In late November 2020, we ran a piece on the media hype of rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall draft pick last spring and the non-deserving winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2019. With the NFL season over now, it’s time again to put Burrow in context—and in comparison with his superior brethren, QB Justin Herbert.
One piece of information that may interest only us before we get started is this: The Cincinnati Bengals posted a 2-7-1 record with Burrow as their starting quarterback, and after he was injured, the team posted a 2-4 record without him—thanks to the QB efforts of two no-name guys. Just something to chew on before we get to the statistical realities laid out below.
Here is a quick look at the two rookie QBs, Cincinnati’s Burrow and Los Angeles Chargers star Herbert:
- Record as a starter—Herbert 6-9, Burrow 2-7-1
- Completion percentage—Herbert 66.6%, Burrow 65.3%
- Touchdown percentage—Herbert 5.2%, Burrow 3.2%
- Interception percentage—Burrow 1.2%, Herbert 1.7%
- Yards per attempt—Herbert 7.3, Burrow 6.7
- Average yards per game—Herbert 289.1, Burrow 268.8
- QB rating—Herbert 98.3, Burrow 89.8
- Total QBR—Herbert 69.7, Burrow 56.5
Now, those are just the sabermetric categories, in essence, and as you can see Burrow was better than Herbert in one single category—INT%—and overall, Herbert was still tied for 10th in the NFL there. There is no argument here for Burrow being better than Herbert, who was drafted five spots behind Burrow last spring after his standout career at the University of Oregon.
Herbert also set rookie QB records in the following statistical categories:
- Most pass completions by a rookie in a season: 396
- Most pass completions by a rookie in game: 37
- Most passing touchdowns by a rookie in a season: 31
Burrow actually did set the completions record, too, in a September game before he got hurt, so there is that. However, overall, we easily can see how Herbert played much better than Burrow did, and there is the issue of the fact the Bengals actually played better as a team without Burrow. That may be circumstantial, but it’s also pretty damning.
We are not saying Burrow won’t be a quality QB some day in the future, but based on his rookie numbers, he’s not on the track for greatness—and Herbert might be. Look at this list of other rookie QBs who still own multiple passing records from their first season in the league:
- Dak Prescott (2016): QB rating (104.9), completion percentage (67.76), lowest INT percentage (0.87)
- Andrew Luck (2012): Passing attempts (627), passing yards season (4,374), passing yards game (433)
If Herbert has Luck’s career, that would be impressive, although Luck’s NFL existence was cut short by injuries. Burrow seems more destined to follow along Prescott’s trajectory—only as good as the players around him in the sense of being a caretaker QB.
As we pointed out last year, Burrow had one amazing season in college that defied all statistical expectation, and college players like that generally are not expected to have long, productive careers in the NFL. In comparison, Herbert played four seasons at Oregon consistently, and that should pay off long term for the Chargers.