Braking Down The News

The Dolphins Wanted To Let Tua Tagovailoa Go. Now They’ve Unleashed Him.

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All of the quarterbacks the Miami Dolphins wanted instead of Tua Tagovailoa are struggling: Tom Brady is off to one of his worst-ever starts, Deshaun Watson is suspended, and Jacoby Brissett just lost a seemingly un-losable game to the New York Jets.

Meanwhile, after Sunday’s monster comeback-win performance in Baltimore, Tagovailoa leads the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns1 and is No. 2 in total QBR, while the Dolphins are 2-0 with a 77 percent chance of making the playoffs (and a 5 percent chance to win the Super Bowl).

It’s a continuation of the upward trajectory Tua has been on for a while now. Since coming off the bench in Week 10 of last season, Tagovailoa has been a top-10 quarterback: He ranks eighth in raw QBR (62.7), seventh in passer rating (99.1), seventh in expected points added per dropback (0.14), and eighth in yards per dropback (6.69), according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. And he only gets better as the game goes on. In fourth quarters across that span, Tagovailoa ranks second (80.4), fourth (111.9), sixth (0.19), and sixth (7.51) in the same stats, respectively.

Last year, I wrote that Tagovailoa’s clutch performances were a growing inconvenience for a Dolphins organization set on replacing him. But while he impressed with effective, accurate throws late in games, he often struggled early — and rarely threw deep. Now, not only is Tua’s “clutch gene” still active, but he’s improving his overall game. And Tua hasn’t just gotten better at his bread-and-butter short passes. Through the first two games of 2022, he’s also finally attempting (and completing) the big-play passes that had been missing from his arsenal.

Much was made of new head coach Mike McDaniel’s offensive acumen after he was hired this offseason, and he was open with the press about his evaluation of Tagovailoa: McDaniel called Tua a “very accurate” passer, with an uncanny feel for the game and a long track record of rising to big occasions. But even at his most effective in 2021, Tua wasn’t aggressive looking downfield. He finished 28th in air yards per attempt (6.92), per ESPN Stats & Information, and 29th in the rate of passes that went at least 20 yards through the air (7.5 percent).

The acquisition of speedy receiver Tyreek Hill was supposed to help Tua’s short, accurate throws become explosively vertical via runs after the catch. But Tagovailoa has also been flat-out tossing bombs. He currently ranks fourth among qualified passers in adjusted completion percentage,2 with 33.7 percent of his attempts traveling at least 10 yards in the air (which ranks 11th), and 10.8 percent going at least 20 yards (13th). A greater share of his pass attempts have resulted in first downs (42.2 percent) than anybody’s but Patrick Mahomes.

Tagovailoa has developed particular chemistry with the 1-2 receiving combination of Hill and second-year wideout Jaylen Waddle. As noted by NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Waddle gained more yards on vertical “go” routes on Sunday (73) than he did all of last season (43), and amazingly, Hill’s 108 go-route yards against the Ravens approached his 2021 season total (147) while playing with Mahomes.

The full potential of that combo wasn’t unlocked until Miami’s back was against the wall in Baltimore. Before the comeback, the Dolphins had seemingly run into a buzzsaw: Their opening kickoff being returned for a touchdown put Tagovailoa in a hole before he even got under center — and a three-touchdown explosion from Lamar Jackson in the first half seemingly made any attempt by Tagovailoa to climb out of it futile.

But that’s when McDaniel took the training wheels off the offense — and Tagovailoa kicked it into high gear. He went 24-of-30 in the second half, averaging 10.63 yards per dropback and posting an astounding 99.2 raw QBR. His passer rating was a nearly perfect 150.6. And looking at where Tagovailoa was throwing the ball — particularly late in the game — showcases his newfound deep touch:

Three heat maps of Tua Tagovailoa’s pass attempts for the end of the 2021 season and the beginning of the 2022 season: 2021 season weeks 10-18, 2022 season weeks 1-2, and 2022 season second half of week 2.

Baltimore didn’t take it easy on Tua, either; their blitz rate didn’t change from the first half to the second (23.8 percent vs. 23.3 percent), and their rate of man-to-man coverage actually increased (34.9 percent vs. 41.4 percent). They did put more defensive backs on the field more often, however, trying to keep up with the Dolphins’ downfield track-meet. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Baltimore was in dime coverage on a whopping 57 percent of their second-half defensive snaps (up from 20 percent in the first half), and in nickel for 39 percent (up from 37 percent). In fact, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Ravens defensive backs had to cover more ground on Sunday than any secondary since the start of last season.

The extra reinforcements didn’t matter — Tagovailoa and Miami’s passing offense shredded Baltimore’s secondary anyway.

Did McDaniel know Tagovailoa was capable of making these adjustments, or was this a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency strategy? Just a month ago, Pro Football Focus’s Doug Kyed reported the Dolphins were shopping tight end Mike Gesicki because his downfield abilities wouldn’t be used much in this offense; in Week 1, he had one catch for one yard on one target. But on Sunday, he caught all of his four targets for 41 yards and a touchdown.

Only time will tell whether McDaniel saves this grip-it-and-rip-it approach for emergencies only, or has Tua bombing it downfield at will. Either way, defenses will have to respect Tagovailoa’s ability to beat them deep in a way they’ve never had to before — and that might make him even more effective on the short passes he already excelled at throwing.

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