In a weekend of football filled with incredible highlights, Justin Herbert may have made the throw of the year. With 25 seconds left in the first half of their Week 14 game against the New York Giants, and leading 17-7, the Los Angeles Chargers lined up for a third down on their own 41. Herbert was flushed to his right by pressure from the left edge and was hit from behind just as he released the ball.
In that moment, you would be forgiven for thinking that the pass would be short, off-target or both. Instead, the ball began a preposterous flight that never seemed to end, traveling nearly 64 yards in the air before hitting Jalen Guyton in stride at the 2-yard line for a touchdown.
Herbert has made a habit of completing deep throws like these since he entered the league. According to Next Gen Stats, Sunday’s long throw was the 10th time in his career that he passed for a completion that traveled 55 yards or more in the air, most in the NFL over the past two seasons. And on vertical route concepts,1 Herbert has the second highest raw quarterback rating (67.5) among QBs who have qualified for the passer rating leaderboard so far this season, trailing Matthew Stafford (67.8) by just 0.3 points.
Given Herbert’s prowess in downfield passing, it’s surprising that Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi doesn’t scheme up or encourage targets on more vertical route concepts. This season, the Chargers rank 21st in share of vertical routes run by their receivers in the NFL (26.0 percent), and Herbert has pulled the trigger on a vertical route on 14.3 percent of his pass attempts — an 11.7-percentage point difference in rates. In comparison, Stafford and the L.A. Rams have a similar share of vertical routes run (26.2 percent), but Stafford attempts a pass on a vertical route concept on 20.3 percent of his attempts — a 5.9-point difference.
|Vertical route concepts|
|player▲▼||team▲▼||Att▲▼||Vert Att%▲▼||Team Vert%▲▼||diff.▲▼||Raw QBR▲▼|
|Taylor Heinicke||Football Team||64||15.3||28.3||+13.0||48.0|
In fairness to the Chargers, it’s rare for a team that runs a vertical concept on a quarter of it’s routes to pair it with a quarterback that will target them at anywhere near the same clip. The closest anyone in the NFL has come to parity between the two rates in the past three-plus years is Jameis Winston in 2018.2 That year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used a vertical route concept on 26.7 percent of their routes run, and Winston attempted a pass to the receivers running those routes 24.9 percent of the time — a difference of just 1.8 percentage points.
But what does this differential really tell us, anyway? One way to interpret the difference is as a measure of the quarterback’s arm arrogance. In 2018 with the Bucs, Winston rarely saw a deep route he didn’t like. The limiting factor instead seemed to be how often the coordinator called a play with a viable vertical route. Another interpretation of the differential could be that some QBs are coached to take the deep shots more than others. In offenses based on Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” scheme, for instance, the deep pass is always the first look.3
Perhaps the latter is what we’re seeing with Herbert in Los Angeles. Lombardi’s first stint as an offensive coordinator was in Detroit, and it ended in failure largely due to an attempt to impose the short, rhythm passing of the West Coast offense on Stafford. Lombardi came into the year vowing to be more flexible in his approach — and the Chargers have undoubtedly been successful this year (we currently give them an 86 percent shot to make the playoffs) — but it seems likely the Chargers could stand to open things up more for a player with Herbert’s obvious gifts.
It’s even possible that teams with average QBs should be asking them to chuck it deep more often. There’s evidence that the more a QB targets the verticals a coordinator schemes up for him, the better his performance tends to be. From 2018 through Week 14 of 2021, there’s a significant and moderately strong negative correlation between a quarterback’s raw QBR and the difference between his vertical attempt rate and his team’s vertical route share.4
We should pause and note that there are many potential confounders here, and the association could be explained in a number of ways. But whether deep ball success is driven by a QB with arm talent, a receiving corps with field-stretching speed, or if it’s something you can scheme, it’s hard to argue that Herbert shouldn’t be attempting more of those throws. They can instantly end the competitive portion of the game — like Herbert’s pass did at the end of the half against the Giants — as well as wind up on an end-of-season highlight reel. A few more deep shots per game is probably not too much to ask.
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