a much worse pass blocking offensive line, as surprising as that may be to Chargers fans. As a result, Burrow was under pressure on a significantly higher percentage of his dropbacks.

Finally, NFL Next Gen Stats tracks a statistic they term Aggressiveness and define as the percentage of pass attempts into tight windows, defined as having "a defender within 1 yard or less of the receiver at the time of the completion or incompletion."

Takeaways here:

  1. Herbert had much greater opportunity to accumulate statistics.
  2. Burrow faced more pressure due to playing behind a worse pass blocking offensive line.
  3. Burrow was more aggressive in his throws.

Winning

Let's go ahead and get the fact that Burrow had a better record out of the way. The Bengals were 10-6 in the games Burrow played, whereas the Chargers were 9-8 in the games Herbert played.

I agree with everyone who says that QBs get too much credit for wins and losses, since each team typically has 40 or more players who play some number of snaps in each game, and the QB is just 1 of them and doesn't typically take any of the defensive or special teams snaps.

That said, if we were to assign weighting for NFL positions to specify how important they are to winning, the QB position would certainly be weighted highest. I don't think that is particularly controversial.

So it seems reasonable that QBs deserve some non-zero credit, and I would give Burrow some credit here. But it should be just one small part of assessing a QB's performance.

Another thing that factors in here is 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives, and Herbert easily beat Burrow in both of those metrics in 2021. This looks good for Herbert and seems to demonstrate that he played well in the clutch last season.

However, there is another way to look at it. Burrow failed to lead a 4QC or GWD 6 times in the regular season. Herbert failed to do so 8 times. Obviously, failing to come back is often not the QB's fault, so it isn't really fair to characterize it this way, just providing a counterpoint. It is also true that a QB can contribute to the need for a comeback by playing poorly early in a game. For all of these reasons, to truly compare these metrics would require a game by game analysis that I don't have time to perform.

Overall, I don't think either guy gets a real edge here.

Accumulated Statistics

Here are the accumulated statistics that most people reference when discussing QB performance:

I already pointed out that I would expect Herbert to have higher numbers in all of the accumulated statistics due to significantly greater opportunity, so this table is no surprise. I value rate/efficiency metrics much more than accumulated statistics, so I'm not going to spend any more space discussing them here.

Accuracy

Here are various rate statistics on accuracy:

This is nearly a clean sweep for Burrow and obviously represents a significant strength for him. There is no question he is better than Herbert in this area, especially when we remember that he more often threw into tight windows and was also under pressure more often, as discussed previously.

Conversely, this is not a strength for Herbert and is an area he is going to need to improve. Before anyone decides to post that this was influenced by drops in 2021, most of these metrics factor out drops, so that is not a valid excuse for Herbert here.

The metric that concerns me about Herbert as a Chargers fan is CPOE. I realize it is important to take all metrics, especially newer advanced metrics that haven't been proven out over time, with a grain of salt. But what CPOE is representing here is that, based on the context of all of the passes Herbert attempted in 2021, he completed a lower percentage than he should have.

By default, RBSDM shows 31 QBs who played a minimum of 320 plays in the regular season. Herbert ranked #23 in that group in CPOE, and the guys who were worse was a truly awful group, at least in 2021: Jones, Wentz, Fields, Roethlisberger, Mayfield, Lawrence, Darnold, Zach Wilson. This is an area to watch this season for Herbert. Hopefully, returning in the same system for the first time will help him to improve his accuracy.

Yards

Here are a few rate statistics related to yards:

This one is a clean sweep for Burrow, and with fairly large margins. In 2021, he targeted and completed passes deeper than Herbert, which is made all the more impressive when combined with the fact that he was more accurate. And, again, while throwing more often into tighter windows and facing more pressure.

Some of this may be the Lombardi offense. I am hopeful that with a better offensive line and with a full year in the system for Herbert, Lombardi will start attacking the medium and deep areas of the field more often.

Positive Plays

Here are a few rate statistics on positive plays:

Another clean sweep for Burrow. Not much else to say here.

