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Tua Tagovailoa Is Playing Well, Which Is A Real Inconvenience If You’re The Dolphins

After taking quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, the Miami Dolphins appeared to have given up on the Alabama star this season. They signed capable spot starter Jacoby Brissett in the offseason, then seemed to bench Tagovailoa for Brissett going into Week 10. But the kicker was the extensive trade talks the Dolphins have reportedly held with the Houston Texans about quarterback Deshaun Watson. In fact, if Watson had settled some of his lawsuits prior to the trade deadline — he currently faces more than 20 lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct — he might already be the Dolphins’ starter.

But general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores, who might have been counting on Watson to save their jobs, have had their plans ruined (again): Tagovailoa is starting to play like a franchise quarterback.

Though he had recovered enough from a fractured middle finger to be listed as active against the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago, Tagovailoa didn’t get the start. But Brissett was knocked out of the game just after halftime, and Tagovailoa came in with the Dolphins holding a slim 6-3 lead. He completed 8 of 13 passes for 158 yards,1 widening the lead in the process, and put the exclamation point on a 22-10 upset.

There was no question who would start for the Dolphins against the New York Jets this past Sunday, and Tagovailoa took command from the opening 12-play, 83-yard touchdown drive. Though he threw an interception later in the first quarter, he was almost flawless in the second half — and broke his week-old personal long-completion record with a 65-yard touchdown pass to Mack Hollins:

Miami’s offensive coaching staff2 used tempo to keep the Jets defense off-balance and get Tagovailoa into a rhythm: quick resets when the game was close, and long clock burns when the Dolphins were leading late. Tua finished 27-of-33 passing on the day for 273 yards, two touchdowns and a 108.7 passer rating. 

His big day came just two years and five days after the hip dislocation and posterior-wall fracture that ended his college career. After beginning his pro career on the bench and suffering multiple injuries — a 2020 thumb injury, a rib fracture in Week 2 of this season and a middle finger fracture in Week 8 — Sunday was just his 15th career start.

Despite not having a full season’s worth of starts yet, Tagovailoa has made significant improvement from last year. This season, his completion rate, touchdown rate, average yards per attempt and per game, passer rating and sack rate are all improved. But he hasn’t just been better; he’s been good.

Through Week 11, Tua is in the top half of the league in several key performance and efficiency metrics. He’s ranked 10th in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating — ahead of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott. He’s seventh in completion rate, seventh in rate of off-target throws and 13th in expected points added per dropback.3

Though Total QBR and expected-points metrics take game situation into account, Tagovailoa’s numbers jump significantly in clutch time:

Tagovailoa has been key in the clutch

Metrics for Tua Tagovailoa by game period during the 2021 season

Completion PERCent
Quarter EPA/ Dropback Passer Rating Raw QBR Yards/ Dropback Above Avg. Adjusted
1st-3rd 0.09 86.6 53.3 6.12 0.4 67.1%
4th + OT 0.24 105.0 71.7 8.58 6.6 78.9
Diff. +0.15 +18.4 +18.4 +2.46 +6.2 +11.8

Through Week 11.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

In fourth quarters and overtimes this season, Tagovailoa is the eighth-highest-rated passer in the league. He’s also ninth in EPA per dropback, sixth in raw QBR, fifth in completion rate above expected,4 first in average yards per dropback and second in adjusted completion percentage.5

By just about any metric, Tagovailoa has been one of the most effective closers in the game.

But there’s plenty of room for growth. Though he’s been very accurate with his throws (especially late in the game), he’s also been extremely conservative. He’s averaging just 7.02 air yards per attempt this season, ranked 30th — and despite not throwing it very far downfield, he’s as prone to interceptions as you would expect for a quarterback who’s played in only 17 professional football games. Six picks against nine touchdowns gives him a TD-to-INT ratio of 1.5. That’s tied with Matt Ryan for 24th in the league and is just barely ahead of Jared Goff, Daniel Jones and Brissett.

To keep himself on the field, Tagovailoa will have to add more explosive plays to his game (like the 65-yarder to Hollins) while subtracting mistakes (like the first-quarter interception). But he already has demonstrated the accuracy, decision-making and clutch instincts of an above-average NFL starter.

The 4-7 Dolphins are heading into a three-game home stand during which FiveThirtyEight’s Elo-based predictions favor them over every opponent: the Carolina Panthers, New York Giants and the Jets again. If they take care of those three, they’ll need only a mild upset of the New Orleans Saints6 to get over .500. Plug all that into our scenario calculator, and Miami would head into its final two games with a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Dolphins entered November on a seven-game losing streak, with Flores fending off questions about his job status. Now they have a chance to go 7-0 from there. Even if things don’t go that well down the stretch, it’s quite likely that Flores and Grier keep their jobs — and unlikely they keep trying to get rid of the quarterback who saved them.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Including a then-career-long 64-yard completion.

  2. George Godsey and Eric Studesville serve as co-offensive coordinators, and quarterbacks coach Charlie Frye appears to have input into the play-calling, too. Flores has been coy about the exact breakdown of offensive coaching duties.

  3. Quarterback stats are among quarterbacks who average at least 14 passing attempts per team game.

  4. The difference between a quarterback’s completion percentage and what we would expect based on the difficulty of his pass attempts, according to NFL NextGen stats.

  5. Completion percentage weighted by air yards, with drops and throwaways excluded.

  6. Our model currently predicts a 44 percent likelihood of this happening, not taking into account whether the Dolphins win or lose those three intervening games.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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