Justin Herbert entered his third season in the NFL as a much-hyped android of a quarterback who had broken almost every record you can set for doing the things a quarterback does on the field.
During the offseason between his second and third season in the NFL, the front office and coaching staff decided that continuity and familiarity were more important than giving Herbert more to work with, in helping him to continue his growth in the league.
They kept Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator, promising that now he could install “Offense 202” which would build upon the offense of the previous year and take it to new heights. This was despite a fairly bland offense in 2021 that led to a losing record and a track record (from his time as the offensive coordinator in Detroit) of throttling down and limiting a high potential offense.
They also decided to not make any big changes to the receiving options. Keenan Allen is getting older but is still an amazing safety valve and a key part of the offense. Mike Williams was re-signed for big bucks to be the explosive “big play” and “contested catch” option. Josh Palmer was the team’s third round pick in 2021 and wasn’t going to go anywhere. After that they kept around Jaylen Guyton as the “deep threat” and the only new body they brought in was DeAndre Carter, mostly as a return man as he had never crossed 300 receiving yards in a season in his career prior to 2022. Gerald Everett was also signed to come in and be TE1 but he was technically a one-for-one replacement for Jared Cook.
So with all of that in mind, you would likely expect Herbert to be close to his 2021 numbers and, based on how the team hyped things, maybe even expect an improvement.
That didn’t happen. Not even close.
Now, before we press on, there is a notable limiting factor that contributed to the regression: Injuries.
Losing Rashawn Slater at left tackle for basically the entire season is a huge detractor for the offense. Mike Williams and Keenan Allen both missed fairly significant time at four games and six games respectively. And Herbert himself had that crushing rib injury in week two that stuck with him for most of the season.
Now, with that stated for posterity, let’s start looking at some numbers.
I put together some numbers from the top 10 quarterbacks of 2022 in passing yards (in order left to right), and included Tua Tagovailoa as an 11th, because can we really talk about Herbert without bringing up Tua? I kid, but I included him because of the pretty significant contrast to how the Chargers handled helping their young QB in how the Dolphins brought in a new offensive scheme and some BIG time weapons for Tua to work with.
I’ll go through the chart below looking at and explaining the numbers and why I thought they were important, and what they say to me.
First, some explanations:
- IAY/PA - Intended Air Yards per Pass Attempt. This is basically ADOT (Average Depth of Target) or how far past the line of scrimmage was the intended target of a pass, per pass attempt, averaged for the whole season.
- CAY/CMP - Completed Air Yards per Completion. How many air yards, per completion, averaged for the whole season.
- For the # of WR/RB/TE > five receiving touchdowns, the numbers in the parentheses are the number of TDs for each of the players that meet this threshold.
- For the # of WR/RB/TE >= 12 Yards per catch, this is for players with a minimum of 15 receptions.
To start looking at the numbers, there are some good things that stand out when comparing Herbert to the other QBs on the list.
He is near the top of the league in passing yards, interception %, game winning drives, fourth quarter comebacks. Herbert is obviously the main way the Chargers chose to move the ball and he was able to do so very well, while also not giving the football away and being able to do so when it matters. Basically, Justin did very well controlling the things he can control.
Now, some not so good things.
Scoring in the red zone
Of the top 10 QBs in passing yardage, and Tua who was 12th, only Tom Brady had a lower touchdown percentage, and the other nine were throwing touchdowns .9 - 2.7% more often than Justin.
This has a lot to do with the pretty ineffective red zone offensive game plan from Lombardi, and that combining with the “big name” receiving options not performing like “big names” in the red zone.
Both Keenan Allen and Mike Williams saw their usage, and production drop in the red area. Keenan Allen went from 15.9% of his targets in 2021 being in the red zone to 14.6% in 2022 and his red zone touchdowns dropped from six to one. Mike Williams meanwhile saw a staggering drop from 16.3% of his targets and four touchdowns in the red zone in 2021, to only 12.9% of his targets coming in the red zone and zero scores in the red zone.
This meant that Justin Herbert’s red zone passing in 2022 resulted in a touchdown far less often than it did in 2021. In 2021 he had 106 attempts in the red zone that resulted in 27 touchdowns. In 2022, he still had 98 attempts in the red zone but only put up 18 touchdowns.
The scheme was different, encouraging and expecting shorter passes due to both Herbert’s injury and the offensive line struggling, but also, the big name players did not perform at the same rate as they did in 2021.
