Relitigating Tua Tagovailoa vs. Justin Herbert Ahead of Miami Dolphins vs. Los Angeles Chargers

Who's better: the Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa or the Chargers' Justin Herbert? It's a complex question that deserves more than a 30-second soundbite to answer.

Three years into the Tua Tagovailoa vs. Justin Herbert debate, firm conclusions have never been harder to draw. Two of the league’s best — and most polarizing — quarterbacks face off Sunday at SoFi Stadium as the Miami Dolphins visit the Los Angeles Chargers.

And for the first time in his career, Tagovailoa is the more accomplished quarterback. Last week’s hiccup aside, Tagovailoa has been playing at an incredibly high level.

But is he the best long-term player? It’s a debate that automatically inflames passions within the players’ respective fanbases, particularly in Miami, where support for their quarterback reaches religious levels.

With that being said, there’s a way to rationally discuss the pros and cons of two gifted passers that went in consecutive picks (Tagovailoa fifth, Herbert sixth) in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Who’s Better: Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert?

We begin this exercise with a statement of fact: Football is perhaps the most difficult sport to get a full and fair evaluation of any individual player — quarterbacks in particular — because there’s so much that impacts performance beyond whether the athlete in question is doing his job.

A quarterback is helped or hurt by coaching/scheme, pass protection, and the quality of offensive weapons in his locker room.

What’s striking about Tagovailoa and Herbert: Both have dealt with some of those very challenges — but at very different times in their careers.

Early on, it was Tagovailoa fighting uphill.

Tua Tagovailoa’s Early-Career Challenges

When Brian Flores and Chris Grier picked Tua over Herbert in 2020, they didn’t go into great detail as to why. Asked on draft night to explain the organization’s thought process, Flores wasn’t exactly forthcoming.

“He fit a lot of the criteria we talk about at the quarterback position,” Flores said. “Good player, good person, leadership qualities. We’re very happy with the pick.”

Added Grier: “There were a lot of talented players, and we really liked Tua and we felt very comfortable at the end of the day that he would be a fit here and bringing him here.”

But from basically the moment he arrived in Miami, it was clear Tua was not a fit — at least with the existing coaching staff. Then-offensive coordinator Chan Gailey preferred incumbent Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Flores was quick with the hook in games that Tua struggled.

MORE: Tua Tagovailoa Wasn’t Great vs. 49ers

That killed Tua’s confidence. So did getting drilled every other play, thanks to pass protection that was probably the worst in the league over his first two seasons. The Dolphins in 2021 ranked last in pass-block win rate (47%).

The Dolphins set Tagovailoa up to fail in other ways. Their top two receivers his rookie year were DeVante Parker and Jakeem Grant. Their leading rusher in each of his first two seasons was Myles Gaskin. In other words, replacement-level players were his go-to guys.

Finally, the scheme stunk. The Dolphins coached Tua — whose strengths were anticipation, timing, and eye manipulation — like he was Herbert. They asked him to be a dropback, survey-the-field, jump-ball passer. No wonder he struggled his first two years.

A Soft Landing for Justin Herbert

In Southern California, meanwhile, the Chargers seemed to have lucked into their pick.

L.A. GM Tom Telesco knew he was at the mercy of factors beyond his control. Both the Bengals and Dolphins picked ahead of the Chargers, and both needed quarterbacks. So Telesco knew that he was going to end up with whoever was left over of Tagovailoa, Herbert, or Joe Burrow (who went first to Cincinnati).

“Yeah, we felt great about both guys,” Telesco told Pat McAfee a few days after making the pick. “Well actually, we felt great about all three quarterbacks that went in the top six. All three are going to be really good quarterbacks in this league.”

That’s not to say there weren’t questions about both players. Tagovailoa’s questions were about his durability and arm strength. Herbert was viewed as an introvert, who played in an archaic offense at Oregon. No one, whoever, could then or now question the strength of his arm.

“He does have an arm,” current Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel deadpanned this week. “I believe two of them. And it is strong. I’m not sure how much he can curl, but he can throw the ball far.

“… Obviously, I’ve seen a lot that he can do on the NFL stage,” McDaniel continued. “And it keeps you honest as a defense. In the same realm as Josh Allen, if you don’t have your appropriate rush lanes or you drop a coverage, he can make you pay on any part of the field.”

That’s exactly what Herbert did from basically his first snap in the NFL. He was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, breaking the NFL rookie touchdown record (he finished with 31) and throwing for over 4,000 yards.

