Sometimes, it's who you know, not what you know. When new Chargers coach Brandon Staley was a quarterback at Mercyhurst University in 2005, Joe Lombardi was his offensive coordinator and position coach. He must have made some impression -- 15 years later, Staley hired Lombardi to run the Chargers offense.
"Brilliant football mind," ex-NFL receiver Lance Moore told CBS Sports about Lombardi, whom he played for in stops with the Saints and Lions. "No stone unturned football guy, which one would expect with his lineage. Very open to communicating with all of his players. Allows his guys to really take ownership over what they're running. Not a know it all -- takes ideas from other coaches or players. He was fun to play for."
The Charger who might have the most fun playing for Lombardi? That would be Justin Herbert. As you'll learn, Lombardi was very much a quarterback-driven playcaller in Detroit and figures to stay that way now.
"A high-school coach told me once when I was just starting out in coaching, 'you pass to score and run to win,'" Lombardi told the media when asked if it was important to establish the run. "... There are times in a game when you really want to be able to run, whether you're in the red zone or late in a game when you've got the lead.
"It's important to have some balance, but when you've got a quarterback as talented as Justin, you want to let him throw the ball when it's appropriate, that's for sure."
Lombardi's two seasons calling plays for Lions
|2015 (*7 games)||70||30|
Some pretty notable influences likely paved the way for Lombardi to call so many pass plays. Before he became the Lions offensive coordinator, he took his cues from Sean Payton and Drew Brees in New Orleans. Then in Detroit, quarterback guru Jim Caldwell was the head coach, Matthew Stafford was the quarterback and Calvin Johnson was the top receiver. Hard to blame Lombardi for passing as much as he did. Then again, he did get fired in-season in 2015. Maybe he went a little bit too far.
"I think he might've wanted to throw the ball as much as we did because we had Stafford at quarterback, and he felt like he would be great doing so," Moore said. "I'm sure looking back he wished he ran the ball more."
Following five more years as the Saints' quarterbacks coach, Lombardi will now mold the offense for Herbert, who broke rookie passing records last year and seems to have all the traits to be a dynamic quarterback in the current-day NFL.
Not surprisingly, Lombardi is all-in on Herbert's "elite" skill-set.
"We're gonna build it around him," Lombardi said of the offense. "As we start this process, let's look at what he was most comfortable with last year and his time at Oregon, what he has most success with. Starting with those building blocks, 'Here's a series of plays that you already know, that you can find the completion, you know where to go with the football.' Just give him that comfort level knowing that he's starting with what he's been successful at."
Herbert averaged 39.7 pass attempts per game last year. That's a lot for any quarterback, much less a rookie. One way to get close to that average again: Play fast. Lombardi admitted Staley wanted to "play with some tempo" this season and noted Herbert was used to that in college.
According to Pro Football Focus, Herbert threw a pass out of hurry-up just 58 snaps, 13th-most among quarterbacks. However, Jared Goff threw the third-most in hurry-up with 138 throws. Staley was the Rams defensive coordinator last season and seems to be bringing that modern-day element into his offense.
"I do think it'll be a part of what we're building here," Lombardi said.
Bottom line: Herbert's going to throw plenty. He's got major potential, boosted by a playcaller who's not even a little shy about being over-the-top with his pass play-call percentage. Herbert won't get drafted as a top-5 Fantasy quarterback, but he has the potential to finish as one. Target him on Draft Day.
RB rush attempts per game
2014 Lions: 20.4
2015 Lions (7 games): 16.6
This shouldn't shock anyone, not after the pass-run ratios you just saw. Lombardi's lack of run calls is a direct combination of the powerful passing game and, shall we say, "style" of rushers he had in Detroit.
It just so happens that Lombardi's best running back in L.A. fits into that same style. Don't worry, this isn't a bad thing for Austin Ekeler.
The Chargers averaged 24.4 carries from their running backs per game in 2020. Given Lombardi's tendencies from Detroit, along with the personnel he's inherited, I would expect that average to fade into the 21-to-22 carry-per-game range.
2014 Lions: 31.0% RB | 57.5% WR | 11.2% TE
2015 Lions (7 games): 31.3% RB | 44.3% WR | 24.5% TE
That's not a typo. Nearly a third of Lombardi's offenses in Detroit flowed through the running back. That's not a coincidence given where he coached before (and after): New Orleans. And, Lombardi already knows what he has in Ekeler.
"I know that Ekeler has some of the skill set that I'm used to seeing in New Orleans with Reggie (Bush) or Darren Sproles or AK (Alvin Kamara)," he said. "That's exciting to have someone with that skill set."
It'll be more exciting to have Ekeler in Fantasy.
Injuries waylaid Ekeler's 2020 campaign but when he did play with Herbert, he averaged 7.1 targets and 5.9 receptions per game. At worst, Ekeler should stick right around there with Lombardi dialing up plays. But a best-case scenario would be over 100 receptions, which the Lions' running backs cumulatively went over in 2014 and shattered in 2015.
Ekeler already had a high ceiling in PPR leagues; Lombardi's hiring only magnifies it. If he can handle more carries, both overall (five games with 15-plus carries the past two seasons) and near the goal line (nine carries inside the 5-yard line over the past two seasons), then he could become a top-5 Fantasy rusher regardless of scoring. Can it happen? That's the thing -- his track record suggests he won't get the chance to, so for now stick with the idea that Ekeler's profile is brightest in reception-based formats.
You know Keenan Allen will get his 130-plus targets and remain the top wideout from Herbert. We saw Lombardi lean heavily on Calvin Johnson in Detroit, and the Saints have done the same with Michael Thomas. Should be the same thing here with Allen, who like Ekeler, is a PPR-boosted Fantasy asset. That's because of his low average route depth (7.28 yards, ranked 133rd among all receivers) and receiving average (9.9 yards, ranked 84th among all receivers), but he rarely turns out to be a bad pick in any draft.
The rest of the Chargers' wide receiving corps is up for grabs, but if Ekeler and Allen are 100-reception contenders, then there's not really anyone else who can command major attention. Mike Williams is in a contract year but had just four weeks with 10-plus PPR points with Herbert throwing him an average of 5.4 targets per game. Tyron Johnson and Jalen Guyton are role players who could develop but shouldn't be counted on right now.
Tight ends have been Fantasy studs with the Chargers for a while. If Hunter Henry re-signs, then he'll be a Fantasy starter for sure. If he doesn't, then the Chargers may try elevating Donald Parham (three touchdowns on 10 receptions last year) or draft someone else. I'll keep an eye on this spot -- tight ends have long been staples in the Saints' offense and Lombardi ordered up a bunch of tight end targets in 2015 when the Lions had to justify drafting Eric Ebron.