There seems to be somewhat of an emerging consensus around NFL circles that Joe Burrow is the second-best quarterback in the league behind Patrick Mahomes. It’s understandable why: Burrow is a calm, cool, and collected customer who plays with a ton of swagger. After breaking NCAA records at LSU, he was taken first overall by the Bengals and then led them to the Super Bowl in just his second season. He’s accurate, mobile, clutch, smart, and a great leader.
I’m sure very few people if asked, would argue that Justin Herbert is better than Joe Burrow. But is such a perception based on reality? Does Justin Herbert not get the respect he deserves? I think it’s worth examining.
Herbert Vs. Burrow: Vote Below For Your Pick
Herbert and Burrow were both part of the same draft class in 2020. The Bengals took Burrow with the first overall pick, and the Los Angeles Chargers took Herbert with the sixth overall pick. Herbert was the third quarterback taken after the Dolphins took Tua Tagovailoa at five.
Burrow played ten games as a rookie and threw for 2688 yards with 13 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 6.7 yards per attempt, and a QBR of 48.5 (out of 100). Herbert played fifteen games and threw for 4336 yards with 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 7.3 yards per attempt, and a QBR of 62.6. The Bengals were 2-7-1 under Burrow and the Chargers were 6-9 under Herbert. Herbert has the advantage here.
2021 was the best season, respectively, for both Burrow and Herbert up to this point. Burrow started 16 games and threw for 4611 yards with 34 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 8.9 yards per attempt, and a QBR of 54.3.
Herbert started all 17 games and threw for 5014 yards with 38 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 7.5 yards per attempt, and a QBR of 65.6. Burrow’s 8.9 yards per attempt is impressive, but Herbert’s QBR was still over ten points higher than Burrow’s, just like the previous year. This is likely because Burrow took way too many sacks in 2021, with 51 to Herbert’s 31. The Chargers went 9-8 and the Bengals went 10-6, and of course, went to the Super Bowl. But more on that in a bit.
And finally, last year, 2022, saw Burrow play 16 games and throw for 4475 yards with 35 TD, 12 INT, 7.4 Y/A, and a 58.7 QBR. Herbert played 17 games and threw for 4739 yards with 25 TD, 10 INT, 6.8 Y/A, and a 58.2 QBR. The Chargers went 10-7, made the playoffs but were bounced out by the upstart Jaguars. Meanwhile, the Bengals went 12-4 and went to the AFC Championship before losing to the Chiefs.
This is the one year I would say Burrow was better than Herbert. Having said that, the circumstances were pretty bad for Herbert as he was dealing with a slow, injured WR corps (and the entire team for that matter), as well as, the now-fired offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi. He attempted to turn Herbert into a check-down QB rather than the gunslinger he is.
Even so, this is the one year Burrow had a better QBR than Herbert, and it was only by .5 points. The career numbers clearly favor Herbert.
The Bright Lights of Playoff Football
Now, of course, this is where most people will talk about the playoffs. Burrow’s been to the playoffs two out of three years, with a Super Bowl appearance in one year and an AFC Championship appearance in the next. The Chargers made the playoffs last year, a first for Herbert and he is in fact only one game above .500 as a starter in the regular season.
But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Football is a team sport, and as anyone who watches the Chargers knows, Herbert has been screwed over by his defense time and time again. How often have we seen the Herbert-led Chargers come out on the wrong side of close, high-scoring games?
This was a regular occurrence during Herbert’s rookie year when the team was constantly losing games despite Herbert’s excellence, who was often the only one keeping them competitive. That year, they lost 20-23 to KC in OT, 31-38 to Tampa, 27-30 to the Saints in OT, and 30-31 to Denver. Missing the playoffs that year was not on Herbert, who had one of the best rookie seasons ever. (Head coach Anthony Lynn was fired at the end of the year.)
Similarly, I struggle to put the Chargers missing the playoffs in 2021 on Herbert. All they needed was a win or tie against the Raiders in the last game of the season to get into the playoffs, and Herbert played his butt off, converting six (!) fourth downs including a rocket to the endzone on 4th and 21. The game went into overtime, and after the two teams traded field goals, the Chargers were unable to stop the Raiders from getting into field goal range despite the Raiders seemingly content to play for the tie.
On the flip side, Burrow hasn’t been particularly impressive in the playoffs. The 2021 run was mostly driven by defense and special teams. They had a goal-line stand against the Raiders, picked off Ryan Tannehill three times in a three-point win, and watched Patrick Mahomes have the worst half of his career in what was also a three-point win, this time in OT.
Both those games had some really clutch kicks by Evan McPherson. In the Super Bowl, the Bengals, despite holding a 20-13 lead early in the third quarter, could not close out the game on offense. Burrow also took way too many sacks during that postseason run.
Last year also saw the Bengals cruise to two relatively unimpressive postseason wins: a 24-17 win against the Tyler Huntley–led Ravens where the go-ahead score was a fumble six return by the defense and a 27-10 win against the Bills who laid an egg. In the AFC Championship against the Chiefs, Burrow threw two interceptions, and the Bengals lost by 3.
Out-Of-This-World Arm Talent
But more than any numbers or wins, I think the on-field play of Justin Herbert speaks for himself. His immense arm talent allows him to carry a team and make plays in a way that Burrow can’t. He combines insane arm strength with great mechanics, intelligence, vision, and poise. He can elevate any team and play in any system, and his upside is enormous. That doesn’t mean he’s a finished product or perfect, but at the end of the day, I think he gives you more than Burrow.
None of this, of course, is meant to knock Burrow, who’s a great player in his own right. We may be talking about the difference between the third and fourth-best quarterback in the league here. But Herbert has been phenomenal in his three-year start, despite often being let down by his surroundings. We know that when the defense plays well, Herbert wins games. They just haven’t played well that often.
So at the end of the day, you have a quarterback in Justin Herbert that has had better numbers than Joe Burrow, offers you more physical upside, and frequently outperforms relative to team strength.
A lot of people like to look back in hindsight and say that the Dolphins should have taken Justin Herbert over Tua Tagovailoa. Maybe that’s true. But if we’re going to do that kind of hypothetical, why not take it even further? If you knew that Herbert was going to become the special player he is today and not the inconsistent guy he was at Oregon, would you take him No 1 overall over Joe Burrow? I think there’s a pretty good argument for doing so, and that speaks volumes about the caliber of QB that Justin Herbert has become.
But enough of my rambling. What do you guys think?