Tua Tagovailoa has completed 7 starts in his rookie campaign with a 5-2 record. But, has he done enough to be the answer at quarterback?
Going into the 2020 draft, the Miami Dolphins knew that they needed a franchise quarterback. At the number 5 pick, they had their pick of Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, ultimately deciding on the talented, yet often injured Tagovailoa. When general manager Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores made this decision, the hope was the Tagovailoa would be the answer at quarterback that the Miami Dolphins have been searching for since Dan Marino.
The Tagovailoa era is 7 games in and, to be fair, there isn’t enough of a sample size to say that he is the answer at quarterback definitively. That being said, there are a number of things that he has done well that may indicate that he is good enough to bring this team to the playoffs and beyond.
On the year, Tagovailoa has passed for 1359 yards, 9 touchdowns compared to 2 interceptions with a 63.8% completion percentage (all stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com). He has also led the team to a 5-2 record since he became the starter and has had 2 comeback wins and 2 game-winning drives. But, these numbers, at least to me, don’t mean a whole lot. It’s more about how he has looked in the games that he has played, not his numbers.
There are some fair criticisms of Tagovailoa after watching him play over these 7 games. He has often held on to the ball too long and has been unable in certain situations to read the defense and pick up the blitzes that are coming his way. He has also under-thrown a lot of balls this season that, had they been thrown perfectly, could have resulted in touchdowns. If he wants to be the franchise quarterback, he will need to fix these things, sooner rather than later. I fully expect him to do that.
The offense has also struggled a bit the last few weeks but that isn’t all on Tagovailoa. A mix of questionable play-calling, a lack of a running attack (with the exception of the New England game), and injuries to his top four receiving weapons have all caused the offense to stall. If you look at Tagovailoa’s play in context, he can’t be blamed for the struggles on the offense.
On the other side of things, and the side of things that I believe matter more to the development of a franchise quarterback, Tagovailoa has made considerable strides over the course of his young career. He looks poised in the pocket, even sometimes when the pocket collapses. He has proven to be the accurate passer that many thought he would be coming out of college. He has also shown that he can effectively learn on the fly. Let’s look at this last game against New England for an example of this.
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On a drive in the first half, Miami moved the ball down to the 5-yard line. On third and goal, Tagovailoa failed to read the defense effectively and threw an interception as he was getting hit. In what looked like the exact same moment in the second half, Tagovailoa, instead of trying to extend the play and holding on to the ball, recognized the same defensive play, adjusted, and ran it in for a score. Yes, you would have like two touchdowns in the red zone, but his growth mid-game is crucial to his development.
There has not been enough evidence yet to determine if he is going to be at the star level of guys like Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. But, for a first year quarterback, those are unfair comparisons for him at this point. If that is our expectation for any rookie coming out, then everyone is always going to be disappointed.
Comparing him to other quarterbacks in this draft class, namely Joe Burrow and, more specifically, Justin Herbert is also a bit unfair at this point, too. Both of those other quarterbacks started early in the season and have already had significantly more reps than Tagovailoa. Yes, Justin Herbert has looked better than many expected and while he and Tagovailoa will always be compared to one another, we can’t do that now. The supporting cast for Herbert is leaps and bounds better than the one Tagovailoa has had to play with all season. The Chargers have also not had the same defensive output as the Dolphins, so they have found themselves in more situations where they needed to throw the ball when Miami didn’t necessarily need to do that.
Again, the context is key here. Both quarterbacks have shown they belong in this league and that they could be effective starters, if not franchise quarterbacks, for their teams.
At the end of the day, what I want to see at this point is enough to feel good about Tagovailoa going into his second season with a regular offseason of preparation, pandemic withstanding is growth and nobody can argue that hasn’t happened. And while I can’t anoint him the next franchise great at this point, I think everyone should be happy with his performance and growth and feel comfortable with him as the starter for the foreseeable future.