Halfway through the longest NFL regular season in history, Los Angeles Chargers fans must feel like they’ve already lived through two miniseasons: the one where their team had an .800 winning percentage and one of the NFL’s most effective quarterbacks, and the one where they played .250 football with Justin Herbert in the midst of a sophomore slump.
Right now, it’s all a wash: The Chargers are 5-4, currently in position for a wild-card spot — and per FiveThirtyEight’s Elo predictions, they have a 63 percent chance to make the playoffs. Moreover, Herbert’s passing stats across this season are eerily similar to last season’s. His completion rate, touchdown rate, interception rate, average yards per attempt, passer rating and Total Quarterback Rating are all nearly identical to his AP Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign — he even has the exact same longest completion so far.
But as similar as they are, most of Herbert’s passing stats are slightly down from 2020. Los Angeles didn’t bring in Brandon Staley to replace fired head coach Anthony Lynn and hire offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi this offseason to help its new franchise quarterback play worse — but that’s what’s happening, at an accelerating rate.
Why? Well, for starters, Herbert isn’t getting much help.
The Chargers rank 23rd in pass-block win rate, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, and 16th in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking grades. And while receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are the best pass-catching duo in the game according to Allen, 4.2 percent of Herbert’s pass attempts have been dropped this year. That’s the ninth-highest rate in the league. But not all drops are equally egregious, and the Chargers’ hands have been even worse than the raw drop rate makes it seem.
Pro Football Focus’s grades assign weight to drops based on how easy the catch appears to be — and Williams’s drop grade is a miserable 39.0, ranked 97th among 103 qualifying receivers. Allen isn’t much better; his 62.1 drop grade is ranked 70th. No. 3 wideout Jaylen Guyton is just ahead of Williams, ranked 95th with a 43.8. Add in tight end Jared Cook’s 58.7 and four of Herbert’s top five targets are letting a lot of on-target passes hit the turf.
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But not all of Herbert’s passes have been on target.
Through L.A.’s big Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns, Herbert’s rate of off-target passes was an 11th-best 13.6 percent; since then, that rate has been 15.7 percent, just 23rd in the league. His adjusted completion rate (which doesn’t count throwaways or any of his receivers’ drops) was 72.4 percent through Week 5 but is 68.0 percent since. That doesn’t sound like much of a dip, but which throws were off-target mattered a lot: His expected points added (EPA) per dropback fell from 0.25 to -0.01. He went from doing as much as any quarterback save Matthew Stafford to put his team in position to score to doing less than the likes of Geno Smith and Trevor Siemian.
The turning point was the Chargers’ 34-6 humbling at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6, when Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale used the illusion of pressure to keep Herbert off-balance. “Yeah, it was a lot of looks that we didn’t see on film and stuff they constructed for us,” Herbert said after the game. “They did a great job at disguising their looks, bringing pressure from one way and hiding from another. It was looks they hadn’t shown all season and stuff that you know we have to be better at to adjust to during the game.”
It makes sense that forcing a second-year quarterback to diagnose different pressures, both pre- and post-snap, would make his accuracy on high-leverage downs suffer. But something Martindale said about Herbert before the game might offer a key for the Chargers’ recovery: Herbert is “one of those guys who could throw a strawberry through a battleship.”
Through Week 5, Herbert ranked fifth in the league in Total QBR and second in EPA per dropback. But he ranked only 16th in average yards per attempt and 23rd in air yards per attempt. So even when he was completing many important throws, he wasn’t hitting many deep ones. Looking at Herbert’s passing heat maps from 2020 and 2021, we can see he’s throwing more horizontally and less vertically:
Why is a passer with strawberry-through-a-battleship-level arm talent averaging just 7.22 air yards per attempt this season — ranked 29th, below the likes of Sam Darnold and Davis Mills?
Answering that question may be the key for Herbert and L.A. to start a third miniseason in this longest of years — and get the Chargers in better position for the playoffs.
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