Analysis

Tua Tagovailoa 'very comfortable' entering first season as Miami Dolphins' full-time starter

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Tua Tagovailoa took up golf about three months ago, and his father, Galu, gave him some advice.

"Keep your head down," Tua remembers his father telling him. "And I'll watch the ball."

Tagovailoa is a self-confessed lover of analogies, and this one has resonance for this particular moment, as he begins his second season for the Miami Dolphins -- and first as a full-time starter.

"It relates to what's going on in my life right now, too," Tagovailoa said in an interview as he drove home from work seven hours after practice ended last weekend. "For me, when I'm golfing, my job is to focus on the ball and make sure I'm hitting the ball. Don't look at it. Go through your technique and your fundamentals and he'll watch it. When you're playing quarterback, you obviously have got to watch the ball. But the analogy is keeping my focus on what I have ahead of me, what play we have. That 'next play' mentality."

In a 15-minute interview, Tagovailoa described -- multiple times -- what sounds like a defining characteristic of his life during his second training camp: tunnel vision. That's certainly an advisable approach.

Tagovailoa's rookie year, the follow-up to the "Tanking for Tua" sensation that made him an NFL headliner long before he was drafted fifth overall by the Dolphins in 2020, was a blur of recovery from a hip injury, a COVID-obliterated offseason, sitting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, a curiously-timed promotion to the starting job, a benching, another promotion, another benching and finally, a season-ending loss to Buffalo that kept the Dolphins out of the playoffs and spurred an offseason of speculation that the Dolphins were already tiring of Tagovailoa.

In a place where fans who attend practice exit the highway at a street named for Dan Marino while wearing their fading aqua No. 13 jerseys, Tagovailoa's undulating trajectory has made him the object of adulation, curiosity, nervousness and relentless evaluation. At Saturday's practice, the football team from nearby Norland High School sat in the bleachers, the teenagers from the perennial powerhouse breaking down almost every snap. In one case, they noted that a Tagovailoa pass should have been thrown more to the outside to give the receiver a better chance to catch it.

Tagovailoa was a star at Alabama, so he is far from naïve about the pressures and demands of big-time football. And he has made at least one very smart life choice: He doesn't have cable, opting instead for Netflix and Disney Plus, sparing himself the chatter about future draft picks and Deshaun Watson that have become the soundtrack of armchair general managers as the summer wears on and Watson's situation in Houston remains unresolved. Still, Tagovailoa conveys unfailing happiness and optimism, coming across as the kind of person who rarely has a bad day. He seems to be reveling right now in the rudiments of practices -- getting reps in, getting timing down, making the kind of incremental progress that coaches want to see.

That has allowed him to find the good in what almost everyone else would say was, at best, a weird rookie season, one that might have undermined a player who is not as apparently ego-free as Tagovailoa.

"I've learned a lot," Tagovailoa said. "To me, there's talent and then there's experience. No matter how much talent you have, I don't think it ever overrides experience. For me, it's a lot of learning. I learned a lot last year and continue to learn a lot."

"Most definitely it's been a positive," he added. "It was my first year and nothing overrides experience. Being able to get into those games, get the experience, learn behind Fitz last year, it's helped me a lot. This year, having the offseason and having a new quarterback room with Jacoby [Brissett] in there, asking him questions, and going out there and actually doing it. As many repetitions as we do now, it helps all of us, at every position. No matter how much film you watch, in order for you to be absorbing, you've got to do it."

In the early part of camp, Tagovailoa looks to be doing it far more smoothly and with much more confidence than he did last year. He is moving well and throwing down the field more. His passes seem to be traveling with greater velocity, almost surely because his recovery from the hip injury is complete. And he is animated, directing one target in how he expected him to turn for a reception, and vocally leading the huddle. He has been particularly on target during red-zone work and he's had nothing close to the five-interception practice that set the internet aflame during minicamp. The Dolphins will have joint practices with the Bears before their first preseason game -- Saturday in Chicago on NFL Network -- and that will be the first test of what appears obvious to the naked eye: Tagovailoa feels far more settled now than he ever did last season.

