Has Tua Tagovailoa shown the Miami Dolphins enough to build their future around him?

MIAMI — Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa stepped to the podium on Nov. 17, a few days after the Miami Dolphins’ win against the Baltimore Ravens — his first time leading them to victory since the season opener.

It was about two weeks after the Nov. 2 trade deadline; gone were the questions about the Dolphins’ faith in Tagovailoa and what he needed to prove. In their place came questions about the dance he showed off after rushing for the game-sealing touchdown.

He smiled at the questions, his typically clipped responses replaced by a demonstration of the “Smeeze” dance he said he learned from former Alabama teammate Najee Harris. At times this season, if Tagovailoa had gripped the lectern any tighter he would’ve left an imprint, but now he seemed more relaxed than he had been all year.

After the Ravens’ win, Miami fans were chanting Tagovailoa’s name.

“I hear it,” he said. “It makes me feel good but the fans can’t go in there and play for me. I’ve got to go out there and I’ve got to execute.”

He has continued to show progress and the Dolphins (7-7) are rolling, winners of six straight entering Monday’s matchup (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the New Orleans Saints. Despite the surge, Miami likely must win out at the Saints (7-7), at the Tennessee Titans (10-5) and vs. the New England Patriots (9-6) to have a shot at its first playoff bid since 2016.

Even with the question of their postseason fate back in play, there’s a bigger one looming this offseason — the same one Tagovailoa been hearing since his arrival in Miami: is he the guy?

Tagovailoa has 14 TD passes and eight interceptions this season and has missed four games and parts of two others because of rib and finger injuries. However, his efficient play has helped fuel Miami’s winning streak.

“He is a highly instinctive individual that is a very talented natural passer who has played some quality football,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said. “Not as consistent as you need him to, but in spurts. These next few games are going to be nice data points for them to help them make their decision.”

The Dolphins are projected to have the second-most cap space in the NFL (more than $73 million) this offseason and have three first-round picks over the next two drafts — ample resources to make a bold move for a new QB or build around Tagovailoa.

Trade winds

Miami’s interest in Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Pro Bowler with 22 active civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior looming against him, was easily the most talked about topic entering the season and for the first two months of it. As rumors swirled before the trade deadline, general manager Chris Grier decided against trading for Watson.

Grier made a rare media appearance to discuss the situation, offering firm, albeit less-than-glowing support of Tagovailoa.

“We’re very happy with Tua. We think he’s developing well,” Grier said on Nov. 3. “Coach Brian [Flores] has been very consistent in his message and we have been as well. [Tagovailoa is] working hard, he’s showing a lot of improvement and we think he’ll continue to develop and be the player we think he can be.”

Miami is unbeaten since the deadline and Tagovailoa has completed 74.5% of his passes for 1,101 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions over five games during the winning streak.

Entering Week 16, the completion percentage was the best in the league among quarterbacks who have played at least four games over that span; the yards and touchdowns rank 18th and 16th, respectively. The leader in the latter two categories? Los Angeles Chargers Pro Bowler Justin Herbert, who was selected at No. 6 in the 2020 draft — one pick after Miami took Tagovailoa.

As tempting as it is to compare the two, that conversation is moot, according to ESPN analyst Mina Kimes.

“It’s actually not even worth engaging with as an organization or a fan base,” Kimes said. “The question is, how does Tua compare to your other options? … Based on what I’ve seen, it seems pretty clear to me that what you’ve seen from Tua is superior to what you would get [in the 2022 draft].”

ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid projects three QBs to be drafted in the first round in 2022, but none in the top seven picks.

Positive signs

NFL teams don’t draft a quarterback in the first round — or the top 10 in particular — without believing he possesses elite traits. For Tagovailoa, those traits are accuracy and ball placement. He has completed a league-leading 69.9% of his passes this season, which has drawn praise from his pass-catchers.

“I mean his accuracy is great,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “I remember he hit me on a third down in a preseason game and he put it low and away where only I could go get it. It’s just those kinds of throws that he makes. Now you see it.

“He’s going to throw a very catchable ball and he’s going to make the job easy for his receivers. I love playing with him and a lot of guys are making plays because of where he’s putting the ball.”

Entering Week 16, Miami’s offense ranked 23rd overall and tied for 21st in scoring (20.4 points per game), but Tagovailoa has been efficient in running it — mostly because Flores and co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville have built it around his strengths.

The Dolphins have run play-action on 30% of their plays, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information. On those plays, Tagovailoa’s 71 QBR and 74% completion rate rank eighth and fifth, respectively, among qualified passers. They have also implemented more run-pass option plays, similar to what he ran at Alabama.

ESPN analyst Matt Bowen likened Tagovailoa’s ideal playing style to former Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

“Playing the position like Drew Brees would put Tua in position to be that efficient rhythm and timing thrower,” Bowen said. “One who can see it fast, read it quickly out of the pocket and deliver it with accuracy and location. … Most of their offense is really second-level throws, and what Tua has done well this season is he’s able to read the first, second and third [reads] with speed and take the throws that are available.

