Justin Herbert has had an amazing start to his NFL career, even compared to some of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. Every quarterback enters the league under different circumstances. Some sit and learn, while others are thrown in and told to sink or swim. Some have to go in unexpectedly after a team doctor accidentally punctures the lung of the man ahead of him.
They also come in with varying levels of skill position talent around them, different qualities of offensive lineman in front of them. This is just to say that many factors go into how well a rookie quarterback starts his career.
Herbert was thrust behind a patchwork offensive line and with playmakers in and out of the lineup. Even with these issues, he has been historically good.
Justin Herbert (0-4)
Passing Yards: 1,195 | Completion %: 68.8
Pass TDs: 9 | Interceptions: 3 | Yards Per Attempt: 8.5
Passer Rating: 107.1
He is the only rookie quarterback to throw for 250 or more yards in each of his first four starts. He and Patrick Mahomes are the only quarterbacks with a Passer Rating over 100 and 1,150 passing yards in their first four games. Most recently he set the record for touchdown passes by a rookie (4) in Monday Night Football history.
I know he has been great but I wondered how his numbers would compare against the greats. It only makes sense to look at him compared to Philip Rivers. I also looked at the first four games for Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Mahomes.
Philip Rivers (3-1)
Passing Yards: 730 | Completion %: 67.0
Pass TDS: 5 | Interceptions: 2 | Yards Per Attempt: 7.0
Passer Rating: 99.5
My first thought of who to compare him to was his predecessor. He is the greatest Chargers quarterback ever for my money, and he had a pretty good start to his career.
Rivers was selected by the New York Giants with the 4th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, but that didn’t last. Before he ever put the jersey on he was traded to the Chargers, and draft picks, for a fussy Eli Manning. It ended up working out okay for both. Also, Rivers is forever better than Eli.
Unlike Justin Herbert, Rivers was forced to sit on the sidelines for his first two seasons. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees was the starter until his serious shoulder injury late in 2005. Rivers did not start until his third season in the league.
Rivers also came into a situation where he didn’t need to be the team’s best player. LaDainian Tomlinson was the star of the Chargers offense. So much so that Rivers only threw the ball 11 times in his first start in 2006. He also had 30 passing attempts, a touchdown, and an interception going into that start.
For this conversation, the only thing that Rivers did better than Herbert was throwing one less interception. He also had 36 fewer pass attempts. It was a different time. Herbert’s yards per attempt numbers are much better than Rivers’ first year. Rivers has had only three seasons averaging 8.5 yards per attempt or better.
Overall, at this point, Herbert has been much more impressive than Rivers through four starts.
Aaron Rodgers (2-2)
Passing Yards: 961 | Completion %: 62.0
Pass TDs: 6 | Interceptions: 3 | Yards Per Attempt: 7.6
Passer Rating: 92.1
I chose Rodgers for this list because both he and Herbert have big arms and underrated athleticism. He’s also one of the greatest I have ever seen do it.
One of the things that separates Rodgers from many others is his uncanny ball placement. He excels at back-shoulder throws and throwing into tight windows. He also is a master at escaping the pocket and making sidearm and off-platform throws.
Rodgers famously had to sit even longer than Rivers did. He had to back up legendary quarterback Brett Favre for three seasons before getting the starting nod. He did, however, get to play in seven games and had 59 passing attempts before starting.
Even with all of the time learning behind Favre, Herbert with no experience has been better. The Chargers rookie leads the veteran in every statistical category, besides wins of course. Then again, he was going up against quarterbacks like Tavaris Jackson, Jon Kitna, and Brian Griese while Herbert has faced Brees, Mahomes, and Tom Brady.
There are many things that Herbert could learn from Rodgers, especially not turning the ball over, but the rookie is off to a better start.
Peyton Manning (0-4)
Passing Yards: 992 | Completion %: 55.5
Pass TDs: 3 | Interceptions: 11 | Yards Per Attempt: 6.8
Passer Rating: 53.3
The reason I went with Manning for this list is that he was thrown right into the fire. He did have a full training camp and pre-season, but he started the first four games he was on the Colts. He was awful.
I like to think back to 1998 and think about all of the newspaper articles proclaiming that one of the greatest ever was a bust. Thank God Twitter wasn’t around back then.
He also started 0-4 like Herbert but that’s pretty much where the comparisons end. I think the important thing to note here is that after that awful season the Colts went 13-3 the following season. It also shows that quarterbacks can get much better at taking care of the football.
If Herbert can have even a fraction of the improvement that Manning had, he’s going to be very good for a long time.
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Patrick Mahomes (4-0)
Passing Yards: 1,180 | Completion %: 66.6
Pass TDs: 13 | Interceptions: 1 | Yards Per Attempt: 9.2
Passer Rating: 118.6
I guess there had to be one quarterback on this list that had a more impressive four-game start than Herbert. Of course, all it took was the literal most impressive start in NFL history. Truth be told, his numbers in those first games are even better than he’s playing this season.
To compare these guys it’s important to remember their situations. Mahomes sat for 15 games his rookie season and inherited a playoff team. He also had the benefit of being coached by one of the most brilliant offensive minds in Andy Reid that we have ever seen.
Herbert did do a couple of things better than Mahomes, with more passing yards and a higher completion percentage. Suck on that Patty. The important numbers like touchdowns, interceptions, and yards per attempt were all in Mahomes’ favor. I would add that Herbert’s yards per attempt numbers are slightly better than the Chiefs quarterbacks 8.4 career average.
I am not going to argue that Herbert is a better quarterback, because he isn’t. It’s way too soon to know what Herbert is going to be once he’s fully developed. More importantly, Herbert so far has been more than good enough to think that these two could potentially be battling it out for the next decade. Herbert in his first start was not phased going up against Mahomes and even outplayed him most of that game.
What we have seen from Herbert is far from enough to make a final judgment. Some of the things he’s been able to do are unsustainable, but in some areas, he could improve with more experience. Right now, he looks like a quarterback that can make those around him better.
His first four games have not been perfect, but he has been great. Herbert is off to the best start of any rookie quarterback in franchise history. One of the best beginnings to any quarterbacks career in NFL history. If he continues his torrid pace, it is hard to tell how high his ceiling might be. With the potential we have seen, he could soon be one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.