Can Justin Herbert Reclaim his Throne After the Chargers Disappointing 2023?

With a new head coach and new supporting characters, Justin Herbert's star should rise again in 2024.

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2023 was a season of firsts for Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. It was the first season he had to miss an extended time due to a fractured finger on his throwing hand. It was also the first time he didn’t close out an NFL season he started, as he didn’t play another snap after sustaining the injury in Week 14.

And despite all of this, his stats didn’t suffer that much. Though his passing yardage was down from other seasons, his passing touchdowns (20) were not too far off from 2022 (26), and areas like big-time throws which according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) looks at, “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window,” were the same (24) for 2022 and 2023. 

So much more happened on top of the injury to make it a less-than-stellar year for Herbert. The offensive line wasn’t in great shape with the loss of center Corey Linsley, the Chargers were down wide receiver Mike Williams when he tore his ACL, and lastly, they had no run game.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers Minicamp
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The highest rushing grade the Chargers had was against Miami in Week 1 (83.6) and then it all went downhill from there. To compensate for the lack of production in one area, the Chargers relied on Herbert, and that’s clear in wide receiver Keenan Allen‘s stats. Though Allen’s a monster, the fact that he had the fourth most targets of his entire career last year (145) shows not only the reliance on him to fill the gap left by Williams but the reliance on passing. The Chargers have always relied too much on Herbert and that tendency can be traced back to last season and the ones before. 

One of Herbert’s best games of 2023 was Week 10 against the Lions, where he had four passing touchdowns and 323 passing yards. The rushing yardage during that game was very low, despite Austin Ekeler‘s rushing touchdown, so most of the action was created via Herbert.

There were a couple of plays where he had to scramble to keep the drive alive. Toward the end of the third quarter, on a third-and-5, the Chargers were down by a touchdown at their 30-yard line, and after the ball was snapped, the pocket started to close, as right tackle Trey Pipkins was not able to hold off defensive lineman John Cominsky. To avoid a sack, Herbert slipped Cominsky as he reached for him, while also avoiding the grasp of linebacker Derrick Barnes, and took off running, with Barnes and defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson in pursuit. From that play, Herbert got the first down. 

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers Minicamp
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

And a few plays later, on a second-and-12 at Detroit’s 25, Pipkins again couldn’t hold his block. Hutchinson pressured Herbert, who managed to roll out to his right, evading Hutchinson long enough to complete a dart to Quentin Johnston at the 8-yard line for a first-and-goal.

And if you want an example of 2022 Herbert heroics with little help from the rushing side of the offense, look no further than the Chiefs game in Week 2. When he hurt his ribs in the fourth quarter, on a fourth-and-1, down by 10, Herbert got a dart to wide receiver DeAndre Carter in double coverage, who got it to the 10-yard line for a first-and-goal.

On top of being a leader and one of the hardest-working people on the team, Herbert has basically had to hold up the offense for the last few years. But this year looks different.

Justin Herbert’s Future

NFL: Justin Herbert Los Angeles Chargers Minicamp
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Herbert’s stock is going to see a boost this year and though he may not have the same stats from some of his best years in the league, I’m still looking forward to his inevitable bounce back.

Though the focus will be on the run, Herbert said in his recent press conference that they were trying to vary what they do. They may throw it 30 times in one game or 15 in another, but as long as they find a way to win and can do both, run and pass, they’ll be successful.

He also relayed that having to punt the ball is not necessarily a bad thing. If he can stay healthy along with his cast of receivers, running backs, and offensive linemen, he won’t have to be Superman, he’ll just get to play. And if this offensive line works out, maybe he’ll do less scrambling and more of those big-time throws we love to see.

It seems like head coach Jim Harbaugh not only has Justin Herbert at the front of his mind but most importantly has his health and longevity in mind. It’s the small things like making Herbert wear a gold jersey during minicamp and assuring there’s a comfortable radius around him so he doesn’t get hurt. Just these actions display that he’s thinking about Herbert beyond 2024. Though we may not see as many throws from Herbert this season, the quality of play we do see from him should be much improved.