“You have to scheme your offense around the throwing traits of your quarterback, and that’s what he is.”

The Dolphins are also scheming around some of their offensive deficiencies.

Entering Week 16, Miami ranked last in pass block win rate, per NFL Next Gen Stats, but remedied this by drawing up plays for Tagovailoa to get rid of the ball quickly — he owns the third-fastest average time to throw in the NFL at 2.51 seconds.

“[That is] the way to overcome this Achilles’ heel of waiting for this offensive line to develop,” Reid said. “But also at Alabama, that’s what he thrived in, as far as getting the ball out of his hands quickly, and also ball placement.”

Tagovailoa is one of the most efficient passers in the league when he gets the ball out within 2.5 seconds; his 74.5 QBR in such situations is third-best in the NFL and he owns a 9:1 touchdown to interception ratio. On throws that take him longer than 2.5 seconds, however, his QBR drops to 62.8 and his touchdown to interception ratio to 5-7.

It’s the key reason he averages 6.88 air yards per attempt, the fourth-fewest among qualified passers. Based on the protection he is afforded, it’s a necessary evil.

“It’s pretty obvious, everyone in Miami knows you have to do everything possible to fix the offensive line,” Kimes said, suggesting the team address the need in free agency. “There are quarterbacks, by the way, that play behind bad offensive lines but you can see that they don’t have it anyways. That’s not Tua — in fact, I think it’s really impressive that he’s shown improvement despite his offensive line getting worse from year one to year two.”

If fixing the offensive line is atop Miami’s to-do list this offseason, Reid said surrounding Tagovailoa with weapons is a close second.

Grier signed wide receiver Will Fuller to a one-year, $10.6 million contract this offseason and drafted Tagovailoa’s former college teammate Jaylen Waddle No. 6 overall in the 2021 draft to revamp the wide receiver corps. Ultimately, the quartet of Tagovailoa, Fuller, Waddle and DeVante Parker didn’t play a single snap together.

Miami also ranks 28th in rushing (86.6 yards per game).

“I want to see them improve the pieces around him before I judge him,” Reid said of Tagovailoa. “I know Grier is stingy with taking running backs early, before day three [of the draft], but I think they need to get one. Even going back to Alabama, Tua needed a strong running game behind him.”

Can he take over a game?

Asked if he had any concerns about Tagovailoa’s game, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky mentioned health and arm strength.

“I wouldn’t panic at the position but I think that if [the Dolphins] were going to, those would be the reasons,” Orlovsky said.

To Orlovsky’s point, Tagovailoa has completed four passes that traveled at least 30 air yards (tied for 22nd), and though he has been efficient during the winning streak, Miami’s 31-24 victory in Week 15 against the New York Jets (3-11) teetered on occurring in spite of Tagovailoa’s play rather than because of it.

He completed 16 of 27 (59%) for 196 yards and two touchdowns, but threw two costly interceptions. The second, a pick-six midway through the fourth quarter, tied the score at 24.

But he made plays when necessary, including a crowd-pleasing 9-yard run when he lowered his shoulder into Jets cornerback Michael Carter.

“Tua didn’t have his best game by a long shot, but when he needed to make some timely throws, he did,” Riddick said. “When he needed to run, he ran. And he made some throws that were great in terms of touch and ball placement. … You see that he is growing within the team context, in terms of his confidence, his comfort, his execution.

“Is it to a point where you feel like he’s an upper-echelon franchise quarterback? No. But would you really expect it to be … relative to what he has surrounding him and where he is in his development? No.”

Where is the next step in his development?

“The question surrounding Tua is, can he be in a position, in a high-level game, to take over the game as a thrower?” Bowen said. “And we don’t know that yet, that’s something I want to see. … Because the top players can.”

There’s a ripe opportunity approaching.

Miami’s three remaining games are against teams that rank in the top 10 in defensive expected points added since the Dolphins’ winning streak began in Week 9. An exemplary, not just efficient, winning performance from Tagovailoa in any of those matchups would stand out as the strongest game of his career to date.

But as Kimes puts it, very few NFL teams win games because of their quarterback — think, Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes), Tampa Bay (Tom Brady) and Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers). Plenty, however, have quarterbacks who help their team win.

In her opinion, Tagovailoa has earned another year to show which category he belongs in.

“It’s not a difficult decision right now — it’s only going to be a difficult decision in 2023, but by then, ideally, you’ll have a lot more information,” she said. “Tua has shown you that his floor is pretty high, I think. The question now is where is his ceiling? I can say I don’t think it’s as high as Justin Herbert’s, but I can also say I don’t think we know where it is based on these past two seasons.

“As an organization, ‘Tua or not Tua’ is really not the question right now. The question is, how do we improve this football team so that we can evaluate Tua, and that if we decide to move on from him, we’re setting up the next quarterback to succeed.”

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