As a point of comparison, Mahomes, Burrow, and Allen lead the league in passing touchdowns and a lot of it had to do with the caliber and performance of their “big name” guys. Travis Kelce saw 19.3% of his targets come in the red zone and turned that into nine touchdowns. Jamar Chase saw 19.8% of his targets in the red zone and turned that into five touchdowns, and Stefon Diggs saw 15.2% of his targets in the red zone and turned that into seven touchdonws. And to show what a better scheme and efficiency from your “big names” does for you, Tua only had 49 pass attempts in the red zone and came away with 16 touchdowns. Only two less than Herbert on literally half the attempts. His two leading receivers, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, turned a combined 18 red zone targets into seven touchdowns. Allen and Williams turned a combined 25 targets into one touchdown.
IAY/PA and CAY/CMP
A lot has been said by people much smarter than me, like this video by Ben Solak over at The Ringer, about how Lombardi’s scheme is not conducive to big chunk plays. And that definitely shows up on paper.
When you look at Justin Herbert’s IAY/PA and CAY/CMP, which again are Intended Air Yards per Pass Attempt, and Completed Air Yards per Completion, they are lower across the board, sometimes significantly so, than any of these other 10 quarterbacks. In fact, the only two quarterbacks with significant starts this season with an IAY/PA as low or lower than Herbert are Daniel Jones and Matt Ryan. However both Ryan and Jones actually have higher CAY/CMP than Herbert at 5.3 and 5.1 respectively vs Herbert’s 4.7. The only quarterback with significant starts in the league with a CAY/CMP lower than Herbert is Kyler Murray, who’s coach just got fired for having such a bad scheme for the Arizona offense.
To look back at 2021 again, Herbert’s IAY/PA last season was 7.6, CAY/CMP was 5.9. That would have put him right on par with the leaders this year instead of being noticeably behind the rest of the field.
Again, I think a lot of this has to do more with scheme than anything else. Mike Williams saw over a yard drop off his yards per catch this season, while Austin Ekeler, who led the team with 107 receptions, saw his yards per catch drop from 9.2 all the way down to 6.7. No this was not due to Ekeler being “washed” but that so many more of his receptions were not the deeper concepts like wheel routes that worked so well in 2021.
I’ll let you dig into the chart I posted above more at your leisure however the big theme I wanted to point out were looking at the 5 categories in the darker blue at the bottom of the chart:
The number of pass catchers with 500+ yards, the number of pass catchers with 900+ yards, the number of pass catchers with more than five touchdowns, the number of pass catchers with at least 12 yards per catch (minimum of 15 receptions), and the number of pass catchers with over 70 receptions.
Why those numbers? Well, for the bottom four milestones, as we can see when averaging those results. When you look at the pass catchers from those other 10 quarterbacks, there were almost two players that achieved each of those milestones for each of them. For those other 10 quarterbacks, they had, on average, 1.7 pass catchers reach at least 900 yards, 1.8 pass catchers have more than five touchdowns, 2.7 pass catchers average 12 yards per catch, and 1.8 pass catchers with 70+ receptions.
Now with those averages in mind, look at Herbert’s numbers in those areas. Zero pass catchers over 900 yards receiving. Zero pass catchers with more than five touchdowns. One pass catcher averaging 12 yards per catch. Zero pass catchers over 70 receptions.
Then we add in the fifth milestone: pass catchers over 500 passing yards. The average of the other 10 was 3.1. Herbert had six receivers with over 500 passing yards.
Yes, this is forced somewhat by the injuries. But when you combine it with the context of the other four stats I used as a measuring stick it starts to tell a bit of a story.
That story, is that the big name, successful quarterbacks ALL have just about two pass catchers that are game changers that they can really rely on. They do spread the ball around a bit, but they don’t have to. And even though they focus so heavily on those two options so often, they still find so much success because those two players perform at a high level when targeted AND the offenses those teams run are effective enough to put those players in positions to excel, even when the defense knows where the ball is going to go.
Justin Herbert is a great quarterback. And yes, he took a bit of a step back this year. And yes, the Chargers had injuries. But every team deals with injuries. The Chargers are making life harder on Justin Herbert, and the rest of the team, than it has to be, by not giving him a better scheme to work with, and providing him better weapons to play with.
I’m glad the Chargers made the playoffs, anyone who watched what this team went through would agree that they’ve earned it. But if they want to compete with the Chiefs in the division, if they want to push to win a Super Bowl, if they want to get the most out of their stud quarterback that they’re very likely about to sign to a quarter billion dollar contract, they MUST look at improving the scheme they’re asking him to play in, and improving the quality of weapons he has to throw to.