Analysis

Tua Tagovailoa's moment to prove he's the Dolphins' franchise QB is now

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The seats began to shake. Hordes of listless Miami Dolphins fans turned euphoric, rising to their feet as Tua Tagovailoa jogged onto the field at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday.

"Tua, Tua, Tua."

The chants rained down early in the third quarter, like something out of a Hollywood movie. This was the main reason they came tonight, to see their young quarterback do something special. Though he was dealing with a fractured middle finger, Tagovailoa came off the bench, made a few clutch, deep throws and, behind an excellent defensive performance, helped the Dolphins upset Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.

The victory also marked the true start of what will be an eight-game audition. It's become abundantly clear that Tagovailoa's moment to show that he can still be the Dolphins' franchise quarterback is now.

Even with the Dolphins riding high after two consecutive wins, nothing is more important for the rest of the season than evaluating the 2020 first-round pick. Coach Brian Flores' Monday announcement that Tagovailoa (though still not 100 percent recovered from his finger injury) is expected to start Sunday vs. the New York Jets means this pivotal showcase -- for the Dolphins and the rest of the league -- will continue in Week 11.

Quarterback isn't among the biggest problem areas for the 3-7 Dolphins (offensive line would be No. 1). And yet, Miami was clearly looking into upgrading at the position, based on the team's months-long inquiries into acquiring the Texans' Deshaun Watson. Flores and general manager Chris Grier each stated different versions of we believe in Tua or we're committed to him or Tua is our QB as reports of their interest in Watson circulated leading up to the Nov. 2 trade deadline.

They ultimately did not make a deal for Watson, whose future is uncertain, given that he currently faces 22 pending civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct, in addition to investigations by the NFL and Houston police. However, by pursuing Watson and not closing the door on revisiting a potential deal, the Dolphins have seemingly put Tagovailoa on the clock.

"If a player is available around the league that is viewed as being one of the top players in the league at any position, I think you look at it and go for it or try to go for it," Grier told reporters after the trade deadline when asked about pursuing a Watson deal. "... Once the offseason comes, we'll approach it and make decisions then."

Some rival league executives wonder if the Dolphins have already made their minds up on Tagovailoa, whether they are able to acquire Watson or not. The Dolphins have taken several very questionable steps in their process of developing a young QB over the last 18 months, and some of them seem to have hindered Tagovailoa's growth.

That's why, for these next seven games, the Dolphins owe Tagovailoa a good-faith audition to prove he can be the man.

So many Dolphins fans believe in Tagovailoa as their future franchise quarterback. You could hear that passion and belief with their chants Thursday night, trying to push it to become reality. He is their QB. The big question is whether he can convince the Dolphins he is their franchise QB far beyond 2021.

Tagovailoa often pushes back on the concept of having to prove himself. "I don't think there is -- it's not really much to prove," he recently said. "It's about knowing my expectations for myself and kind of how I want to go out there and play. Not really to anyone else's expectations."

The reality is, he has plenty to prove, and maybe the most important element is durability.

Tagovailoa has missed four full games and significant parts of two others this year, including Thursday. He's only started and finished 11 games as a pro -- not even a complete season -- a fact that could both give weight to the doubts about his long-term future in Miami and serve as a reason why he needs more time to develop.

But patience is becoming exceedingly rare when it comes to NFL quarterbacks, and with the Dolphins in Year 3 of a rebuild holding a disappointing 3-7 record, this offseason could be one of change in Miami. So, fair or not, there might be as few as seven games left for Tagovailoa to make his lasting mark.

Can the Dolphins set Tua up for success?

There are questions about whether Tagovailoa will ever be the franchise QB for Miami -- or any other NFL team, for that matter. But there's reason to believe he can develop into, at minimum, a QB a team can win with, and maybe eventually more, which is why it's peculiar that the Dolphins and Tagovailoa reached this point so quickly.

Just over 18 months ago, Grier, Flores and owner Stephen Ross all were elated to select Tagovailoa with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The hope was that he would answer the QB question that has plagued the franchise for two decades since Dan Marino retired.

Tagovailoa was a high-risk, high-reward selection, due to the significant hip injury he suffered in his final season at Alabama, but the Dolphins cleared him medically in April 2020 and confidently took him over Oregon's Justin Herbert -- a decision that went from highly praised to highly criticized as Herbert earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and Tagovailoa had an up-and-down Year 1.

Since Week 8 of the 2020 season, when Tagovailoa made his first career start, he ranks in the bottom six in completion percentage, passing yards per game, passing yards per attempt, TD-to-INT ratio and passer rating among 26 QBs with 10-plus starts in that span, per NFL Research.

"I don't know if Miami has made up their mind about Tua, but the next two months are important for him to show the league he can be a guy you can win football games with," former NFL QB and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said last week, before the game against the Ravens. "That means winning the game in the fourth quarter. Then you can elevate to a guy that you win because of, but there's only a small handful of those guys."

