For two years, the knock on Tua Tagovailoa has been a lack of arm strength, that he just doesn’t create dynamic plays downfield; that he doesn’t throw enough scores. In 2020, he finished 30th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks in YPA — a stat largely driven by downfield throws. That was dead-last among the great 2019 rookie class. In short, he just has to be better.
However, is such criticism overall necessarily fair? Not without looking at the entire picture, and that is what we’re going to do today.
The first thing to know is that Tua spent his entire amateur career running a variant of the run and shoot in Hawaii and then an RPO-based spread at Alabama. However, by the time he had arrived in Miami, the Fish had retained perhaps the very worst fit imaginable for Tagovailoa’s game: a 67-year-old, a two-decade NFL retread in Chan Gailey; a man from another time and place.
Needless to say, the criticism of Gailey from Dolphins’ fans was immediate. First of all, he schemes a very antiquated run-based west coast offense. It is a ball control short passing game, with very predictable and limited routes. It is also one that doesn’t push the ball down the field...by design. And Gailey mistrusts the deep ball more than most. In fact, a constant criticism everywhere he’s gone is that downfield threats are just nonexistent or never fully materialize.
The next issue is that Brian Flores was never sold on Tagovailoa — and there is much evidence he never wanted to be either. Flores was a young first-time coach, whose pedigree is entirely on defense. He wanted a ball control veteran that could get to 9 wins and get that playoff job security; what he inherited was a prototypical gambler whose comfort zone is when the play breaks down. The result was that Flores came to South Beach and almost immediately began negging Tagovailoa, and it was a relationship that was doomed to fail almost from the start.
“If you’re really honest (interviewing for the Dolphins HC job), are you going to sit there and say, ‘I can build a team around Tua’? Because that’s what (Dolphins owner Stephen) Ross wants to hear. That’s what Brian Flores wouldn’t say,” Lombardi said on the latest GM Shuffle podcast.
“We’ve seen all the conversations that Flores basically had with Tua, where Flores told Tua at halftime of the Tennessee game — this has all been reported — I don’t think Flores was shy about telling him, ‘Hey, I should’ve picked Mac Jones.’ I don’t think he was shy about telling him that. In fact, I know that he wasn’t. I remember I said there was commentary between the head coach and Tua during the season and I wouldn’t reveal what the conversation was. Well, the conversation was, ‘Hey, if I’d have knew you were going to be this bad, I would’ve picked Mac Jones.’
Needless to say, there was a lot of tension between Flores and a franchise QB that the front office spent 20 months tanking for. And while Tagovailoa is infamously upbeat and non-confrontational, even he reached his breaking point, exploding on Flores during the Titans game that would see Flores fired immediately thereafter.
What was Flores eventually fired for? Communication and collaboration. In other words, being the asshole who could not or would not work with the franchise quarterback and that certainly did not know how to speak to people.
Flores’ demands to make chicken salad from chicken shit were exacerbated not only by the lack of coaching Tua received, Flores’ intransigent hostility, and the type of scheme Tua was asked to execute, but he was also hamstrung by being given another playbook entirely.
When long-time veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick was brought onto the team, the two developed an amazing relationship, with Fitz serving as a mentor, quarterback coach, and even surrogate dad to Tua. To this day, Fitzpatrick maintains that Tua will “do great things.” But, when it came time to get on the field, the two were not treated equally — Flores gave Fitz the go-ahead to run the offense, while Tua was stuck with a very different, limiting set of plays.
Gailey was quit-fired after one year, and Tagovailoa’s production predictably improved with a new RPO focus. But, still, he had absolutely nothing to work with. Because no picture is complete without a look at the Dolphins’ offensive line, a unit that was historically bad. It was 2021 Alabama-bad, in fact.
Miami’s offensive line surrendered a league-leading 235 pressures this season and recorded the worst pass-blocking efficiency score in the NFL. The unit did this despite being well protected by a quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly and by the team running the third-most RPOs in the league. The offensive line was run blocking on almost one out of every five passing plays, removing the chance of being exposed in pass protection. Miami gambled that their young players would develop this season and the line would improve, but that unquestionably backfired.
He was under pressure on 235 of 388 attempts, a number we have not seen since David Carr and the 2001 Houston Texans took 76 sacks — the last offensive line of comparable pass-blocking ineptitude. The Fish’s move to an RPO-heavy offense is undoubtedly working to Tagovailoa’s benefit. But he is having to protect the line as much as they are protecting him with quick recognition and laser release. In fact, he had the NFL’s 5th fastest release in 2021:
If you want to see what it looks like to undermine a young quarterback, then Brian Flores delivered a masterclass. If you want to develop one, however, then practically every decision Flores made was a poor one.
Perhaps that is why, when asked about his old coach, Tua didn’t have much to say...but he did rave about Mike McDaniel.
Despite a lack of mentorship, being undermined, and being asked to win games behind the NFL’s worst pass blocking offensive line of the past 20 years, Tua has managed to put up some very impressive statistics in just 21 starts, and especially did so in his second season.
Tua’s interception rate of 2.2% is well below the league average, and in fact would be good for 20th...all-time, just behind Donovan McNabb. His passer rating is in the middle of the pack — right below Matt Ryan, and ahead of Ryan Tannehill, Lamar Jackson, his other Alabama teammates, and even his once-mentor Ryan Fitzpatrick. And it is only improving.
In just 21 starts, he has already engineered four 4th quarter comeback victories. To the relief of Tua fans, he has learned to throw the ball away quicker too, and not try to make something of nothing. Despite playing behind a god-awful line, his sack percentage dropped too, from 6.5% to 4.9% in 2021. In fact, his 5.49% sack rate is equal to...Joe Montana. And his accuracy has never been in question. Last season, Tagovailoa was 7th in the NFL in completion percentage, just under 68%. That put him ahead of Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Kirk Cousins, and Russ Wilson.
So, what is the picture we get of Tua after just 21 starts?
He’s a player much like the one we saw at Alabama, capable of quick reads, quick releases, accuracy; a player who doesn’t take sacks, doesn’t fold under pressure, and doesn’t throw many interceptions to lose the game for you. However, he is also one that has been hamstrung by a pedestrian running game, an average WR corps, bad coaching, a bad scheme fit, lack of opportunities to take risks...and doing so all behind a generationally-bad O-line. Yet he still managed to win.
Keep all of that in mind this season now that No. 1 has a full complement of speedy wideouts, a healthy running back corps, a coach who hates the man he inherited, and some help on the offensive line.
It won’t be a third year miracle when Tua’s touchdowns and numbers blossom after finally being given a modern scheme alongside the reins to do what he does best: Just be be Tua — take risks, lead the team, make magic happen.
Does he need to be better? Sure and he would be the first to tell you that. Is he a bust? Not even remotely. And for all intents and purposes, this is his first real year as a starter in a collaborative environment that can see him succeed.
If and when it happens, do we call Tua a late bloomer? Nah. Not really. He’s only now being brought out into the sunshine.