Armando Salguero: Tagovailoa versus Herbert looks like a classic in the making for years to come

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Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) looks to pass during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on November 8, 2020, in Glendale, Arizona. - Chris Coduto/Getty Images North America/TNS

First it was Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert.

Then it was Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert.

On Sunday it will be Tua Tagovailoa versus Just Herbert.

That’s the way it’s been since the 2019 college football season when it became clear the Miami Dolphins would evaluate two of the most talented quarterbacks entering the 2020 NFL draft.

The Dolphins knew they’d have to evaluate both, pick one, then ultimately watch their choice compete against the guy they didn’t select.

So these two quarterbacks on opposite ends of the country are bonded in a very obvious way now. And that’s how it will continue for a long time because fate, fans and the media will see to it these quarterbacks will often be mentioned together.

“I think that’s just something that’s going to have to be dealt with in the media,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday. “I have no animosity towards Justin Herbert and for me, it’s not even a competition between me and him. It’s a competition for myself to go out and see what I can do to help our team be successful against their defense.

“And I’m pretty sure it’s the same for Justin as well. But yeah, that’s kind of my thought with all of that.”

That’s fine. But the rest of the world will compare Tagovailoa’s development to Herbert’s.

Compare the two quarterbacks’ statistics.

Compare their Super Bowl wins or the lack thereof.

There’s no denying it’s going to happen because it’s been happening forever. Just ask Dolphins great Dan Marino because he, John Elway, Jim Kelly and the other quarterbacks from that amazing 1983 draft class, spent their careers being compared to other classmates they both befriended and competed against.

The same thing happened to the quarterbacks of the 2004 draft because for a long time Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers were tied together by that epic trade while Ben Roethlisberger came up behind and did some amazing things of his own.

All this comparison and rivalry applies for better or worse.

Because for every Marino and Elway Hall of Fame induction, there has also been the Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill type of results.

You know the ones: Where Luck goes into a surprising early retirement, Griffin III becomes a perennial backup, Tannehill rides a roller coaster career, and the best quarterback of the class ends up being the guy selected in the third round — Russell Wilson.

So fair or not, like it or not, quarterback comparisons are a thing.

And that’s where Tagovailoa, selected No. 5 overall in the 2020 draft, and Herbert, selected No. 6 overall, step into the spotlight.

On Sunday their teams will play as the Dolphins host the Los Angeles Chargers. And for the next whatever-number-of-years these two play professional football, one will be measured against the other.

(Yes, Joe Burrow, too but he and the Cincinnati Bengals will be busy elsewhere on Sunday).

“I think you always look at the quarterback matchup as one of those keys to victories,” Herbert said Wednesday. “But overall, I think it’s more important how the offense and defense play. And so I think it’s the bigger picture that’s more important.

“Personally, I just look at it as a matchup each week. I worry about the team we’re playing. It’s always great to keep up with those guys, but I think it’s more important to beat the guys you’re playing against — whether it’s the Raiders or it’s the Broncos, that’s the matchup you’re looking forward to.”

Neither Herbert nor Tagovailoa is saying anything remotely suggestive that any rivalry exists between them. That’s a savvy veteran thing to do during game week.

And it’s fitting because both have launched their careers playing pretty much like veterans.

Herbert has turned heads in his seven games. He’s third in the NFL, averaging 306.6 yards per game. His passer rating of 104.7 ranks him ninth in the league.

And although he really hasn’t had a stinker game yet, his first two outings in which he threw two touchdowns and two interceptions combined were probably his least impressive.

He’s thrown 15 touchdowns and three interceptions in the last five games.

“He’s a very good player,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “He’s talented, big arm, athletic. He was very smart in the meetings when we spent time with him, so that’s not surprising. It’s not surprising at all that he’s having success.”

Tagovailoa sat all of September and October so he has only two starts to his credit. But his first two games were actually better than Herbert’s first two outings on a couple of fronts.

Tagovailoa has three touchdowns passes without an interception. His only turnover was a fumble against the Los Angeles Rams. Tagovailoa’s passer rating is 103.8. And there was obvious growth from the first game to the second, suggesting significant improvement is being made.

“Yeah, start one to start two, I would say we were able to push the ball downfield a lot more,” Tagovailoa said. “We were able to get into a groove offensively with the pass game as well as the run game, but I think there’s just continuations of what you can improve on and I think that’s the best thing and that’s the best way to go about it.

“If you feel like there’s nothing else you can improve on, then that’s not good.”

Both players are working on their craft. Both are trying to develop because neither is a finished product.

But based on how well both have begun their careers, it would be awesome if these guys become the next generation’s version of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. And, yes, throw in Burrow as Peyton Manning, too.

“They are both very good quarterbacks,” Flores said. “Both smart, both (have) good leadership qualities, intangibles. They both have good arms, both are accurate. Obviously two good players.”

That’s all true, but let’s not lose sight of the fact, the Dolphins preferred Tagovailoa. They obviously had a choice of the two players and believed Tagovailoa would be a better fit and a better player for them.

The Dolphins arguably did as much pre-draft work on Herbert as they did on Tagovailoa but the idea that he was not Miami’s choice doesn’t seem to bother Herbert. At least he doesn’t let on that it does.

“There were a lot of meetings so I wish I remembered more of what really happened but it was such a blur over a couple of weeks so I did my best, but I’m focused on this week of practice,” Herbert said.

“I didn’t really have any control over the situation so I didn’t get too much involved with the draft process. So I was kind of away from that.”

While Herbert stays away from the draft issue as best he can, Tagovailoa freely discusses the biggest issue which haunted him through the draft process — his November 2019 hip injury and the ensuing questions about his recovery and future durability.

It’s been almost one year since that injury which changed Tagovailoa forever.

“Oh, man. I don’t know if I’ll ever be my old self because when something dramatic like that happens – it’s just a continuous process I think for me,” Tagovailoa said “Just continuing to focus on what I need to do to continue to strengthen the muscles around my hip and so forth and just continue to stay on rehab.

“It’s been a journey. It’s just been a journey just looking back at that whole process. Literally almost a year from now, we’re making a decision to decide if I was going to be able to play again or not. I’m just blessed to be here.”

It should be noted Tagovailoa and Herbert haven’t been able to really develop a significant relationship. They spoke only briefly at the February NFL Combine and one imagines they’ll meet up again on Sunday for a couple of minutes.

“A little bit,” Herbert said. “We weren’t in the same group so we didn’t get a chance to get together at the combine but I did say hello and we got a chance to talk to him a little bit.

“Tua’s been a really great guy to watch. He’s been fun to watch. He’s had so much success over the past couple of years that it’s been great to watch him and all the things he’s done. Really looking forward to playing against him this week and saying, ‘Hi.’”

Watching both players on the same NFL field for the first time and comparing how they perform should be fascinating. They should probably get comfortable with the idea of being mentioned in the same paragraph.

Because it’s going to be that way for a long time.

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