“You think you know, but you don’t know.”
Those were the words of noted philosopher Jim Mora in one of his oratories on the intricacies of football.
Defenses down, Tua Tagovailoa supporters. This is not another Tua-bashing that’s liable to turn into a cold take as quickly as the Josh Allen-bashing of a year or two ago. Consider this a meeting in the middle to take stock of what we have.
If GM Chris Grier really wanted to know what pressure felt like, welcome to 2021. At this point for the Dolphins, every other question must take a backseat toward making sure Tagovailoa is the answer. They must answer it now, not in 2022.
How Tagovailoa Rookie Season Unfolded:
Tagovailoa made his first NFL start in a game that saw the Miami Dolphins defense excel in a 28-17 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Tagovailoa completed 12 of 22 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Tagovailoa was relieved by Ryan Fitzpatrick for the first time in Denver. That Tagovailoa called it a learning experience, both from watching Fitzpatrick taking shots that required trust in receivers, and from listening to Fitzpatrick between series on why he was moving the team with fluidity when Tagovailoa could not.
Fluidity is one point that cannot be overemphasized. Even Tagovailoa’s staunchest supporters must concede there were times when the offense simply felt more fluid, more likely to strike, with Fitzpatrick at the controls.
Flores immediately extinguished the slightest sniff of a quarterback controversy by saying Tagovailoa remained his starter, and when Tagovailoa followed by passing for 296 yards against the Bengals and 316 vs. the Chiefs over the next two weeks, it appeared all swell.
It wasn’t. Against the Patriots, Tagovailoa needed 20 completions to manage 145 yards, just 7.25 yards per completion. Against the Raiders, conservatism was dialed up even more: 17 completions netting just 94 yards, or 5.5 per, with no attempts deep. It wasn’t until the second half of the finale against the Bills, with the Dolphins in desperation mode, that Tagovailoa was keeping the defense honest by stretching it. He finished with a career-high 361 yards.
Michael Lombardi, who was the Cleveland Browns general manager in 2013-14, said the following about Tagovailoa and the Dolphins:
“You want to see unique talent, and the way Justin Herbert plays, even in a loss, that’s a unique talent. The way Joe Burrow has played in games, as rookies, that’s a unique talent.”
“You’ve got to ask yourself the question as you sit there as a Miami Dolphin executive, and as a Miami Dolphins coach, is Tua better than Justin Fields. Because you’re going to end up with a top-five pick. Is Tua better than the North Dakota State quarterback? You’ve got to ask yourself those questions and generate honest answers, or else your franchise is going to be stuck in time. … Is he good enough to win a Super Bowl, I think that’s the answer they need to get answered with Tua.”
CBS analyst Gary Danielson.
Appearing on “Three Man Front” on WJOX, Danielson said Tagovailoa tries some throws that won’t work in the NFL (via AL.com):
“The only criticism I have of Tua — and I think his game has to improve at the next level — is he’s loose with the football,” Danielson said. “He tries a lot of throws. When he gets to the NFL, much like (New Orleans quarterback) Drew Brees, (he’ll struggle). Drew struggles his first two or three years because throws he was trying at Purdue just didn’t work in the NFL. He was too loose with the ball. Now, you see how he’s re-shaped his game where he anticipates and throws the ball with care.
“That’s the next step for Tua. He lets it fly and makes risky throws. Tua, right now, has no conscience when he throws the ball. He just lets it go.”
Anonymous Dolphins Player:
One of the players said the team was “totally caught off guard” when the rookie was named the starting quarterback for the seventh game of the season, as the Dolphins had been playing well with Fitzpatrick under center.
“We always think next man up no matter what,” another player said. “But I saw Tua as the next man up because Fitz was better.”
“One defensive player said he isn’t impressed with Tagovailoa’s ball velocity or arm strength or ability to make off-schedule plays with his legs,” Salguero wrote. “So he ultimately questions whether Tagovailoa will ever be able to match the feats of other quarterbacks in the AFC such as Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, or Deshaun Watson.”
Other Questions Linger:
Some are more legit than others.
“I wasn’t comfortable calling plays,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday, via Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald. “I think the guys that were here last year were phenomenal. I just didn’t have the comfortability of checking plays, alerting plays, and doing that. I just rode with the play, even if I knew it wasn’t going to work. I was going to try to make it work still.
“I didn’t actually know the playbook necessarily really, really good and that’s no one else fault but my fault. Our play calls were simple when I was in. I didn’t have alerts and checks. Where now, I feel comfortable and I can maneuver my way through these things now.”
Brian Flores asked about Tua Tagovailoa’s “I didn’t know the playbook really, really well” comment last week.
“He’s comparing last year to where he’s right now. I get it.” Flores felt similar in his 1st year as a Patriots position coach as far as being more comfortable in YR2.
— Cameron Wolfe (@CameronWolfe) June 4, 2021
The biggest area of improvement absolutely has to be the willingness to throw 50-50 passes to give his receivers the chance to make contested catches. Tagovailoa himself admitted last year he didn’t like doing that, and that limited what he could do in the passing game. He’ll need to become more aggressive and become more willing to take chances if he’s going to take that next step.
Tempo? That’s legit. Tagovailoa appears to thrive at it. It can’t always be used. How’s about using it more? The hunch here is that Tagovailoa, given a couple of more weapons and green light, will prove to be the answer. If Flores determines this to be the case, he should declare that.
Playing it safe won’t get this team where it wants to go.
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