Tua Tagovailoa is Showing Signs of Being the Miami Dolphins' Franchise-Saving Quarterback
Tagovailoa has overcome trade rumors, a faulty offensive line and a shaky kicking game as the Dolphins have won five straight games.
Here’s a name we haven’t heard much the last few weeks: Deshaun Watson.
Remember when the Watson to the Miami Dolphins rumors dominated the news cycle? There are reasons that’s no longer the case. One, because the trade deadline has passed. The other, more consequential reason: Tua Tagovailoa is showing signs of being the quarterback who can lift a franchise.
This is precisely the quarteback the Dolphins envisioned when they selected Tagovailoa fifth overall last year, before injuries wobbled the start of his career. Now healthy, Tagovailoa is QB1 for a team that has rattled off five-straight wins, including Sunday’s 20-9 walk over the New York Giants. The Dolphins haven’t lost since Oct. 31. During that time, Tagovailoa has overcome trade rumors, a faulty offensive line and a shaky kicking game to help lift the Dolphins, astonishingly, into the AFC playoff picture. If he were playing poorly, you can bet those Watson rumors would swirl into the offseason.
Now heading into the bye week, it feels earned. The Dolphins are only the fourth team ever to climb from a 1-7 start to 6-7. Coaches, players and, especially, Tagovailoa, deserve the break. It will also give everyone a chance to reflect on how the season turned around. And while fellow youngsters Jaelan Phillips, Javon Holland and Jaylen Waddle are vindicating Miami’s 2021 draft selections, it can also be argued that Tagovailoa has been among the NFL’s most valuable players over the past month.
On Sunday, Tagovailoa posted a quarterback rating of 104.0 or better for the fourth straight week. His 80.5 completion percentage in November was the second-most accurate month in league history, and his three games of 80-plus percent this year already have matched the all-time season record.
If the season ended today, Tagovailoa’s 70.9 completion percentage would set a single-season franchise record and his 96.1 passer rating would be the third-highest in Dolphins history.
Sure, doubters will point to the fact that Tagovailoa rarely throws down field and relies on easier completions closer to the line of scrimmage, but that is precisely what these Dolphins need. Though the offensive line has performed better, that’s as much to do with Tagovailoa’s fast release as it is that group’s development. Miami’s revamped RPO-based scheme does put Tagovailoa in a better position to succeed, but that scheme isn’t possible without his timing, accuracy and decision-making.
On Miami’s first touchdown of the game Sunday, Tagovailoa rolled to his left and dropped a perfect pass to Mack Hollins into a window between three Giants defenders. On his second touchdown of the game, Tagovailoa faked a handoff, bootlegged to his left and extended the Giants defense before drilling a pass to Isaiah Ford near the pylon. Such a display of accuracy and decion-making has become commonplace.
But the play that has come to embody Miami’s surge is the RPO slant to Waddle. Out of the shotgun, Tagovailoa pulls back a handoff from the running back and lasers a pass to Waddle across the middle. Clockwork. It was on this play that Waddle caught his 85th pass of the season to break the franchise rookie record.
For the doubters, Tagovailoa on Sunday also completed passes of 17, 25, 16 and 17 yards to keep scoring drives alive. He almost had another long completion when he found Waddle over the middle with room to run, but his receiver dropped the pass. Tagovailoa knew a big play slipped through Waddle’s hands and jumped up and down in frustration.
“He played like himself. Played great, accurate,” Waddle said before adding with a knowing grin, “he was pretty mad at me when I dropped the ball.”
This is the sign of a quarterback not content with merely winning five straight and settling into a comfortable rhythm. Tagovailoa wants more. There was another moment in the first half when he skipped a pass to an open receiver on third down, ending the drive. Tagovailoa slammed his helmet on the sideline in frustration, even though he’d go on to complete 21 passes in the half, the most by a Dolphins quarterback since 2000.
While his defense has held opponents to fewer than 20 points in each of the last five games, the offense has topped 30 just once. To keep the playoff dream alive, the Dolphins offense must take the next step.
“The [defense] keeps the pressure off us offensively,” Tagovailoa said. “I’m glad we won. But a lot of things we left out there on the field.”
Over the next week, the Dolphins will evaluate ways to put up more points. After the bye, they will face the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots. All winnable games. The Jets are last in the AFC East, the Saints have quarterback problems, the Titans haven’t been the same since Derrick Henry got hurt and the Dolphins beat the Patriots once already this season.
Even so, that final three-game stretch will be tougher than the recent pillowy portion of the schedule. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, Miami has a 12% chance of making the playoffs. Better than a month ago. Still not great odds.
To get the Dolphins to the postseason for the first time since 2016, Tagovailoa will have to keep getting better. He wants to, and that’s the attitude a team wants from their franchise quarterback. As the Dolphins have made this playoff push. those Watson rumors have quieted in the public sphere. But you hope too that they’ve evaporated within the offices in Miami Gardens. Tua has earned that.
The Wes Side is a reader-supported newsletter. Please consider subscribing and taking an active role in my independent coverage of South Florida sports. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends. All subscriptions, for now, are free and every article is delivered directly to your inbox.