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Arm Talent, Winning, and the Justin Herbert Paradox

The Charger QB is a gifted thrower but that hasn’t translated into meaningful wins. Are we giving him a pass because of his highlight worthy plays in lieu of winning plays that he has not consistently made?

Before the NFL season kicked off this year, the publication PFF ranked all 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Justin Herbert, the Chargers franchise QB, was ranked fourth behind Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow. This ranking placed him above players like Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Trevor Lawrence. The article projected that new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore could “unlock” Herbert’s potential into the transcendent player that everyone is confident that he will become.

After 6 games, the Chargers are sitting at 2-4 and currently in line for a top 10 pick in next year's draft alongside teams like the Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints that may be looking towards the future. Many fans have suggested that coaching is the problem with the Chargers, deflecting blame from Herbert for now. And yet despite this, we are attaching his teams 27-29 win-loss record with him as a starter to the overall conversation about him. It brings up a conversation about measuring QBs on team records and how a player like Herbert will continue to get the benefit of the doubt because of his arm talent.

The Importance of the Quarterback Position

In the last decade, 33 quarterbacks have been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. The position is the ultimate lottery ticket in the modern NFL. Hitting on a first round quarterback prospect can turn your fortunes from cellar dweller to playoff contender. Conversely, selecting the wrong prospect can often set your franchise back years on wasted development. For instance, the Denver Broncos drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016 to be their QB of the future and the team is still looking for answers at the position today after multiple different players have taken the helm under center.

To say that the quarterback position is the most important position in football today is a massive understatement. It can be argued that the quarterback position is the most important position in team sports as a whole. The rules of modern football have been predicated on protecting the quarterback and to scoring points. If your team is subpar at that position, there is a good chance that they are also subpar in the standings. The quarterback is usually a team's leader, the person that is reading what the defense is doing and setting the tone for his team.

This level of importance usually leads to a team’s quarterback becoming the “face” of that franchise. Even an underperforming team like the Chicago Bears are usually associated with their quarterback (Justin Fields). Therefore, it can be easy to understand why a fan would make a direct association with a team's success and their quarterback’s ability. Many consider Tom Brady to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history. This isn’t because he was the best at every measurable, it is because he won a lot of games and Super Bowls. Ring culture is something we usually associate with the NBA, but it is alive and well in our football analysis as well, particularly when it comes to the guy that is under center.

Winning as it Pertains to Quarterbacks

Calvin Johnson is one of the best wide receivers that ever played in the NFL. He holds the record for most receiving yards in a single season and is also in the top 15 for receptions in a single season. By all historical accounts, Johnson’s career was a tremendous success. But winning was not a part of Johnson’s 9 year career in Detroit. While he was there, the Lions were 54-90, winning only 37% of their games. This ineptitude has not sullied our view of Johnson’s talent, just that he was a great player placed in a terrible circumstance.

His quarterback for much of his tenure, Matthew Stafford, was not afforded the same treatment. Having lived in Detroit during the entire Stafford era, the perception by many was that he was a talented player that put up big numbers but couldn’t win important games. This narrative eventually shifted when Stafford was traded to the Rams and finally won a Super Bowl. The shift in perception of Stafford is indicative of how we as a general public view winning as a metric for quarterback success. Before arriving in LA, he was a stat accumulator and nothing more. Once he won a title, people began to have conversations about him eventually being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Winning in the playoffs matters when it comes to the way we evaluate quarterbacks, because we view them as leaders of our football teams. Former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers is 6th all-time in passing touchdowns, which is 8 spots above John Elway. But Elway is viewed universally as the superior player because he won in the playoffs when it mattered the most (Elway was 14-8 in the playoffs with 2 Super Bowl wins versus Rivers’ 5-7 record). Perhaps it is the allure and mythology of a game that is decided by a two minute drive that is led by a quarterback that contributes to this thought process.

There is a line in the movie, ‘The Replacements' where Gene Hackman says “winners always want the ball when the game is on the line” to his quarterback Shane Falco, who is played by Keanu Reeves. The line shows how much value is placed in the leadership capability of a team's quarterback. He is the decision maker, the person who touches the ball every play and decides who gets to make a play. We want that player to be a leader and command respect. But sometimes leaders have to be molded, where a player needs time to become the leader that wins championships. The NFL, a league that is usually cutthroat, seems to make an exception when a player has what they call “arm talent”. This is the Justin Herbert conundrum.

The Intoxication of Arm Talent

The term “arm talent” gets thrown around a lot by analysts and scouts that evaluate college quarterbacks that are entering the NFL. What this term generally means is that a quarterback can make a variety of throws regardless of the situation. For instance, a player like former number 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell had tremendous arm strength with the ability to drive the ball 70 yards downfield. But his lack of touch and accuracy in the short to intermediate passing game was not there, meaning that he did not have arm talent. Today’s NFL is a game of time spaces and anticipatory throwing lanes. As such, NFL quarterbacks need to have both the power and accuracy to be considered successful in today’s league.

By all accounts, Justin Herbert has arm talent. He can hit a receiver in stride on a deep vertical route, while also fitting a ball into his receivers arms past close-by defenders. And yet, that has not translated into winning. The Chargers have been a frustrating and mediocre team with him at the helm. They have yet to win a playoff game and were only second in their division once. Many have blamed head coach Brandon Staley for his analytics-driven late game decisions, but at a certain point we as a football watching public expect a quarterback to make plays and win games. We have seen Herbert’s contemporaries defy the odds and make plays and win playoff games, and ultimately Herbert is going to be held to the standard of players like Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson.

A highly touted quarterback would have been on thin ice if they had less arm talent and were performing this way. Clear examples of this are Justin Fields in Chicago and Daniel Jones in New York. But Herbert has the ultimate get out jail free card in arm talent, begging many to question if this metric enables us to become too enamored with a talent that is simply not winning games. Herbert just signed a five year extension with the Chargers this summer, which means that they are tying their future as a franchise with him and his ability.

In Herbert, we have the ultimate paradox. It is thought that in order to win in the modern NFL your team needs an elite quarterback. By all indications and measurables, Herbert is that. And yet, the Chargers who frequently have some of the best rosters in the league with great weapons can’t seem to get out of their way. It is only a matter of time before Staley is fired and the next coach is brought on to bring the best out of Herbert. While winning should not be a measure of a quarterback's success, it is the only way we know to measure our leaders in this sport. We will continue to be enthralled by the highlight plays that Herbert and other quarterbacks are capable of, but it cannot be the only positive takeaway from the position. At a certain point, you have to win games, and eventually, Herbert’s standing in the eyes of many will continue to plummet until that happens.

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