Justin Herbert: Coaching Red Flags?
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Image Credit: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Justin Herbert.

Justin Herbert just finished one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, but now he gets a new head coach and offensive coordinator. Normally that might fuel concerns of a sophomore slump, but could Brandon Staley and Joe Lombardi turn him into a fantasy legend instead?

The Chargers hired Rams DC Brandon Staley as their new head coach and added Saints QB coach Joe Lombardi as their new offensive coordinator. Normally it would be nausea-inducing for a team to hire a defensive-minded head coach and an offensive coordinator who tanked in his previous sojourn outside the New Orleans bubble. Fortunately for Herbert owners, they’re saying all of the right things:

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi plan to build the Chargers offense in 2021 around second-year quarterback Justin Herbert. But Herbert will also be learning a new offense with a new head coach and offensive coordinator in just his second season. The Oregon product finished sixth in passing yards (4,336), 10th in touchdown passes (31), 12th in passer rating (98.3) and had only 10 interceptions in his rookie season. “He has a skill set that is elite,” Lombardi said. “It appears that there’s nothing that he can’t do. He has an incredibly strong arm, good accuracy and he is very athletic.”

This isn’t all that they’ve said, also claiming they will build the offense around Herbert and deploy aggressive concepts like an up-tempo, pass-heavy scheme with liberal fourth-down decision-making. If the Chargers successfully incorporate these elements, they would be an offensive juggernaut, as the NFL Pace tool attests.[1]

Justin Herbert, Fantasy Legend?

Herbert was already the fantasy QB8 on a per-game basis in 2020, and that’s if we include Dak Prescott. But evidence abounds for a secondary breakout to ungodly levels. Consider the takeaway in Blair Andrews’ Wrong Read No. 56 where he points out that second-year QBs are the only group to improve their subsequent year scoring.

This will be a difficult standard for Herbert who already scored 25 PPG. However, in selecting Herbert No. 9 overall in our recent Superflex startup mock, I pointed out how much the RotoViz Screener likes him.

Herbert was a rookie sensation with a debut season that was historically good. Over the last 20 years he trailed only Cam Newton in fantasy points and Andrew Luck in yards. His 31 TDs rank No. 1, and he balanced them with only 10 picks.

It comes as no surprise that the Screener’s Similarity Search feature pulls up Luck as his closest comp. It is a surprise that his numbers were so good that the Screener’s Linear Regression function projects him to outscore Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Russell Wilson in 2021.

So when we go down our checklist, it gets exciting in a hurry.

Forward-thinking coaches. Check. History on your side. Check. Andrew Luck comp. Check. Potential to outscore Murray. Check.

With all of this in his favor, what could be the problem? Well, there’s one serious blemish on this otherwise sterling outlook.

The Nightmare Scenario to Know

NFL fans and fantasy owners are keen to see the results of star assistants when they get out from under legends like Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, and Sean Payton. Unfortunately for Lombardi, his first attempt was an abject failure.

When Lombardi joined the Lions, Matthew Stafford was coming off of three consecutive top-10 QB finishes, but the new braintrust was going to fix him. And fix him they did . . . if you mean neutering what made him a fun and moderately above average NFL QB. Stafford immediately dropped down to QB15 in Lombardi’s debut season. With Stafford muzzled in the ill-fitting game-manager role, the Lions collapsed to a 1-6 start in 2015 and Lombardi was fired.

This is what Lombardi’s tenure looked like from a fantasy perspective.

Given that 24 NFL QBs reach QB2 or better status each week – and numerous teams will be starting backups, rookies, and retreads – it’s hard to fathom how Stafford could have been a QB3 or worse 30% of the time on Lombardi’s watch. Once he was fired, Stafford immediately bounced back.

From the beginning of Week 9 to the end of 2017 Stafford averaged 21.2 PPG, fell to QB3 status only twice, and scored more total points than only four other QBs. (Of course, then Matt Patricia came in and re-started the process, culminating in Stafford’s request to play for a real NFL team in 2021.) It’s also worth noting that Calvin Johnson retired after the 2015 season. Stafford was able to maintain the bounce from Lombardi’s firing for two more years despite losing one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game.

The Takeaway

I’m still buying Herbert. Blair Andrews and I selected him ahead of Wilson and Aaron Rodgers with the 7.04 in our current FFPC best ball league. I expect Lombardi to learn from his Detroit stint and not make the same mistakes again, or at least not all the mistakes or as egregiously.

I’m also buying Matthew Stafford.


1 This is highly intuitive, of course, but using data from NFL Pace, we see that seconds-to-snap and pass percentage explain about 80% of the variance in pass plays per 60 minutes.

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Shawn Siegele

Author of the original Zero RB article and 2013 NFFC Primetime Grand Champion. 11-time main event league winner. 2015, 2017, 2018 titles in MFL10 of Death.

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