Is Justin Herbert the Best Rookie QB Ever?

Watching last night’s Chargers-Raiders game, I had to keep reminding myself that Justin Herbert is a rookie. He looks like a perennial top-5 QB who has been in the league 7-8 years.

Look at his highlight reel from last night:

He’s making throws that rookies don’t normally make. Normally, with rookie and even 2nd/3rd year QBs, when they wind up to pass, I kind of tense up and hold my breath, expecting disaster to strike as soon as they unload the ball.

Not with Herbert. When he releases the ball, I’m confident it’s getting caught. I’m confident he’s going to find somebody and make a play.

I’m confident in him on third down, I’m confident in him when he throws deep, and I have confidence in him when he has to roll out of the pocket and improvise. He keeps his eyes downfield, surveys the field well, goes through his progressions, and throws accurately on the run.

It looks like it all just comes natural for him. He makes it look so easy out there. He doesn’t panic or get rattled or get happy feet; he’s just calm, cool and collected all the time. If the play or the pocket breaks down, he takes it all in stride, buys some time with his feet, and finds somebody downfield.

I keep having to remind myself he’s a rookie, and not a seasoned vet who has made multiple Pro Bowls in his career. It’s crazy how good he already is.

He looks like he’s 16 years old:

And this was his stat line for last night’s game. Yes, I know the Raiders are a bad defense to begin with and they were missing their 4 best defensive players. But Herbert put up this stat line and it didn’t even look particularly hard for him. It was just kinda ho-hum, business-as-usual:

An 85.1 QBR is really good.

Aaron Rodgers is leading the league in QBR this season and he’s averaging an 85.0 over 13 games. That means that last night, Herbert had a (slightly) better game than Aaron Rodgers’ average game this season.

Aaron Rodgers obviously is one of the greatest QBs of all time and having arguably his best season ever, and is probably going to win MVP.

Last night, Herbert tied Baker Mayfield’s record for most TD passes by a rookie with 27. He’s still got 2 more games left. He also just had his 7th game of 300 or more passing yards, which broke Andrew Luck’s rookie record of 6 in 2012. He already holds the rookie record for most games with 3 or more TD passes (5).

He’s completing 66.5% of his passes, which is the 3rd best mark ever by a rookie. Dak’s 2016 rookie season, he completed 67.8% of his passes. That’s the record.

The season-long passing yard record for a rookie is Andrew Luck’s 4,374 in 2012. Herbert already has 3,781, which already puts him at #5 all-time for a rookie. All Herbert has to do is average 297 yards per game over the next two games (he’s averaging 290 a game so far) and he’ll have the rookie record for passing yards.

Herbert’s 290 passing yards a game rank 3rd in the whole league currently. He’s behind only Mahomes and Dak Prescott, who hasn’t played since week 5 and was averaging 371 yards a game before he went down with that terrible ankle injury.

And that’s the thing: Herbert’s numbers this season aren’t just good for a rookie. They’re good, period. He’s probably already a top-10 QB in the league right now. He’s going to keep getting better.

He’s already showed mental toughness and maturity, too. Two weeks ago, the Chargers got blanked 45-0 by the Patriots. Herbert didn’t have a particularly good game, but you can chalk that up to Bill Belichick and the way he consistently terrorizes rookie QBs. Opposing rookie QBs always have bad games against Belichick; he just has a way of taking them out of their element and confusing them and generally making life miserable for them. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it consistently.

The week after that game, Herbert led the Chargers to a win over the Falcons. Yes, he did have that late INT, but he still found a way to drive them down the field at the end and kick the game-winning field goal. He did not allow the previous week’s blowout loss to tank his confidence.

Last night, he overcame two missed field goals late in the game by his kicker Michael Badgely and found a way to win that game in OT. He just overcomes adversity.

