- The Miami Dolphins have named rookie Tua Tagovailoa starting quarterback beginning with their Week 8 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
- Miami has a bye this week giving Tagovailoa additional preparation time for his first NFL start.
- Tagovailoa suffered a serious hip injury in his final season at the University of Alabama.
The Miami Dolphins haven’t had a Pro Bowl quarterback since Dan Marino. They’re hoping that will change sooner rather than later. More significantly, they’re hoping that new starter Tua Tagovailoa will be the quarterback to break that long run of futility at the position. The Dolphins will begin the Tua Tagovailoa era starting next Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams as he’s been named the starting quarterback supplanting veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The only real surprise is the timing, as Tagovailoa was chosen by Miami early in the first round of the 2020 draft in hopes that he could become a franchise quarterback. It is somewhat sudden–Tagovailoa got his first NFL action last Sunday in mop up work for starter Fitzpatrick near the end of Miami’s easy win over the hapless New York Jets. He played five snaps, going 2 for 2 and picking up nine yards. More importantly, he looked very much up to the task physically, mentally and emotionally. He showed impressive mobility on a rollout pass to his left and generally looked like he ‘belongs’.
Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey was effusive in his praise for Tagovailoa in his limited action:
“Oh gosh, yes, you go out there and you look at it — he got under duress and made an accurate throw. He sat in the pocket on third down and made a throw for a first down. Those are positives. Those are real positives. For a guy that hasn’t played a snap, those are real positives.”
Tagovailoa is an easy guy to root for and even more so given the way he’s overcome an injury that could have potentially limited his upside in the NFL. He’s by all accounts a good kid with a solid work ethic and character. After a standout career at Alabama he showed a lot of mental toughness and general tenacity in coming back from a dislocated right hip and posterior wall fracture. His first NFL start will come just under a year from the date of his injury. The good news is that based on what he showed against the Jets it doesn’t look like he’ll have any long term physical issues.
Dolphins’ head coach Brian Flores praised Tagovailova for the way he’s dealt with his injury and rehab:
“From a rehab standpoint, or just from a strength training standpoint, he’s doing what everyone else is doing. He’s doing well physically and mentally. From a health standpoint, it was obviously a serious injury, and he’s done a great job as far as getting himself back healthy and getting himself to a point where he can practice and take a lot of reps. He’s trending in the right direction from a health standpoint.”
Head coaches don’t have it easy when they’re charged with bringing along a promising young quarterback. It obvious that a quarterback can learn only so much carrying clipboard on the sidelines but at the other extreme a coach doesn’t want to ‘throw him to the wolves’. Tagovailoa is a unique player in a unique situation that could make this the perfect opportunity for a young quarterback. He’s definitely got the skills–in three years at Alabama he set NCAA records for passing efficiency.
His college career is significant in another area–he’s in a position where he’ll face considerably less pressure and lower expectations from fans and media than he did in Tuscaloosa. There the team had national championship ambitions playing in front of 100,000 fans in a state where football is a religion. Now he’s in a situation where he just needs to demonstrate some development and not embarrass himself or the team. He’ll definitely be playing in front of fewer fans than he did at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium–Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium is currently limited to 17% of capacity and he’ll be facing similar or lower capacity restrictions on the road. Even in a mostly empty stadium, he’s generated the most excitement among Miami fans seen in years.
Tagovailoa could also benefit from his relationship with the player he supplanted atop the depth chart, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has been playing well but he also had to understand what his role would be when Miami drafted a quarterback with their first draft pick this year. According to Tagovailoa, he’s got a great relationship with Fitzpatrick:
“And then you have a 16-year vet like Fitz, who has no animosity toward it as well, who’s just been supportive that entire time. Good drive, bad drive, he comes to the sideline and just talks through his process with why he did some things. I’m very fortunate to have a mentor like him who is just very encouraging on the field and then this guy is, like, he’s just very personable off the field as well.”
It doesn’t hurt that Tagovailoa’s mentor is one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in NFL history. Guys who graduate from Harvard have a tendency to be ‘quick on the uptake’. Having a 16 year veteran mentor with an economics degree from an Ivy League school to help a young player assimilate the challenging responsibilities of an NFL quarterback is a rare luxury. Fitzpatrick famously has the highest score on the Wonderlic test by a NFL quarterback in history (48). The only perfect score in this test of cognitive ability administered to most NFL rookies was wide receiver/punter Pat McInally who graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1974.
At 37, Fitzpatrick is obviously looking at a life beyond football (assuming that ‘Conor McGregor impersonator’ isn’t an option). While he’s got plenty of options as Harvard grads tend to have a strong showing by his protege could put him on the track for a career as a coach. Interestingly, Harvard has a longtime head coach in Tim Murphy (27 seasons) but at age 64 he could be looking to transition into another stage of *his* career. Could Fitzpatrick be interested in coaching football at his alma mater? There are definitely worse gigs to have. At the very least, someone of Fitzpatrick’s intelligence will have a realistic concept on where he can best make an impact at this stage of his career.
For now, the focus of Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Dolphins team will be on giving Tagovailoa every chance to demonstrate that he can be the franchise quarterback. They definitely need one. Since Dan Marino retired in 2000, Miami has started 21 different quarterbacks. None of them made the Pro Bowl or for that matter led the Dolphins to even a single playoff victory. The good news is that none of the 21 checked as many boxes as Tagovailoa. Everyone concerned is hoping that the change in starting quarterbacks will be the beginning of a new era for the once successful, now long suffering franchise.