Mike McDaniel’s pod of Dolphins has already made splashes. In its preseason finale, Miami dropped 48 on the Philadelphia Eagles and Tua Tagovailoa completed 6-of-7 passes for 121 yards and led three scoring drives.
The Dolphins leading the preseason in scoring is an auspicious start for the new coach. However, the preseason is still a glorified XFL game. The regular season is where the monster waves come crashing in.
If the early returns are any indication, Tagovailoa’s trajectory is looking up. On the Miami Dolphins’ first play from scrimmage, Tagovailoa’s slightly underthrown completion to Hill ate up 51 yards, yet has been dissected ruthlessly as a testament to Tagovoiloa’s relatively puny arm strength.
Never mind that there are countless examples of Mahomes underthrowing Hill or Tagovailoa hitting the latter in stride. Tagovailoa doesn’t have an MVP on his shelf though. On the second play, Tagovailoa connected with Hill on a 13-yard gain. The message was sent. Hill is going to be earning every cent of his $120 million contract extension rehabbing Tagovailoa’s career. Hill arrives on the heels of five consecutive Pro Bowls as a receiver. Two deep safety shells have become the defensive trend du jour around the league because of Hill’s downfield prowess.
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Tagovailoa’s third season is about to be an intersection of tempered expectations and unrealistic ones. There’s no formula to translate preseason numbers. However, finishing tops in the league is a positive preamble. We can only hypothesize whether these preseason patterns are aberrations or a forecast of what’s to come. The Dolphins are ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky’s sleeper Super Bowl pick on Monday morning, so take that for what it’s worth.
Twenty-three games into his career, Tagovailoa has been found playing beneath expectations without becoming an abysmal failure. A narrative has gripped Tua and won’t let go. He’s the quarterback that moms would let date their daughters. Essentially, he’s a safe option. Last season, Tagovailoa ranked 27th in intended air yards per target and 29th in yards per game. He won’t take any chances downfield and he’ll have your offense in field-goal range by curfew.
Yet, he’s a starting quarterback on a rookie deal. Miami has gone all in on Tagovailoa and is exhausting its resources to surround him with talent. Make-or-break seasons for 24-year-old quarterbacks typically aren’t as eventful as Tagovailoa’s is promoted to be. For the first time, he’s the unmitigated starter. As a rookie, he platooned with Ryan Fitzpatrick. In 2021, Deshaun Watson trade rumors swirled and kicked up into tornado winds at the trade deadline. The flirtation got so serious that a report from the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain (Yippee-Ki-Yay!) indicated that Roger Goodell’s placing of Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list is the only thing that stood between the Dolphins flushing three first-round picks down the toilet in a trade.
After that fell through, Tagovailoa was nearly backstabbed by a Machiavellian plot involving owner Stephen Ross to get Tom Brady to finish his career at 347 Don Shula Drive. Instead of watching Brady launch to Hill, Dolphins fans have to be a little bit crestfallen that they’re settling for Tagovailoa launching deep balls. But Tagovailoa should be more excited than ever.
The best-case scenario for Tagovailoa’s 2022 is that the preseason fun continues as Hill and McDaniels inspire a renaissance similar to the one Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and offensive guru Bill Walsh ignited in 1976.
Prior to Fouts’ fourth and pivotal year as a Chargers quarterback, he was middle of the road, turnover prone and a mechanically-flawed thrower. Then in the spring before the 1976 season, San Diego traded defensive end Coy Bacon to the Bengals for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Joiner. Fouts reached new heights in head coach Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” offense, but the real gem was Walsh — and Joiner who recorded the first of his many 1,000-yard seasons in 1976.
More contemporaneously, Stefon Diggs arrived in Buffalo at a time when the bar was low for Josh Allen. Allen had the opposite problem as Tagovailoa after his sophomore campaign. Allen could sling passes through a brick wall, but you couldn’t predict if his projectiles would ricochet off the turf first. During Allen’s second season, he threw for an average of 193.1 yards per game and fans counted consecutive 200-yard games as a celebratory milestone. His paltry numbers and 58.8 percent completion percentages nestled him somewhere between Blake Bortles and Blaine Gabbert’s second seasons.
Modern peers found their way before regressing. Jared Goff made the leap after a regime change. Baker Mayfield briefly showed signs of life in his second year. Perhaps Tagovailoa is destined to operate in the space between fringe starter and borderline star occupied by Goff, Mayfield and others. But if the Dolphins’ offense whimpers, it won’t be the rookie coach, Hill or Jaylen Waddle who get bounced. Tagovailoa’s blockbuster or bust season is upon us. His 2023 sequel hopes largely rest on the shoulders of his receivers, but if he can’t get the job done, Miami’s wandering quarterback eye will return.