Negative Plays

Here are a few rate statistics on negative plays:

Finally, we see Herbert get on the board with an edge in a category of rate statistics. He did an outstanding job in 2021 of avoiding negative plays.

I think it is possible that this, combined with the metrics on aggressiveness, yardage, and big time throws, may show that Herbert played a bit too conservatively in 2021. Or maybe this was the coaching staff. Again, maybe Lombardi will open up the offense a bit more in 2022. Maybe having a better defense will also help here, since the coaching staff may feel like the defense can cover for taking more risks.

Overall Performance

Here is where it gets a bit more interesting:

In the podcast I mentioned earlier, it seemed that Alex was basing his belief that Herbert was statistically superior on two of these metrics: EPA per play and success rate. And Herbert was better in those metrics in 2021. But Burrow matched Herbert in Adjusted EPA per play and was much better in the EPA+CPOE Composite.

Overall, this table seems to justify what I posted previously in BFTB comment referenced above:

IMO they should be viewed as neck and neck in any comparison, and IMO there is no clear reason today to strongly argue one over the other

Conclusion on Assertion #1

I have to say that Alex was off base when he claimed that Herbert was "better statistically in every area than Joe Burrow other than completion percentage over expected." The data speaks here.

Assertion #2 - Burrow Ranked Higher Only Due to Postseason

In that podcast referenced earlier, Alex stated:

...if polled before the playoffs, most executives would have put Herbert before Burrow before that three game sample size...

Related to this, he also said that he thinks those who responded to the survey "completely threw out a 17 game sample size" (i.e., the regular season) in favor of the 3 game sample size (i.e., the Bengals playoff games).

First, I think all of the data I already presented pretty much refutes this perspective.

Second, PFF did exactly what Alex suggested here. On January 13, 2022, before the Bengals played their first playoff game, PFF posted this article: Joe Burrow vs. Justin Herbert: Who do NFL sources, PFF analysts prefer long-term?

From that article:

PFF asked over a dozen NFL coaches, executives and scouts which QB they would choose long-term. I also polled PFF analysts to see if they would make the same decision.

Two-thirds of those NFL coaches, executives and scouts responded with Burrow.

It was a difficult choice for most people who were polled, and the answer typically came down to a matter of intangibles vs. tools. One high-level NFL executive did call it an "easy" decision, though: "Burrow."

An NFC quarterback coach had a tougher time picking between the two young quarterbacks but ultimately went with his gut and settled on Burrow who is "just a winner."

Every front-office executive and coach we polled picked Burrow.

"Tough call, but I’d go with Burrow," an assistant coach said. "Such a gamer in big moments. Herbert did make some unreal throws (Sunday) night down the stretch. Still would go Burrow for the long haul. I think he’ll find a way to win Super Bowls."

The good news is that 52% of PFF analysts polled chose Herbert... but that obviously means 48% of them chose Burrow, so it was very close.

Regardless, this disproves Assertion #2 by Alex.

Overall Conclusion

I think I have shown that it is reasonable for anyone to rank Burrow above Herbert at this time, even ignoring the 2021 postseason. Then, when taking into account that Burrow was the QB on a Super Bowl team in that postseason just adds even stronger rationale.

But I think I also justified my belief that any such comparison should view them as very close right now.

I just want to note two things before I wrap up:

1. I really enjoy the Guilty as Charged podcasts, and don't mean this in any way as any sort of attack on Alex or the other guys. Everyone is obviously entitled to their own opinions, and reasonable people can disagree reasonably.

2. As I mentioned early in this post, I would not trade Herbert for Burrow!

The Herbert-Burrow comparisons are going to continue for as long as both are playing, since they were drafted close together in the same draft and both look like they will be among the top QBs in the NFL for many years. I look forward to Herbert surpassing Burrow and hope that starts in 2022!

Thoughts?

This FanPost was written by a member of the Bolts From The Blue community and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bolts From The Blue editors or SB Nation.