Miami Dolphins’ quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has not played poorly in his NFL career. He’s got a 10-7 record as a starter and, believe it or not, he recorded the 10th-highest passer rating for a qualified rookie quarterback since 2000 last year. Despite those numbers though, when compared to the two quarterbacks he was sandwiched between in the 2020 NFL draft, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, Tua often gets referred to as a bust.
If I’m being honest, I personally was too quick to judge Tua’s career. I thought the Dolphins were idiotic to let him start over Ryan Fitzpatrick last season and his accuracy, one of his biggest strengths as a passer in college, was atrocious. While Tua did complete 64.1 percent of his passes last season, only 54.5 percent of his passes were deemed accurate, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s nearly 4 percent lower than the NFL average last season.
Even more worrisome, nearly 5 percent of passes that were not intentionally off-target (i.e.: about to be sacked so he throws at his RB’s feet to avoid losing yardage, throwing the ball away under pressure) were deemed uncatchable. On throws 10-19 yards downfield, Tagovailoa completed just 54 percent of his passes — the third-lowest mark in the NFL last season. The only two quarterbacks to post lower marks in that range were Dwayne Haskins and Nick Foles. That’s not the company you want to be in. However, in 2021, Tua has greatly increased his efficiency, so much so that he’s arguably the most accurate passer in the NFL.
Let’s just get the obvious stuff out of the way. It clearly has a lot to do with the game plan. Miami’s offense has involved several more short throws and designed quick passes/half-field reads designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands early. When Miami drafted Jaylen Waddle and signed Will Fuller in the offseason, it was clear that the Dolphins were going to attempt this. Giving a quarterback great outside playmakers allows for quicker throws. Perhaps that’s why Tom Brady, who has one of the best receiving corps in the NFL, has one of the quickest times to throw in the league (2.5 seconds — second in the NFL). Tua ranks third. However, Tua hasn’t been bad with the deep ball either.
Tua has completed over 50 percent of his passes more than 20 yards downfield this season. His 52.9 percent mark is second in the league behind only Kyler Murray. While Tagovailoa doesn’t throw the ball downfield very often (7.2 percent — third-lowest rate in NFL), he’s not inaccurate when he does so.
The best statistic to look at when really trying to determine how accurate a quarterback is is Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE). It’s a stat that takes factors like tightness of windows and average depth of target (ADoT) into account to measure how many passes a quarterback should’ve completed and compare it to how many he actually did. In 2021, Tagovailoa (4.8) ranks fourth of 36 qualified quarterbacks — behind only Aaron Rodgers (5.1), Joe Burrow (5.5), and Kyler Murray (7.2). The kicker? In an offense that routinely asks the quarterback to make short throws and quick reads, you’d expect the quarterback’s CPOE to be very low since those throws are much easier to complete. However, Tua breaks that trend entirely. The other three quarterbacks I listed rank 10th, 11th, and seventh in the NFL respectively in Intended Air Yards per Pass Attempt (IAY/PA), meaning they throw the ball deep pretty often. Tua ranks 31st.
Say what you will about his lack of explosiveness or his inability to push the ball downfield, but Tagovailoa is an accurate passer. Last I checked, that’s something that’s pretty highly touted when evaluating quarterbacks. Maybe the Dolphins should let him start throwing deep more often. He’s got the weapons, now let him ride.