Chargers’ Justin Herbert showing improvement down the stretch

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert hasn't been favored by advanced metrics for most of 2021, but that changed in recent weeks.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert took the league by storm in 2020, breaking records and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. This season, though, the advanced metrics have often judged him harshly despite some impressive traditional statistics. He’s shown signs of improvement in the last few weeks, but will that trend hold going forward?

Justin Herbert’s box score statistics are spectacular

On the surface, Herbert seems to be having an excellent year. He has already led the Chargers to more wins this season than they had in all of 2020. And he has put together some spectacular individual statistics as well.

Herbert ranks fourth in the NFL with 3,822 passing yards and third with 30 passing touchdowns. At this rate, he is on pace to set personal bests in both yards and touchdowns.

He has thrown 11 interceptions, which is higher than you would like, but not concerningly so, especially since he has thrown more passes this season than every other quarterback except Tom Brady.

Based on those numbers, Herbert seems to be having an elite season. However, the advanced metrics tell a different story.

The advanced metrics are unkind

Although Herbert is filling the box score, there is some evidence that his gaudy numbers might be misleading. As evidence, let’s turn to the Offensive Value Metric (OVM).

The OVM is a grading system designed by the (Bx) Movement to evaluate players based on how much they contribute to the creation of their statistics, rather than the statistics themselves.

So far this season, Herbert’s OVM grade is surprisingly low given the amount of hype he has garnered during the start of his career. At 22.67, it ranks 18th out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks. It is actually slightly lower than his grade from the season before, which was 23.9.

Looking at his season overall, Herbert has merely been a mediocre contributor to the Chargers’ success on offense.

The advanced metrics behind Justin Herbert’s grades

There are quite a few factors behind Herbert’s underwhelming OVM grade. The first is one that you might already have heard about.

Despite having the arm talent to make just about any throw, Herbert is throwing the ball a relatively short distance downfield this season, at an average of 7.4 yards across all of his passes and 5.7 yards on his completions.

Unlike some other quarterbacks who make their living in the short game, Herbert hasn’t been particularly efficient. Across the entire season, he is completing a mediocre 67.1% of his passes. According to the NFL’s projections, that number is -0.1% lower than it should be.

In short, Herbert is attempting “easy” passes this season, but isn’t completing them at an exceptional rate.

Herbert is trending upwards

Although his overall advanced metrics are less than impressive, Herbert has shown signs of improvement in the last few weeks. Take a look at the chart below.

In it, you can see Herbert’s grades from each week of the 2021 season so far, marked by the black dots. For comparison, the yellow line represents the league average regular-season OVM grade for quarterbacks in 2021.

Chargers’ Justin Herbert showing improvement down the stretch

After a strong start in Week 1, Herbert’s grades steadily declined until the bye week, and even after the break, he showed significant inconsistencies. However, in the last two weeks, Herbert has earned his best two grades of the season, at 37.89 and 32.66, respectively — his first grades above 30 points since Week 1.

In those games, he threw the ball significantly further, at an average of 10.2 yards in Week 13 and 8.4 in Week 14. And despite throwing the ball a greater distance, Herbert’s completion percentages actually improved. He completed 74.3% of his passes in Week 13 (10.9% higher than expected) and 74.2% (11.2% higher than expected) in Week 14. His opponents from those weeks — the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants — don’t have elite pass defenses. Nevertheless, those are still spectacular numbers.

If he continues to perform at that level, Los Angeles will be in a great position to compete in the playoffs. Unfortunately, based on his inconsistencies earlier in the season, it seems just as likely, if not more so, that he will regress again.

The Chargers need Herbert to be elite down the stretch

Herbert’s recent run of good form comes at a good time. If the season ended today, the Chargers would be in the playoffs, but the AFC is closely contested. Losing even two of their last four games could lead to Los Angeles missing the postseason entirely.

Coming into town this weekend is a Chiefs team that is as hot as any other in the NFL right now, having won six games in a row. Herbert will need to be at his best for Los Angeles to win on Sunday, and to keep winning going forward.

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