In week 2, he was suddenly thrust in as the starting QB just a few minutes before kickoff. All week, he didn’t even know it would be his first career start, and yet he became the starter on the shortest possible notice (remember how the trainers punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung?) He was playing the Chiefs! Two minutes before kickoff, his coach comes up to him and says, “You’re getting the start against Mahomes.”

The Chargers were winning that game late and the Chiefs had to go to OT to escape with the win. Herbert was 22/33 for 311 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT and a 73.3 QBR in his first career start, against Mahomes. He didn’t even have a preseason!

This kid has been brilliant from the very start.

No, his team hasn’t been winning much this season. 7 of their 9 losses this season have been one-possession games. As great as Herbert has been, the one knock on him is that his team hasn’t been winning as much as we’d expect. But while Andrew Luck went 11-5 as a rookie, made the playoffs, threw for 4,374 yards, and made the Pro Bowl, his other stats weren’t as good as Herbert’s:

Here’s Herbert’s full stats:

Herbert has a far greater completion rate (66.5% to 54.1%), more TDs (27 vs 23), way fewer INTs (10 vs. Luck’s 18), a way higher passer rating (96.3 vs 76.5), a better QBR (68.3 vs. 65.6), and a full yard higher adjusted net-yards per attempt (6.63 vs. 5.66).

The only thing is, Andrew Luck won a lot more games.

As a passer, though, Herbert is already well ahead of where Luck was as a rookie.

Look, there have been lots of great rookie QB seasons and it’s really hard to compare Herbert to the rest of them. You’ve got guys like RG3 and Cam Newton who exploded on to the scene as rookies, but a lot of what made them so great was their running ability. While Herbert can move, he’s not anywhere close to those guys as a runner.

But I’m looking at the list, and none of these guys come close to Herbert’s overall passing numbers. Some of these guys come close to him in certain categories, but nobody on the list is even close to him overall.

Dak had a really good rookie season, but he also wasn’t asked to do nearly as much as Herbert has been asked to do this year. Herbert already has 531 passing attempts in 13 games. Dak had 459 in 16 games as a rookie. Dak was asked to be more of a game manager and to allow Zeke and the league’s best offensive line to run over everybody on their schedule.

Herbert has basically been asked to do it all since his first snap as a pro. There’s never been any “training wheels” for him, there was no easing him into the action. Look at the way Matt Nagy treats Trubisky, and how McVay treats Jared Goff and how Stefanski treats Baker Mayfield: those guys are still heavily coached and baby-sat. They still have not been fully given the “keys to the car.” It seems like all three of those guys still have to rely on clever scheming on the part of their head coaches in order to have success passing, although Baker looks like he’s getting more and more freedom as the season goes on.

Anthony Lynn, on the other hand, gave Herbert the proverbial keys to the car basically right away. He never tried to protect Herbert or gradually ease him into the starting QB role. It wasn’t like, “We’ll slowly open up the playbook more and more each week for him.” That’s why he reminds me a lot of Andrew Luck. With both Herbert and Luck it was a sink or swim situation. Like, “You are now a starting NFL QB. Let’s see what you can do.”

It looks like Lynn already fully trusts Herbert to air it out. In Herbert’s second career start, he had 49 passing attempts. Mitch Trubisky has only had 3 games of more than 49 passing attempts in his entire career, and he’s played 47 total games. Herbert already has 2 games with 49 attempts, one game with 52 attempts and his season high in attempts is 53.

Even though he has a 4-9 record as a starter this season, I still think Herbert has been the best rookie QB ever. His stats are already well above average for an NFL starter, not even just for a rookie.

Mahomes sat his entire rookie season. So while he absolutely set the world on fire in his first season as a starter, it doesn’t technically count as a rookie season. Obviously if we counted Mahomes’ first season as his rookie year, nobody would come anywhere close to that. He threw for 50 TDs. Herbert has 27 right now.

But Mahomes wasn’t a rookie that year. So we can’t count it.

Because of that, I think I’m ready to proclaim Justin Herbert as the best rookie QB ever.

Octavian

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