Sports

How to Fix Your NFL Quarterback

Give him the fastest receiver in the NFL and a better offensive line.

Tua Tagovailoa throws a pass downfield.
Tua Tagovailoa throws the ball with adequate arm strength. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Tua Tagovailoa’s roughly six years in the public eye have been a land of contrasts. He was a five-star recruit out of high school in Hawaii in the class of 2017, widely regarded as one of the better quarterback prospects to hit college football in years. He signed to play for Nick Saban’s dynasty at Alabama and, by the end of his freshman year, was coming off the bench in the national championship game and winning it for the Tide with a dart down the left sideline in overtime. He was the golden boy with the golden left arm, one of the most gifted QBs the college game had ever seen.

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Since he hit the NFL in 2020, the dominant narrative about Tagovailoa has been … different. The book on the Miami Dolphins quarterback in his first two professional seasons was that he could not operate an advanced downfield passing game and instead had to rely on gimmicky run/pass options. That limited what his Miami Dolphins offense could do, as did arm strength that most analysts agreed was iffy. The Dolphins were not great on offense, and Tagovailoa was one of the lesser starters in the league. Pro Football Focus graded him the 23rd-best QB in 2021. ESPN’s QBR placed him 19th. Not abjectly horrible, but also not what a team wants, if it can help it, from the No. 5 overall pick.

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Tagovailoa has always had a shadowy legion of supporters, known as Tuanon. A fringe set of beliefs has long animated the group: namely, that Tagovailoa was a better quarterback than the mainstream media had given him credit for, and that a silent majority of everyday Americans would one day be vindicated in their faith that Tagovailoa could produce at a high level on a good team. This offseason, Miami set about putting that idea to the test.

The franchise hired Mike McDaniel, the San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, who gave them a head coach from the vaunted Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan (among others) coaching tree. They signed left tackle Terron Armstead, a recent Pro Bowler and fairly recent All-Pro, to bolster a bad offensive line. The crown jewel of the plan was a trade for Kansas City Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill, the fastest man in football, who would join 2021 first-round pick Jaylen Waddle (a teammate of Tagovailoa’s at Alabama) to give Miami the speediest receiving tandem anywhere. All of these moves figured to answer the question: Can Tua be more than a master of RPOs who otherwise sits near the bottom of the league’s QB hierarchy?

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No one knows for certain, but this week offered a positive hint, one that Tuanon will surely interpret as prophecy. On Sunday, Tagovailoa brought Miami back from 28-7 down at the Baltimore Ravens to win 42-38 on a last-minute touchdown pass to Waddle. Tagovailoa was 36-of-50 passing for 469 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. It was a mixed but overall tremendous bag of quarterbacking that provided the best evidence yet that maybe, just maybe, the Dolphins can win lots of games behind him.

It’s hard to make a QB a fundamentally different guy than who he already is, although it can happen. The Buffalo Bills, for instance, unlocked Josh Allen in a way his coaches at Wyoming never figured out. But it’s tricky, and whatever Tagovailoa’s arm strength was in 2021 is pretty close to what it is in 2022. It will be a point for Dolphins fans and everyone else to argue about for the rest of his career. The gist is that he  does not have a rocket arm like Allen or Patrick Mahomes, and his limitations have shown up in the Dolphins’ insistence on having him throw lots of quick, short passes. (In 2021, he ranked near the bottom of the league in average intended target depth and time to throw.) But as his new coach, McDaniel, argues, Tagovailoa can keep the Dolphins offense humming with the right anticipation and timing, and there is no reason a QB with his abilities cannot lead a good unit.

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Still, one of the offseason’s funniest moments came when the Dolphins’ social media team tweeted out a minicamp pass from Tagovailoa to Hill, thinking it would excite people to see the franchise QB airing one out to his new favorite target. Except Hill had too much speed for the quantity of mustard Tagovailoa put on the ball, and the wideout had to come to an almost total stop to let the dying ball land in his arms:

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It was not an encouraging 14-second, slo-mo snippet. Thousands gawked at the quarterback’s Nerf arm. And yet. On Sunday, more or less the same exact thing unfolded in a live NFL game, and it worked out to the tune of a 48-yard touchdown catch for Hill. The receiver had beaten the Baltimore secondary by so much that he had the time to stop, turn around, and field Tagovailoa’s underthrown pass as if it were a punt. When it finally came down, the nearest defensive back still had not caught up to Hill:

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A little bit later, on Hill’s second TD catch of the game, the same thing happened to a milder degree. Hill had to slow down just a bit, but the ball arrived, and the cornerback covering him was so thoroughly dusted that the particulars of the throw were irrelevant. Hill cruised into the end zone:

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Arguing about the caliber of Tagovailoa’s arm in these circumstances is beside the point. One of the benefits of acquiring the fastest dude in football is creating a much wider margin of error for your quarterback. Figuring out what Tagovailoa can do on his own will be the Dolphins’ cross to bear when it’s time to give him a contract extension (or not) in a few years, but as long as Hill (and Waddle, for that matter) are on the field, it may not matter that Tagovailoa isn’t Mahomes.

Some credit is also in order. Tagovailoa threw a few great balls in this game, most notably his touchdown pass to big tight end Mike Gesicki, which went over one defender and into a closing window in front of another. Tagovailoa placed it where only Gesicki could get it, and it kickstarted the Miami comeback:

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The Dolphins are now 2-0, having also dealt with the New England Patriots in Week 1. They deserve some credit for how they quickly bolstered their roster around their QB. While Tua looked severely limited in his first couple of seasons, how much of that was because of the paltry skill talent around him and the horrendous offensive line that protected him? (2021’s unit was the worst in the NFL, by the grading at PFF.) Is Tagovailoa discovering more downfield success because he has changed, or because he needed a lift from his team and now has one? Does the answer even matter?

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