Tua Tagovailoa began his rookie season on the bench, a situation that seemed to be going just fine for the contending Dolphins when he was suddenly inserted into the starting lineup following Miami's bye week.
The results were mixed. Tagovailoa won six of his nine starts, posted a passer rating north of 95 in four of his 10 games played, and showed glimpses of his athleticism combined with his arm talent to produce effective play. But he also struggled with decision-making in key moments, throwing five interceptions, and needed to be rescued by Ryan Fitzpatrick in a must-win game in Las Vegas to keep the Dolphins alive.
Ultimately, nine games aren't enough to evaluate effectively, and for Tagovailoa, they weren't impressive enough to send folks into the offseason raving about his future. Count Tagovailoa among the underwhelmed.
"I would describe my rookie season as below average," Tagovailoa told Adam Schein on Monday on Mad Dog Sports Radio, via the Palm Beach Post. "This past season wasn't up to my expectation that I have for myself. But there were a lot of things that I was able to learn from. Being able to look at the defenses and how different all of the schemes are with defensive coordinators. Everyone runs different things. Hopefully I can compartmentalize everything and have a much better season next year."
It doesn't help that the guy selected immediately after him, Justin Herbert, had a fantastic rookie season in nearly twice as many games -- a reality that remains a sore spot for Dolphins fans banking on Tagovailoa as Miami's future. Neither has the new availability of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has requested a trade and has been linked to the Dolphins in a potential deal that would undoubtedly involve Tagovailoa.
For a rookie with just a half of a season under his belt, that's a lot to process -- and we haven't even touched on the mountain of tasks he's had to accomplish just to get up to speed to play at all.
"In my mind and in my heart I would like to hope so," Tagovailoa said when asked if he believes the organization sees him as the future. "But for me with the way things went last year, you always have to prove yourself to do better and I want to do better. My job is to help our team win games. For me that's what I have to do a better job with. For me, when I was in, we lost a couple."
A few, in fact, and nearly another had Brian Flores not seen the forest for the trees in Las Vegas and pulled him for Fitzpatrick, who led a highly unlikely comeback effort to keep the Dolphins alive. A week later, with Fitzpatrick removed from his fire extinguisher role due to COVID-19, Flores had no glass to break as Tagovailoa threw three interceptions in a blowout loss to Buffalo to end the season on the outside of the postseason.
The first day -- or first season -- is always the most difficult, they say, but it's a valuable one for a quarterback once seen as the top prospect in his class. Others have since passed him, but there's plenty of race left to run.
A significant next step for Tagovailoa should come with the start of his second training camp, which will follow his first offseason in which he doesn't have to focus primarily on rehabbing a significant injury. The game should slow down for Tagovailoa, as it often does for many second-year players.
That will be paramount for him, as he's still figuring out how to handle the added responsibilities of playing quarterback in the NFL.
"I think the biggest challenge for me this past season was more so the mental part with defenses and also with the offense," he said. "This is a new thing where I get in the huddle and tell everyone where everyone goes and where the formation is. In college I'd just get the signal and don't need to tell the receivers where to go. Check the protections. So just being able to process things quickly pre-snap and post-snap."
As for the Herbert comparisons and Watson rumors, Tagovailoa said he doesn't watch much TV. He's not going to stress over keeping up with his fellow young quarterback, nor is he going to lose sleep over trade rumblings.
"I can't control things I can't control," Tagovailoa told the Dan Patrick Show on Fox Sports Radio, again via the Palm Beach Post. "I can control working hard."