Is Kellen Moore the key to a playoff run for the Chargers?
As training camps get underway, I’ll be doing some features on individual teams throughout the league. Here’s a look at the Los Angeles Chargers.
The big news out of Chargers camp last week was the massive, $263 million-dollar, five-year extension signed by their franchise quarterback. Justin Herbert’s deal makes him the highest paid player in professional football — for now, at least, until Joe Burrow’s extension gets done — and it comes with all the trappings that sort of deal entails.
The Chargers have improved in each of Herbert’s three seasons as their starting quarterback. From 7-9 in 2020, to 9-8 in 2021, to 10-7 last year. Herbert seems to be a perfect fit for both the team and the city. If the people at the Mattel Company who make the Barbie doll collection wanted a rival for Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, they could use Herbert as a prototype. The tall, handsome southern California superstar would make a perfect rival. Herbert isn’t just a hunk in cleats, however. His “Ken doll” qualities are off-set by the fact the 25-year-old has already established himself as one of the game’s best signal-callers. He can make every throw, can play both in and out of the pocket and has launched his career at an historic statistical pace. No quarterback in NFL history has thrown for more yards than Herbert in their first three seasons in the league, while only Dan Marino has thrown more touchdown passes.
What Herbert and the Chargers haven’t done is win a playoff game. An overtime loss to the Raiders on the final week of the regular season in 2021 kept them from the post-season, while last year they squandered a 27-0 lead to lose 31-30 to Jacksonville in the Wild Card round. That’s the type of loss that gets coaches fired. In this instance, it wasn’t head coach Brandon Staley who took the fall but offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
The big criticism in Los Angeles about Lombardi was his failure to take advantage of Herbert’s arm talent. Herbert possesses one of the strongest arms in the league, and like Patrick Mahomes (albeit not to the same degree), he can push the ball down the field from a variety of arm angles and platforms. Yet, in Lombardi’s West Coast passing attack, Herbert was often relegated to making short, horizontal throws or quick timing routes. He finished among the bottom in the league in air-yards-per-target the past two seasons — meaning how far the ball was in the air before it reached a receiver. Herbert had a series of injuries last season which may have played a role in his limited downfield attack. But when he did throw deep, he was effective. In 2021, he finished fourth in the league in efficiency on throws of 20 yards or more. And last season, despite the injuries, he still had seven touchdown passes of 20+ yards.
In Lombardi’s place, the Chargers hired Kellen Moore, the former coordinator in Dallas. Between 2019-2022, Moore helped Dak Prescott become a Top 10 quarterback in the league, bringing all of Prescott’s attributes to fruition. He moved the pocket, made wide use of play-action, and ran Prescott at times on read-options and designed runs. And, unlike Lombardi, he pushed the ball down the field. In 2022, Prescott’s total-yards-per-attempt average was 7.6 compared to Herbert’s 6.8 (the league average was 7.0). Prescott had a higher air-yards-per-attempt number, too, averaging 4.6 to Herbert’s 3.8. Both quarterbacks had a pocket time of 2.5 seconds, which tracks the average time from the snap to the release of the throw. So, while both players were spending the same amount of time in the pocket, the routes to which Prescott was throwing were developing further down the field.
Granted, Prescott had some excellent weapons at his disposal at the wide receiver position, led by the dynamic CeeDee Lamb. But Herbert’s cupboard was far from bare in that department, with veterans Mike Williams and Keenan Allen, youngster Josh Palmer and field stretching tight end Donald Parham. The foundation for a more explosive passing game exists in Los Angeles. Moore simply must build upon it.
The other factor that figured into Lombardi’s dismissal was most likely his game management in the second half of the grizzly playoff loss in Jacksonville. Leading 27-7 at halftime, LA elected to throw on 20 of 27 second half snaps. Herbert completed just nine of those throws, meaning the clock stopped on nine others. He was sacked twice, which essentially killed drives. When the Chargers tried to run, they were ineffective, garnering just seven yards on seven carries. Most egregiously, they routinely snapped the ball with plenty of time remaining on the play clock. Cumulatively, their failure to manage the clock more efficiently provided Jacksonville a final possession with 3:09 remaining, which they used to methodically drive the field and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
Clock management has been the undoing of more than a few coaches and coordinators. It’s the scheme, though, that will likely define the success (or lack thereof) Herbert and Moore have together. Herbert remarked at Chargers training camp on Thursday that he was looking forward to being more aggressive down the field. When asked about his goals for 2023, he said, “One of the things is just making sure we’re throwing the ball down the field and making sure we’re taking those shots. We’ve got guys on the outside that are able to make those plays.”
It sounds as though Moore and Herbert are on the same page in their thinking. They’ll have to be, and quickly, given L.A.’s schedule. The Chargers open with a tough Miami squad, then have road games at Tennessee and Minnesota before returning home to host division rival Las Vegas and Moore’s former squad, the Cowboys. That’s followed up with a road game at Kansas City. Later in the season, they travel twice to the east coast to play the Jets and Patriots and must visit Lambeau Field in late November, where conditions are sure to be challenging. Then there are prime time games against the Ravens and Bills and a season-ending rematch with the Chiefs. That’s a daunting slate of games.
Los Angeles has not won a playoff game since 2018 and has won just two in the past 15 years. In a conference as tough as the AFC, the margin for error will be slim. The difference between qualifying for the playoffs and erasing the memory of last season’s Wild Card collapse may very well hinge upon the Moore-Herbert dynamic, and whether a more aggressive, down-the-field mindset pays the dividends the Chargers are anticipating.