The Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert and Miami Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa will be forever linked and compared after being back-to-back selections during the 2020 NFL draft, even though one has been clearly better throughout their careers, this season and when their two teams met Sunday night at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
When the two are juxtaposed, the difference is about the same as when the Avengers assemble and Thor and Hawkeye join forces. Herbert has God-given skills and abilities most can't even fathom, while Tagovailoa is a useful teammate with pinpoint accuracy to help in daunting situations.
The difference in natural ability is staggering, though, and was evident during the Chargers' 23-17 victory. The two signal-callers weren't even on the same plane of existence, and it should quiet anyone who believes Tagovailoa has earned elite status.
Sunday's performance showed a quarterback with better poise, pocket movement and natural arm talent, despite playing with a lesser supporting cast.
The 7-6 Chargers—who currently claim the AFC's precious and final seventh spot if the postseason began today—rely on Herbert to elevate the play of everyone around him and lift the team into the playoffs.
"You'll become less and less surprised as the game goes," a high-ranking NFL source told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler before the season even began. "He'll be the best QB in the game."
Meanwhile, Tagovailoa is a deadly distributor. He's a sniper capable of picking apart opponents with pinpoint accuracy while working within the confines of Miami's offensive scheme.
Both approaches can be highly successful based on the situation. These comparisons shouldn't be viewed as a slight by any stretch of the imagination. The Dolphins have proved they can put a successful team on the field with a quarterback operating at a high level based on their approach.
The real difference is what happens when everything breaks down. The abilities to work off-platform, make second-window throws and create outside of structure are more important than ever. The likes of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen have revolutionized how the position is played. Herbert brings those traits to the table.
Los Angeles' record is indicative of the trials and tribulations the roster faced this year. Mainly, the offensive line has three inexperienced starters in first-round guard Zion Johnson, sixth-round left tackle Jamaree Salyer and former undrafted right tackle Foster Sarell.
Herbert presents both subtle movement to escape pressure in the pocket and the athleticism to create when he breaks the pocket. Both are absolutely vital to the offense's success.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the 24-year-old evaded a career-high five pressures and completed 13 passes on the run—or two more than anyone in a single game since 2016. Herbert currently leads the NFL with 69 completions, 718 passing yards, eight touchdown passes and a positive-11.2 completion percentage over expected when on the move.
Offensive line issues tend to be minimized with a mobile quarterback who doubles as the unit's best playmaker.
In total, Herbert posted a new single-game personal best with 39 completions while moving into first place in passing yardage through the first three seasons of a career.
The type of throws that Herbert completes can be dumbfounding because they shouldn't be possible.
"It's tough," wider receiver Keenan Allen said of catching Herbert's line-drive passes, per ESPN's Lindsey Thiry. "The first year was tough, this year is way slower, and like I said, I think he's just understanding the defense more, understanding how he can throw the passes, understanding when to throw the passes and just not playing all arm."
While the Chargers lack speed on the outside and, oftentimes, healthy targets, their franchise signal-caller throws the ball with staggering placement in unfair angles for defenders befuddled by a pass coming in their direction.
How many quarterbacks are running a designed rollout to their right only to throw the ball across their body, past the opposite hash and 48 yards down the field? Those who should even attempt that type of pass with any hope of completing it can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.
The Herbert and Mike Williams playmaking duo has been on point all game 🔥 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BoltUp?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BoltUp</a><br><br>📺: <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MIAvsLAC?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MIAvsLAC</a> on NBC<br>📱: Stream on NFL+ <a href="https://t.co/Fjz0sbDEsG">https://t.co/Fjz0sbDEsG</a> <a href="https://t.co/CLGBpoA7bG">pic.twitter.com/CLGBpoA7bG</a>
"He's a special arm talent," Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes told Thiry. "He throws some passes that I don't think anyone can throw in this league, and that includes myself. He has a cannon for an arm, you watch—I watch on film every week because we play similar opponents—there's some throws that you just kind of shake your head because they are just that special."
Conversely, Tagovailoa is a rhythm passer. His anticipation and touch are special, though neither trait has been nearly effective the last two weeks against more aggressive defenses.
Prior to Sunday's contest, the former fifth overall draft pick led the NFL in QB rating and Football Outsider's defense-adjusted value over average metric. His timing and accuracy have been thrown off, and it's shown in his performance.
Tagovailoa completed a paltry 35.7 percent of his passes against the Chargers. The passing game never looked in sync. A week earlier, the San Francisco 49ers held the Dolphins' quarterback to a 54.6 completion percentage.
The difference lies in how those units are handling Miami's dynamic wide receivers.
The Chargers used press coverage for a season-high of 35 percent on detached routes, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Los Angeles' defensive backs jammed at the line of scrimmage and rerouted their targets to throw off the passing game's timing.
Opponents must account for Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle's speed, but the advantage can be negated to a degree when they're not in the right spots once Tagovailoa expects to throw.
"A lot of us had an off night," Hill told reporters after the game. "I have to take responsibility, too."
If not for Hill, the Chargers would have posted a blowout victory. A flukish 57-yard scoop-and-score by the speedy wide receiver after Dolphins running back Jeff Wilson Jr. fumbled the ball was Miami's only offensive output during the first half.
Midway through the third quarter, Chargers defensive back Michael Davis tripped over Hill's feet and fell down to leave the league's fastest man wide open for a 60-yard score.
Beyond that, the Dolphins got very little going. They must adapt to teams being far more physical, thus forcing Tagovailoa to readjust on the fly.
While Miami's quarterback accounts for how opponents are now playing him and his talented surrounding cast, Herbert can go about his business being the mightier of the two. He's the option teams take 10 times out of 10 if they're starting a franchise. He's the limitless one.
Fortunately, everyone can put to rest any conversation of these two being of the same caliber after seeing both on the field during the same contest, with Herbert clearly emerging as the victor in both outcome and individual performance.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.