Ten under-the-radar measurements of Tua vs. Herbert. And GMs, evaluators give preference

One-tenth of one point.

That’s the minuscule margin that separates Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert in passer ratings after more than 2 ½ NFL seasons, with Herbert standing at 96.3, Tagovailoa at 96.2.

As the Dolphins and Chargers quarterbacks — taken fifth and sixth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft — prepare for Sunday night’s game in Los Angeles, any pure numerical comparison doesn’t tell the whole story.

Statistics don’t take into account quality of offensive weapons around them (Tagovailoa’s are superior this year; Herbert’s were better the previous two seasons and injury-plagued this season); quality of defense (Herbert’s has been worse than Tagovailoa’s every season) and quality of coaching (clear edge for the Dolphins there).

So let’s look beyond the traditional stats such as touchdown passes (Herbert has 20 in 12 games this season, Tagovailoa 21 in 10) and interceptions (Herbert has seven, Tagovailoa five) and overall passer rating (Tagovailoa is a league-high 112, Herbert 92.3) and examine 10 more nuanced metrics that dispel myths and offer a reasonable comparison.

Exploring those 10 from this season, before we get to my polling of talent evaluators:

Performance late in games: Tagovailoa leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating at 125.1. Herbert is 19th at 83.3.

It’s important to note that through the entirety of their careers, Herbert has 10 fourth-quarter comeback victories (third most since the start of 2020), while Tagovailoa has four, per

But Herbert is more error-prone late. Herbert has 11 fourth-quarter interceptions during the past two seasons; Tagovailoa has five.

Last season, Herbert tied Washington’s Taylor Heinicke for the NFL lead with seven fourth-quarter interceptions, while Tagovailoa had five. This season, Herbert has four, Tagovailoa none.

The dink-and-dunk argument:

You might recall NBC’s Chris Simms saying last December: “The whole world can throw the ball 5 yards down the middle. You don’t need to draft a quarterback at No. 5 in the draft to throw the ball 5 or 6 yards over the middle.”

So it’s notable that Tagovailoa — given a Pro Bowl receiver and a smarter, more aggressive play-caller — is first in the NFL in yards per attempt at 9.0, while Herbert is 26th at 6.5. In yards per completion, Tagovailoa is first at 13.2, Herbert 30th at 9.8.

Playing this year within an offense that doesn’t seem to maximize his talents, Herbert — who was hampered by a rib cartilage injury earlier this season — is averaging fewer yards per attempt (6.5) than Tagovailoa did last season (6.8).

Yards produced by the quarterback, minus yards after catch:

Tagovailoa has benefited enormously from Tyreek Hill’s ability to make contested and difficult catches. But it’s worth noting that 64 percent of Tagovailoa’s passing yards this season have come from air yards, and just 36 percent from yards after the catch.

Conversely, 45 of Herbert’s passing attempts this season have come from air yards, compared with 55 percent from YAC.

Accuracy, overall:

Because Tagovailoa is attempting fewer short routes than Herbert, that makes it even more impressive that he has a higher completion percentage (68.1, fourth in the league) than Herbert (66.7, 11th).

Consider this: For Tagovailoa, 50.1 percent of his passing attempts this season have been thrown within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage, at the line or behind. For Herbert, that number is 63.7.

Accuracy on longer routes:

Even though Herbert has the stronger arm, Tagovailoa has been better this season in completing passes thrown at least 20 air yards. Among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 20 such passes, Tagovailoa leads the league in completion percentage at 58.5 (24 for 41, 735 yards, seven TDs, two interceptions, 122.2 rating).

Herbert is 13th at 36.5 percent (19 for 52, 613 yards, seven TDs, two picks, 105.2 rating).

Last season, Herbert and Tagovailoa were 1-2 in the league in completion percentage on such throws.

First downs per passing attempt:

Tagovailoa leads the league in this important stat that’s seldom mentioned; 43.2 percent of his passing attempts have resulted in first downs. Herbert is in the bottom half of the league at 32.2 percent.

First downs produced on third and long:

When facing a third down and at least 8 yards needed for a first down, Tagovailoa is 12th in the league in conversions at 31.3 (10 for 32). Herbert ranks among the league’s bottom quarter at 19.2 (10 for 52).

