From top to bottom, Dolphins invest in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for 2021 season
MIAMI — When Dolphins general manager Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores met with the media in early January, days after a disappointing Week 17 loss to the Buffalo Bills that dashed their playoff hopes, the two were publicly lockstep in their perception of Tua Tagovailoa.
“He’s our starting quarterback,” Grier said of the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft who endured an inconsistent rookie year in which he finished 6-3 as a starter but was benched twice for since-departed Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Despite the speculation, questions and criticism that followed Tagovailoa and the Dolphins over the next several months, Grier and the Dolphins’ front office reaffirmed their support for Tua.
Whether or not the Dolphins can build on a surprising 10-6 finish last season, the growth — or lack thereof — of Tagovailoa will be at the center of discussion in 2021.
From top to bottom, Dolphins brass went to lengths this past offseason to surround Tagovailoa with requisite pieces for a successful sophomore season.
The process seemingly started in early January with the decision to part ways with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who had a strong relationship with Fitzpatrick and later revealed his surprise that Flores turned to Tagovailoa midseason.
In late January, the Dolphins hired Charlie Frye, who has a connection with Tagovailoa dating to his high school days, as the team’s quarterbacks coach. Frye coached Tagovailoa at the Elite 11 competition for top high school quarterbacks.
“I thought he had a quick release and he was accurate with the ball. I loved his demeanor,” Frye said. “I loved how he interacted with the guys on this team and just how thirsty he was to learn. … I see a lot of the same things — a more mature quarterback that’s been through and had experiences but he still has the same quick release and accuracy and the way he interacts with his teammates. Those things I think all add value to playing this position.”
Two weeks later, the team made George Godsey and Eric Studesville co-offensive coordinators, instituting a dynamic uncommon to the NFL but not to Tagovailoa. He experienced a similar situation at Alabama, when Josh Gattis and Mike Locksley held the title of co-offensive coordinators, but it was Locksley communicating with the quarterbacks.
Although the team has refused to disclose who is calling the plays between Godsey, who coaches tight ends, and Studesville, who oversees running backs, it’s Frye who relays the final play call to Tagovailoa.
Flores said the thinking is that it makes sense to place those responsibilities in the hands of Frye, who has the most communication with the quarterbacks on a day-to-day basis.
The Dolphins’ pursuit of providing Tagovailoa with more assistance didn’t stop with its coaching staff, however. After a series of pre-draft trades that resulted in the team moving back from the third pick to No. 6 overall, it selected wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting the two former Alabama teammates.
The team’s draft class also included Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg — whom the team traded up to select — and Boston College tight end Hunter Long. And the signing of wide receiver Will Fuller V, along with the return of Albert Wilson, who opted out of the 2020 season for COVID-19 concerns, has the team optimistic it will have a more explosive unit in 2021.
Tagovailoa stayed in South Florida for the duration of the offseason to train and through the team’s offseason workout program and training camp, teammates have seen a quarterback who is a bit more seasoned, confident and — perhaps, most importantly — healthy.
Tagovailoa said the hip that he dislocated and fractured in 2019 while at Alabama “feels 10 times better than it did last year” and is no longer hindering him like it did at times as a rookie. And he’s been forthcoming on some of the shortcomings last season that led to uneven play.
“I’d say in every aspect — getting to the line of scrimmage, getting that order of operation down, my cadence, pre-snap reads, my post-snap reads,” Tagovailoa said of his rookie struggles. “Just the whole shebang with that. I felt I wasn’t comfortable during my rookie year. So I’m just working on a lot of those things in Year 2 to be better.”
Even with many of his top receivers limited in training because of injury, Tagovailoa has impressed and the offense has provided glimpses of what it should look like at full health. He’s been more aggressive — for better and for worse — but has also excelled with run-pass options, or RPOs, a staple of the offense in Alabama where he set the school’s single-season record for passing touchdowns.
Matt Bowen, an NFL analyst for ESPN, said the Dolphins’ offense under Gailey was “more built for Ryan Fitzpatrick in terms of what they wanted to do with their pro-style route concepts.”
Bowen, who played as a defensive back in the NFL for seven seasons, said he expects the team to make use of Tagovailoa’s ability to read defenses quickly, blend in RPOs and then take shots downfield. He noted that Waddle will play a big role in the offense as a rookie, influencing defenses with his speed and the ability to get the ball in a number of ways.
“The one thing that you want to see with Tua is his ability to drive the football,” Bowen said in a phone interview. “You can go back to the tape from Alabama before the hip injury, compare it to the tape last year and I don’t think he drove the ball with the same velocity last year. Again, he was still rehabbing from an injury, which I completely understand. So, that’s something you want to look at this year.”
Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst, said he believes the Dolphins would benefit from placing Tagovailoa in an offensive scheme similar to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018, which featured a ton of YAC, yards after catch.
“It was all about Patrick [Mahomes] catch and throw, catch and throw, catch and throw,” he said on a conference call. “And I believe that’s something that Tua excels at. Catch and throw. Having a very good understanding of what’s happening before the snap. And it’s about eliminating options. … These guys are options, and I have the ability to cross three of them off before the ball ever snaps. Well then I’m playing super fast.
“Through the first two weeks [of preseason], I think Tua looks like Chris Paul running the pick-and-roll or Steve Nash running the pick-and-roll. Very much so in the control aspect, delivering the right ball at the right time with the right guy, given what he’s receiving.”
The focus all summer has been on the progression of Tagovailoa, but his teammates and coaches have been quick to redirect aim at the entire team. There’s a young offensive line that has struggled at times in training camp and will need to be better for Tagovailoa. An already injury-riddled, but talented, receiving corps that will have to capture a connection with him. And a defense that might not need to replicate its performance from 2020 may need to be just as reliable for the inevitable growing pains of a young signal-caller.
Labeled a rebuild for the first two years under Flores, such talk may be gone in Miami Gardens come September. There’s the realization that the Dolphins have quickly assembled a respectable roster. And the understanding that the ceiling of that roster largely hinges on the left arm of Tagovailoa.
“I think if you look at his past career, dating all the way back to college, I think he’s been put in big positions and made plays,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “He’s dealt with adversity, whether it’s injury or whatever it may be. He’s fought back from that and he’s also dealt with people saying stupid, uneducated stuff about him that they’re not right about. So he’s dealing with that, and he’s continuing to work and continuing to come in here each and every day, and I’m happy that he’s our quarterback.”