By Brentley Weissman
Don’t let the Bolts get hot. The Los Angeles Chargers are back in the win column this week after they were able to hold off the Denver Broncos in a nail-biting 19-16 victory. The win was the Chargers' third in a row, and their sixth win overall, bringing their overall record to 6-9 with just a date with the Kansas City Chiefs remaining. While the wins have been few and far between for the Chargers, there is certainly reason for Bolts fans to be excited.
In the Chargers' win over the Broncos, rookie sensation quarterback Justin Herbert added to his historic year, as he bested Baker Mayfield for the most touchdown passes by a rookie with 28. Additionally, Herbert became just the third quarterback in Chargers history to throw for more than 4,000 passing yards, joining Hall of Famer and fellow Oregon Duck legend Dan Fouts, as well as future Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers. Talk about being in good company for the rookie. Herbert, who didn’t start the first game of the season, has been truly remarkable in his debut year and has already established himself as not just the top rookie passer, but one of the best quarterbacks in all of football.
With a game remaining, Herbert has thrown for 4,034 yards, 28 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions, all while completing 66.3% of his passes. Herbert also added 225 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. As a passer, Herbert has shown the rare arm strength and velocity that made him a top prospect coming out of Oregon. Herbert has the ability to drive the ball into extremely tight windows and hit receivers deep with a flick of the wrist. For a young quarterback, his willingness to test defenses, and make them cover every blade of grass is extremely impressive. Herbert’s decision-making and accuracy, often criticized while at Oregon, has far exceeded expectations. He has shown outstanding ball placement at the intermediate and deeper levels of the field, and throwing receivers open, rather than waiting for them to uncover. Herbert is a very cerebral player who is making great decisions with the football. There are some areas Herbert could improve on as a passer heading into next season and that is to slow down his process on shorter route concepts in order to have better touch and placement on balls that are closer to the line of scrimmage.
Herbert has the looks of a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback and potential future MVP candidate. With his unique blend of size, athletic ability, and arm talent, there isn’t much Herbert can’t do on the football field. I know we shouldn’t go crazy and crown Herbert after just one season of football, and history has shown us other quarterbacks who had promise but could never fully realize their full potential—looking at you Robert Griffin III and Carson Wentz—however, with Herbert it just feels different. For a quarterback with the athletic ability that Herbert has, he rarely puts himself in harm's way. Herbert has learned to slide as a runner, and he knows when to get rid of the football when nothing is there.
Perhaps the most promising thing I have seen from Herbert during his record-breaking rookie year is his play under pressure and in clutch situations. On the year, Herbert ranks first in completions, touchdowns, and yards while facing pressure. Now, for context, Herbert is under pressure more than most quarterbacks due to him playing behind a below-average offensive line, but the results are the results and Herbert is still moving the football consistently with guys in his face.
Furthermore, Herbert has shown that he is able to make plays in got to have it situations, a trait that separates the good quarterbacks from the greats. In three straight weeks, the Chargers found themselves in a situation at the end of the game where they needed a drive to win the ball game late. In Week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons, they were tied 17-17 and got the ball back with under a minute left with a chance to win the game. Herbert was able to drive down the field and set up a game-winning field goal. In Week 15 against the Las Vegas Raiders, the Chargers were down 27-24 in overtime and needed to drive the length of the field for a touchdown to win. Thanks to Herbert’s ability to stretch the field vertically, the Chargers made it to the 2-yard line in just three plays, and Herbert was able to sneak it in himself for the go-ahead touchdown. Most recently, in Week 16 against the Denver Broncos, the game was tied 16-16 late in the fourth quarter and Herbert again was able to lead a drive to set up the game-winning field goal.
Those types of moments should give Chargers fans so much reason for hope moving forward, as this team is famously known for blowing tight games—but with Herbert, it appears they may have figured out a way to win them.
The Chargers are far from a perfect football team and there is a good amount of work to be done in order to have this roster ready to compete in 2021. The team needs to address the offensive line and make sure Herbert is better protected moving forward. They need to add another playmaker on offense, who can stretch the field vertically and a guy that can provide some more yards after the catch. They also need to add more talent on defense, specifically at edge rusher and at corner, where they are sure to experience some attrition in free agency. The great thing for the Chargers, though, is that these needs are relatively easy to get right, and the hardest position to find is one that the Chargers have nailed, and that is quarterback.
When we look back at Herbert’s rookie season, we will remember the crazy way in which he became a starter. We will remember the explosive plays, the heartbreaking losses, the joys of victory, and the growth he has shown throughout the season. Herbert will end his season next week with a chance to break even more records, as he is just four touchdowns shy of breaking Cam Newton’s overall touchdown record for a rookie with 35 overall. Whether or not Herbert is able to eclipse that record, it is clear that he has just had one of the best rookie seasons of all time for a quarterback and that this is just the beginning of a long and successful NFL career.