Orlovsky said he'd watched every Tagovailoa snap this year heading into Week 10 and noted that he's starting to see some of the playmaking ability he displayed at Alabama return, particularly suddenness and movement in the pocket and pop on his intermediate throws, signaling that he's healthier.

That growth is shown in the numbers, where he ranks 17th in QBR this season (out of 33 eligible QBs), ahead of Seattle's Russell Wilson and Cincinnati's Joe Burrow, among others. He ranked 26th of 33 last season.

Orlovsky sees two areas where Tagovailoa needs to show improvement: decision-making -- he's had an uptick in interceptions -- and frequency of throwing the deep ball. Tagovailoa has attempted deep passes at the third-lowest rate (8%) among 27 QBs with 400-plus attempts since 2020, per Next Gen Stats.

Mike Locksley, now Maryland's head coach, was Alabama's offensive coordinator in Tagovailoa's last season as a healthy, full-time starter (2018). He told me "point guard" is the best description for the former Tide star when he's at his best, and that Alabama coaches focused on adjusting to his natural skill set by "limiting the confusion."

"We wanted to be very clear. We wanted to eliminate the gray. With his field vision, he sees things before it happens. The less ambiguous and gray things are, the more he can be decisive," Locksley said. "He had a starting point and ending point in how the read and progression started. The more certainty he has, the more accurate, comfortable and confident he is."

Several times this year, the Dolphins have put Tagovailoa in a place where he might have been at a disadvantage compared to his QB counterparts. One example is the offensive system, which has already switched its play-caller setup this year, from Charlie Frye having a central role to now George Godsey having the sole responsibility, sources say. Tagovailoa has had three QB instructors and three offensive coordinators in 18 months.

Another example is the offensive line, which has allowed the most QB pressures in the league (145), per NGS, with six different starting combinations. They also have the NFL's worst rushing offense, averaging just 73.6 yards per game. Finally, the offseason infusion of receiving talent hasn't paid off quite as expected. Top free-agent signing Will Fuller is expected to miss his ninth game of the year (and his seventh straight) Sunday due to a broken finger, while incumbent starter DeVante Parker was placed on IR two weeks ago with a hamstring injury.

Tagovailoa has room for improvement, but the Dolphins' coaches and players also need to do much better to help him show growth over the next two months.

Is it really now or never time in Miami?

Tagovailoa has spent roughly as much time (five games) playing quarterback this year as he's spent on the bench due to injuries. Flores said recently that Tagovailoa's injuries have been "unfortunate" and "fluky," but he also noted that "availability is a big part of playing in this league."

There's no question about Tagovailoa's toughness. He's wanted to play through fractured ribs and the fractured finger, but the team felt an obligation to protect him from himself in the case of the first injury and determined he was too limited to give them the best chance to win with the current one, until Jacoby Brissett went down with his own injury last Thursday. He's mentally tough, too, drawing praise from people inside Dolphins headquarters and across the league with how he handled the Watson reports.

But durability has been one of Tagovailoa's biggest question marks dating back to college, when he missed time due to ankle and hip injuries that required surgery. The only way to disprove that notion is to stay on the field.

One high-ranking executive for an AFC team said Tagovailoa "plays small and looks small. He doesn't always look like a confident guy in the pocket. He doesn't have elite arm talent, so he's got to have elite feel or processing." A high-ranking executive for an NFC team noted that, when watching him play, it doesn't "look like the Dolphins trust him."

Elite quarterbacks often hide their team's flaws, like a struggling offensive line or inconsistent receiving group. There are questions about whether Tagovailoa has the upside to ever reach that level without many elite physical traits. That all is a part of the Dolphins' interest in Watson, one team source said.

The Dolphins' stance, per Grier, has been that their pursuit of Watson was more about the "unique" nature of Watson's availability and not an indictment of Tagovailoa. While that may be, it's also true that neither of the other teams that selected a QB in the top 10 of the 2020 draft (the Bengals with Burrow or the Chargers with Herbert) were reported to have pursued Watson.

The early success of Herbert, and to a lesser extent Burrow, seems to have expedited judgement on Tagovailoa. Quarterbacks drafted early used to get three years or more to prove their worth. Now we're in an era where teams will move on quickly -- like the Arizona Cardinals did with Josh Rosen, trading him to Miami one year after drafting him 10th overall -- if the right replacement becomes available.

Flores said he believes in developing players and knows that everyone comes along at a different pace. Compared to the 2021 rookie class, the 23-year-old Tagovailoa has outplayed four of the five first-round QBs, with only his former Alabama teammate, New England's Mac Jones, having a comparable or better year.

Tagovailoa has shown clear signs of growth, though his play has rarely been aesthetically pleasing. The biggest question left is whether the Dolphins will give Tagovailoa a serious shot to prove he can be what they drafted him to be -- their long-term answer at QB.

As Tagovailoa jogged off the field Thursday night, he again heard the "Tua, Tua, Tua" chants as he headed into the locker room. He embraced it, pumping his arms up and yelling out, "Let's go, baby."

Tagovailoa knows. His moment is now.

Follow Cameron Wolfe on Twitter.

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