Percent of passes intercepted: Herbert has been slightly better at this.

Herbert is at 1.4 percent this season (best in the league) and 1.8 in his career; Tagovailoa is at 1.6 this season and 2.0 in his career.

Production inside the red zone:

One measure of that is passer rating inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Tagovailoa leads the league with a 115 red zone passer rating this season; Herbert is 21st at 91.7.

Passing under pressure:

Herbert was far better than Tagovailoa when facing a heavy pass rush in 2020 and 2021. That’s no longer the case. Tagovailoa is third in the NFL in “under pressure” passer rating at 117.1 this season, Herbert 11th at 102.8.

So who’s the better quarterback? This season, clearly Tagovailoa.

I polled four men who have been general managers in the league and a 30-plus-year scout for a playoff team.

One of the GMs who asked not to be quoted because he’s still involved in the league (not as a broadcaster) said: “I think everyone would still take Herbert, and I feel that way because of total ability. You’ve got a guy [in Herbert] that is big, can run, has all the attributes to be a Pro Bowl player. Arm strength is still very important. And you would think about the durability issue with Tua unless he proves he can stay healthy.

“This is not to take anything away from Tua; he has exceeded all my expectations. But he’s got better receivers, top guys, who are healthy, than Herbert does.”

He noted that Tagovailoa has had Tyreek Hill (“one of the top two receivers in the game”) and Jaylen Waddle all year while Herbert’s top targets — Keenan Allen and Mike Williams — have missed time with injuries.

“Tua is accurate; I don’t want to sell him short,” that evaluator said. “I think he’s at his ceiling, and that’s good enough, but I don’t think he can carry a team without great talent around him. The gap has closed, and maybe Tua passes him. But if you have two guys who have shown they can perform, you have to go with the one with the better physical attributes and durability.”

Former Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said, via text message: “Tua has been great this season. But just looking at Justin and his numbers, I’m still Justin.”

Another veteran GM agreed, noting that with comparable performance, he gives the edge to the physically more gifted, more durable player (Herbert).

But Bill Polian, a former NFL general manager and six-time executive of the year, said he’s no longer sure who he would draft if given the choice between Tagovailoa and Herbert.

Asked which player he would prefer moving forward, Polian said: “We won’t know for a while on Tua and Herbert. They’re both playing well. It’s obviously not a one-man game.

“People tend to think it’s that. The only knock on Tua coming out was injury issues, and hopefully it’s behind him. Both of them [exceeded] the standards of what’s been drafted in recent years. You look at all those that haven’t worked out.”

And the longtime scout said he would pick Tagovailoa — provided the 49ers performance was an anomaly — and acknowledges he’s in the minority with that view.

“My concerns with Tua were durability and the fact he was surrounded with so many great players at Alabama, as opposed to say, Dak Prescott, who didn’t have a lot around him at Mississippi State. So as a scout you ask: Is it really him or the program? I would have taken Herbert over Tua before that draft.

“But I’ve seen Tua a lot this year, and I would take him over Herbert now. I know he has some injury issues and he’s not a big kid in terms of girth and size. But his accuracy is off the charts [before the 49ers game]. That kid has got a gift. You can’t teach someone to be instinctive; it’s given to you. He’s obviously got it, and the vision [to see plays develop]. He’s got a lot better arm strength than I gave him credit for. His production, his touch, and his accuracy are exceptional. I still think Herbert is a very good player. To me, Tua has risen above the others.”

One particularly polarizing aspect of the discussion is record as a starter. Tagovailoa is 21-10, Herbert 21-23.

But Herbert’s defense has been far worse than the Dolphins’ during their careers; the Dolphins defense has ranked 15th in points allowed since 2020, while the Chargers’ defense ranks 27th.

“Tua Tagovailoa is better than Justin Herbert. Simple,” Fox analyst and former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho said earlier this season.

“Justin Herbert will win off measurables, but keep in mind that Herbert would crush Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in all those measurables. What makes a great quarterback to me isn’t measurables. Yeah, beauty pageant, Justin Herbert will win all day, every day.

“But there’s something to be said about the fact that decision-making means more. Justin Herbert leads the league in pick-sixes, along with Matthew Stafford over [a recent 20-game stretch]. Those interceptions mean more than we give them credit for.”