The Chargers wisely surrounded him with really good players, beginning with Keenan Allen, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last five years. And while the offensive line early in Herbert’s career wasn’t perfect, it certainly was better than what Tua had to manage.

Tua Tagovailoa Has Caught Up to Justin Herbert

But as time has gone on, the things that held Tagovailoa back have improved, and the structural advantages enjoyed by Herbert have broken down.

The Chargers made a coaching change after his rookie year, meaning the offensive coordinator that unlocked his greatness — Shane Steichen — was gone. Joe Lombardi replaced him, and it’s been a bad fit.

Just like the Dolphins early on tried to use Tagovailoa as if he were Herbert, the Chargers are now running an offense far better suited for Tua.

There are maybe two quarterbacks on the planet with better arm talent, and yet Herbert ranks 32nd in intended air yards per pass attempt (6.2). It’s a maddening misuse of talent.

Plus, the advantage he’s enjoyed in his supporting cast is gone. Allen and Mike Williams have played in just 13 games combined this year. The Chargers’ pass protection is now basically the same as the Dolphins’. And so, it makes sense that his QBR in 2022 (56.6) is the worst of his career.

Tagovailoa, meanwhile, is an MVP candidate due to improvements in his performance and his situation. His confidence has been renewed thanks to the support of McDaniel, and accordingly, Tua is making throws he missed his first two years. But he’s also throwing to the best wide receiver tandem in football in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

Tagovailoa vs. Herbert Stats

That role reversal has very quickly closed what was a large gap in career production. Below, you’ll see the side-by-side statistical comparison between these 24-year-olds.

What they suggest: While they are two totally different talents, they have basically been the same player.

StatTua TagovailoaJustin Herbert
Record21-10 (33 games)21-23 (44 games)
Completion Percentage66.866.3
Touchdown Percentage4.85
Interception Percentage21.8
Adjusted Y/A7.47.3
Adjusted Net Y/A6.76.5
QBR44.8, 49.7, 77.462.6, 65.6, 56.6
Bad Throw %18.8, 16.3, 12.718, 14.6, 10.9
On Target %74.1, 80.1, 72.176.5, 80.2, 68.4
Intended Air Yards7.5, 7, 9.27.4, 7.6, 6.2
Pressure %14.7, 20.9, 1828.7, 19.4, 19.1

Wins Are Not a Quarterback Stat

There are two areas, however, where there are significant differences between the two: Games played and winning percentage.

The pre-draft concerns about how Tagovailoa would hold up physically in the NFL have been somewhat justified. He has missed games due to injury in each of his first three seasons, including a scary concussion suffered earlier this year that could have been avoided if he had gotten rid of the ball sooner.

When he’s been healthy, however, Tagovailoa has won games at a far higher rate than Herbert. With a victory Sunday in L.A., the Dolphins would secure a third-straight winning season for the first time in two decades.

Tua supporters would (and often do) say that’s case closed. And certainly, they’re right to point out that Tagovailoa has been a far better fourth-quarter performer than Herbert. Tua’s career passer rating in Q4 is nearly 20 points higher than that of Herbert.

But there are so many factors that go into winning beyond a quarterback’s performance. Flores and McDaniel are much better coaches than Lynn and Brandon Staley.

MORE: Brandon Staley Is on the Hot Seat After Week 13

Plus, offense is less than half of the sport. Defense and special teams also play huge roles in the outcome of games. That dynamic has worked against Herbert, big time.

Since the start of the 2020 season, the Dolphins are 10th in defensive EPA per play (-.01). The Chargers are 22nd (.04).

But the disparity in scoring defense is even more jarring. Since Tagovailoa and Herbert entered the NFL, the Chargers have allowed 194 more points than the Dolphins — more than four per game.

In a league in which roughly half of all games are decided by one score, that’s a massive advantage for Tagovailoa.

So Tell Us Who’s Better Already

Call it a cop out if you want, but here’s the fairest conclusion one can reach with all the facts at hand:

Telesco was right. Tagovailoa, Herbert, and Burrow are all fine pros and worthy of their first-round pedigree. And much of the other pre-draft evaluation is correct.

Herbert is the better talent.

Tagovailoa might end up being the better player.

But no matter Sunday’s result, it’s a debate that won’t be settled this year — and maybe not even this decade.

Listen to the PFN Dolphins Podcast

Listen to the PFN Dolphins Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Dolphins Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review! Rather watch instead? Check out the PFN Dolphins Podcast on our NFL YouTube channel.

Related Articles