Greg Cote: The burden on Tua as Dolphins open at Patriots? Lift a team, a franchise and a city. Now.

By Greg Cote

MIAMI — With the Miami Dolphins’ season opener at New England on Sunday we begin to step into an AFC East we haven’t seen since 1985. No current Dolphins player was alive then. Coach Brian Flores was a 4-year-old toddling around Brooklyn.

This year, for the first time since then, four starting quarterbacks in one division are under the age of 26 to open a season, with the Fins’ Tua Tagovailoa at 23 and Pats rookie Mac Jones also 23, along with the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen at 25 and New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson at 22.

Last time four starting QBs were under 26 in any NFL division in Week 1 was the AFC East in ‘85. Then it was some 23-year-old guy named Dan Marino in Miami, along with the Pats’ Tony Eason at 25, Jets’ Ken O’Brien at 24 and Colts’ Art Schlichter at 25. (Some divisions including Miami’s were five teams then, before realignment. The Bills’ starter that year, Vince Ferragamo, was 31).

This is notable now in a way it wasn’t then because, now, passing rules the NFL. The quarterback is king. And as if we required more evidence, Tom Brady and Dak Prescott on Thursday night combined to complete 74 of 108 passes for 782 yards and seven touchdowns. The running backs were hood ornaments, largely unnecessary.

My point in all of this?

For Miami to become a power in its division and ultimately a championship contender, Tagovailoa must prove good enough to be as good or better than Allen, Jones and Wilson. Six of 17 games each season (35%) will be head-to-head against his instant rivals. And it could be thus for the next 10-plus years.

Tagovailoa must prove that, on the franchise-steering night of April 23, 2020, the Dolphins made the right choice in drafting him fifth overall — one spot ahead of the Chargers selecting Justin Herbert.

The proving starts late Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, Mass.

And the proof must come in 2021, and it must be unequivocal.

“Year 2ua” must see marked improvement over the rookie version. It must show better, faster decision-making, accuracy, decisiveness, leadership — all of it.

“Year2ua” must see this quarterback lead his team into the playoffs, period.

For all of that pressure, Flores wants his QB to have fun Sunday.

“Have fun playing this game that he loves to play,” said the coach this week. “Nobody talks about that, but that’s part of this, too.”

Tagovailoa says he feels “more excitement this year than last year. Last year when I had my opportunity there were more butterflies just because I didn’t know how things were going to hold up coming off my hip injury and whatnot.”

There were so many excuses available to Tagovailoa last year, all valid to a degree — but all gone now.

He was a rookie coming off major hip surgery. Because of the pandemic he didn’t have a normal offseason. He had no preseason. He had limited comfort with the new offense. And it showed, with uneven results, and twice being benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Now he is fully healthy and comfortable with the playbook. He was gifted a first-round receiver, Jaylen Waddle, who he knows from their Alabama days — that alone a demonstration that Flores and general manager Chris Grier understand they must give Tagovailoa every chance to succeed.

No excuses left. Starting left tackle Austin Jackson on the COVID list and missing the opener? No excuse. This is a 10-win team returning. No excuses left, and also a finite time for Tagovailoa to show his ceiling in a way he did not as a rookie.

The Dolphins spun wheels with Ryan Tannehill for seven years of good but not good enough.

Can’t do that again. Not if Josh Allen continues as Pro Bowl-good as he showed last season. Not if Mac Jones or Zach Wilson (or both) show the instant-star potential that Herbert did as a rookie.

The pressure is plainly greatest on Tagovailoa in the division. Allen has proven himself and lifted Buffalo to division-favorite status and himself into league MVP chatter. Jones and Wilson get the slack and patience any QB does his rookie year. Tagovailoa has neither. Not the proof. And not the slack.

We just had an offseason of speculation in Miami regarding Deshaun Watson, with reports the Dolphins were interested in a trade as recently as a couple of weeks ago. There were even rumors around Aaron Rodgers and Miami before he reupped with Green Bay for one more season.

The Watson talk will surely renew itself after this season if he is clear of his legal mess — unless Tagovailoa shuts it all up with his performance over the next four months.

Just as some fans surely will wonder if the Dolphins should draft another QB next spring — unless Tagovailoa renders such talk absurd starting Sunday.

It isn’t all on the quarterback, of course. Coaching matters and Flores (2-2 vs. mentor Bill Belichick) looks like the real deal. Defense, offensive line — everything matters.

But not like the right quarterback does.

Not even close.

The burden on Miami’s young quarterback is the unfortunate inheritance of some 20 years of irrelevance for a franchise that once set the perfect standard in the NFL. The burden is the ghost of Marino, and two decades of kneeling before Brady and Belichick.

The burden is heavy.

Tua Tagovailoa has no choice but to lift everything.

That burden. A city. A franchise. A million starving fans.

We will watch with relentless attention to measure whether this young man has the strength to carry a team.

The heavy lifting starts now.


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