Breaking Down Justin Herbert's Surprisingly Good NFL Debut

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 1, the Los Angeles Chargers beat the Cincinnati Bengals by three points. They should have been taken to overtime by rookie quarterback Joe Burrow in his first start, but for a missed chip shot to close the fourth quarter. 

In Week 2, the Chargers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs by three points. In this case, they were taken to overtime, and lost on a 58-yard banger from Harrison Butker. 

The difference between the Bengals and the Chiefs? About as big as it gets. The Chiefs are Super Bowl champions; the Bengals picked first in the 2020 NFL Draft. Usually, when you play those teams back to back, you don’t get essentially the same script.

The difference for the Chargers, then? That was rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, who enjoyed his first career start.

Herbert’s first career start should not have gone well. He spent no additional time preparing with the ones during practice in the week, as quarterback Tyrod Taylor was injured during pregame warmups, and Herbert knew he was getting the start only minutes before the game began—against a blitz-happy Steve Spagnuolo defense, no less!

Herbert also was not considered a Year 1 guy as a quarterback prospect. The consensus QB3 behind LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Herbert experienced middling success in college, and was measured as a top quarterback prospect on the basis of his tools, not his product. As I said after Herbert was drafted by the Chargers, “Herbert is going to take time, and there will likely be some give and take between him, the offense and the coaching staff’s current vision for the team; continuing to pour resources into the offensive weaponry over the 2021 offseason will only help Herbert, who should really start getting a report card in Year 2 at the earliest.”

But starting experience put a cool head on Herbert’s shoulders, and arm talent and athleticism is dangerous on an NFL field no matter how raw the passer is. Herbert had his rookie moments, but never looked starstruck or over his head, and controlled the pace of his offense with aplomb. The Chargers averaged more yards per play than the Chiefs and Herbert had three more yards per attempt than Patrick Mahomes. His boneheaded mistakes turned into two sacks and a silly pick, but he also picked up 18 yards and a touchdown on the ground and really never put the ball in harm’s way otherwise. 

This is the growing pain you can’t help but endure with a quarterback like Herbert. Talented quarterbacks make risky throws, and Herbert was feeling his game and big-play hunting when he could have just tucked the ball and picked up a new set of downs. Instead, he saw a tiny window downfield and decided it was big enough for him to fit a tough throw. It’s that same mental process that led to this throw as well.

Burrow was the first overall pick, and rightfully so. He’s playing well for Cincinnati and has made some nice throws. He has not made a throw like that.

Herbert was accurate on Sunday, and that’s the biggest deal for the Chargers—more important than the running plays, which will help keep his offense on a high floor; or his fearlessness facing coverage, which will help create opportunities for chunk gains. As on that throw, which is placed perfectly against coverage, Herbert regularly delivered balls away from leveraged defenders, showing a comfort throwing into windows that he often didn’t show at Oregon. Offensive coordinator Shane Steichen did well to get Herbert quick reads from the pistol and gun, and kept Herbert from dangerous downs and distances with an effective running game, in which Herbert himself was involved.

Often at Oregon, Herbert flashed much of what he showed against Kansas City: poise, accuracy, chunk gains, running ability. He rarely showed them all at the same time and was inconsistent across the duration of a season. While his consistency as a starter remains untested following his unexpected debut, this performance against the Kansas City defense showed surprising readiness from a quarterback who seemed in need of development and patience off of his college film. 

Yet, Chargers fans may still have to wait. Head coach Anthony Lynn restated his commitment to a healthy Taylor in the postgame conference, though that conditional “100%” seems like a convenient opt-out if the Chargers change their mind later this week.

To replace Herbert with Taylor would be wildly irresponsible, unless there is compelling camp evidence that Herbert is not ready—and even then, that practice evidence pales in comparison to what he just did in live game action. You cannot ask for a better springboard from which to launch a developmental campaign than from a solid, playmaking performance against the Super Bowl champions. This should not only be Herbert’s job next week, but it should be his job following a poor performance or two as well, should he become shakier. 

His performance against the Chiefs is more than you could expect for a rookie quarterback of his college career, and it’s worth seeing if he can continue to build on it, accelerating the Chargers’ reload with his natural talent.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.