"I feel very comfortable," he said. "When you've been in a place longer than a year, you know where everything is, the flow of how everything works. I just think when you know how things work, you adapt a lot easier to the culture of your surroundings. I know a lot of the guys from last year -- just being able to have some of the guys in the offseason has helped."

More than a year removed from his hip injury, Tagovailoa said he feels stronger now. During the offseason, he worked with receivers on the timing of his throws, with the offensive linemen on cadences and pre/post-snap operations.

The Dolphins were in an unusual position in 2020. They wanted to get their prized rookie quarterback on the field to get experience, but their rebuild was so far ahead of schedule that they were in the playoff mix and couldn't afford many growing pains. Tagovailoa had some of those, despite the Dolphins going 6-3 in games he started. While he had a 64.1 percent completion rate and threw for 11 touchdowns and just five interceptions, he was overly conservative, rarely attempting a deep pass. His yards per attempt and yards per completion were both at least 1.5 yards lower than Fitzpatrick's marks.

This offseason, though, the Dolphins signed Will Fuller in free agency, drafted Jaylen Waddle and declared their support for Tagovailoa. Then, in a spring Zoom with reporters, with commendable honesty, he said he did not know the playbook as well as he could have as a rookie.

Miami's unexpectedly-fast success has only accelerated expectations for this season. That has, in turn, made this feel like a litmus-test season for Tagovailoa. Head coach Brian Flores and general manager Chris Grier have shown no hesitation to move on quickly from personnel decisions that have not panned out. (One of last year's big free-agent signings, Kyle Van Noy, is now back in New England, for instance.) Consequently, despite the Dolphins repeatedly proclaiming Tagovailoa the starter, it's unlikely the speculation about his future will abate while Watson remains on the trading block or until the second-year passer shows his improvement in games that count.

Tagovailoa said he doesn't have much of a reaction to the idea that this is a make-or-break year.

"When you look at it -- there's five cars in front of you," Tagovailoa said. "The first car is a Mercedes. Three cars ahead is a Bentley. If your focus is on the Bentley three cars ahead of you, you might get into a car accident because you're not focused on what's in front of you. That's my whole perspective -- just worrying about what's in front of me."

He continued: "I've always been self-motivated. I've been confident in knowing what I can do. I don't really need motivation from elsewhere or from outside noise. That goes to the point, taking it day to day. It's something that Coach Flo would say in team meetings -- one meeting at a time, one walkthrough at a time, one practice at a time. For me, it's been working."

His teammates have noticed. Receiver Mack Hollins, who has been productive in the early part of camp, believes Tagovailoa has been more in control of the offense this year.

"I think that's the biggest transition -- for the whole NFL, but quarterbacks especially -- from Year 1 to Year 2: You understand how a season works," Hollins said. "You get out of college and it's combine training, a million interview preps -- you're so stressed you don't know how to play football anymore. So now he's been able to take a deep breath, take control of the offense, understand the offense and really shine out there. It's not easy to control 10 other grown men in a huddle -- especially a guy like me, I'm talking to the defense the whole time, being able to rein me in, plus the other five guys who might be arguing with this defensive lineman or this defensive back. Or this coach or after a bad play. Being able to do that is impressive, especially as a young quarterback."

Tagovailoa is, of course, happy the Dolphins now have Waddle and Fuller to boost the offense. And he said it was a great feeling to get vocal support from the organization.

"For me, I'm a competitor," he said. "I never want to focus on the good. It's always about something bad."

That certainly sounds more like a veteran player talking. Given how fast the NFL has come at Tagovailoa, and how quickly some want to dismiss him, it is worth remembering that he has made just nine pro starts. When Tagovailoa was training for the draft, he worked with Trent Dilfer, the former quarterback who spent 14 years in the league and won a Super Bowl with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Tagovailoa hasn't spoken to Dilfer recently, but he vividly remembers one thing Dilfer told him then. It serves as a good bookend for the advice his father gave him a year later about golf.

"He told me, in this league, you can't get comfortable," Tagovailoa said Dilfer told him. "You've got to take that with a grain of salt. But that's what I remember."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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