The Los Angeles Chargers are 3-8 and going nowhere this year. And they are probably the happiest 3-8 team on the planet.
Though the Chargers have the fourth-worst record in the NFL, the future looks bright because of the performance of their rookie quarterback, Justin Herbert.
He was the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft, but the third quarterback taken — the leftover option after Joe Burrow went to Cincinnati and Tua Tagovailoa to Miami. But Herbert has been fantastic and is the clear leader for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“Yeah, he’s impressive — very talented player,” said Bill Belichick, whose Patriots face Herbert this Sunday in Los Angeles. “Tall, sees things well, has a good arm, can certainly make all the throws. He’s athletic, can escape the pocket, smart.
“It looks like he’s going be a good quarterback for a long time.”
If quarterbacks were judged only on wins and losses, Herbert would be in trouble. He is 2-8 since taking over for Tyrod Taylor in Week 2, with his two wins coming against the NFL’s two worst teams, the Jaguars and Jets.
But Herbert has been tremendous for someone who doesn’t turn 23 until March. The Chargers are No. 3 in the NFL in total offense (though 16th in points), Herbert ranks second in passing yards per game (301), and he is tied for seventh with 23 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions.
Herbert is thriving with a talented stable of weapons: receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, tight end Hunter Henry, and running back Austin Ekeler. Herbert’s 100.9 passer rating would be the fifth-best by a rookie in NFL history, and he is on pace to shatter rookie records for passing yards per game and touchdown passes (35; the record is 27).
The Chargers’ poor record is more on their 25th-ranked scoring defense than their young quarterback. Herbert shows impressive traits, and the wins eventually will come, as they did for Peyton Manning after his 3-13 rookie season.
Belichick said Herbert has good command of the Chargers offense.
“They do a number of things at the line of scrimmage; you’ve seen him check plays, audible against pressure, change plays against check-with-me type situations,” said Belichick, who evaluated Herbert before the draft.
“I know he’s a smart, hard-working kid that likes football and I’m sure he will continue to get better.”
Seven of Herbert’s eight losses have been by one possession, and the Patriots are definitely going to have their hands full. Here are some of my notes and observations after watching Herbert’s last several games on the All-22 video:
▪ He has excellent pocket awareness and plays with a veteran’s savvy despite his youth. His ability to shuffle and slide in the pocket to avoid pass rushers is outstanding, as he showed on a 27-yard touchdown pass against the Raiders four weeks ago.
Herbert looks like a boxer shuffling around the ring as he finds his throwing lanes and delivers a clean, accurate pass. Cam Newton should watch some of Herbert’s film to see how he feels the pass rush, finds open space within the pocket, and keeps his eyes downfield.
▪ Herbert is 6 feet 6 inches, stands confidently in the pocket, has a big arm, and throws with great timing and accuracy. He throws an excellent deep ball; the Chargers like to go deep to Tyron Johnson down the middle of the field, with Johnson catching two passes of 50-plus yards from the slot position this season.
Against the Jets, Herbert threw a perfect crossing pass to Williams on the run, hitting him in stride and allowing him to take it 39 yards for a touchdown.
▪ He shows poise for a young quarterback. Against the Raiders, he did a great job of double-clutching on a screen pass when a defender got in the throwing lane, waiting half a beat, then floating a perfect pass all the way across the field while getting crushed by a pass rusher. Fullback Gabe Nabers caught it for a walk-in touchdown.
▪ He is a good athlete, and shows impressive accuracy when throwing awkwardly. Against the Dolphins, Herbert rolled out to his left away from the pass rush, threw against his body, and fired a dart to Allen in tight coverage for a 13-yard touchdown.
In the same game, the Dolphins blitzed eight on third down, Herbert backtracked away from the rush, threw off his back foot, and hit Allen perfectly in stride for another touchdown.
▪ The blitz itself doesn’t seem to faze Herbert. He is seventh in the NFL in blitz passer rating (112.1), with nine touchdown passes, only one interception, and six sacks.
However, the Bills blitzed Herbert a ton — 23 times on 55 passing plays (42 percent) — and kept him off-balance all game. Herbert finished with three sacks, an interception, and 261 passing yards on 51 attempts, excluding the Hail Mary at the end.
Four of Herbert’s five heaviest blitzed games have come in the last five weeks. Opposing defenses clearly believe that blitzing is the best way to rattle him.
▪ Herbert has taken 22 sacks, but he doesn’t stare down the defense. Most of the sacks are the result of breakdowns in pass protection. The Chargers have allowed 113 hurries, tied for eighth-most in the NFL.
▪ Defenses don’t have to dedicate a spy to Herbert, but he has 185 rushing yards and three touchdowns and definitely can make plays with his feet when he has to.
He had two tough runs against the Jets: He escaped the pocket and picked up a third-and-2 while taking a shot to the head, then slipped a tackle on second and 5 to pick up 8 yards. He also ran a read-option play against the Raiders and kept it for 11 yards.
▪ Of course, there will be rookie mistakes. Herbert butchered the clock management at the end of the loss to the Bills, calling a running play after the Hail Mary and burning the clock down from 25 to eight seconds.
And although he doesn’t throw many picks — just four in his last seven games — he sometimes will misread a coverage.
Two of his seven interceptions were similar, against Miami and Carolina; he didn’t seem to recognize the Cover 3 zone defense and got picked off by a lurking cornerback.
Herbert also threw a bad pick against Buffalo on which he tried to squeeze in a pass to Henry and missed an open receiver over the middle.
But his interception against Carolina was another example of why the Chargers have to love Herbert. Instead of sulking, he ran about 75 yards back down the field and tackled cornerback Donte Jackson at the 8-yard line. It was a big hit as well.