Playoff Payoff for Miami? Bold Switch to Tua Is Dolphins' Latest Shrewd Move

Kalyn KahlerContributor INovember 12, 2020

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) during an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

After just five meaningless snaps of action in a Week 6 blowout win against the New York Jets, rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was named the starter by the Dolphins. Miami was 3-3 and had just won two games in a row with veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a player who had the full support of the coaching staff and who had rallied his teammates as an energetic leader. 

So naturally, the doubters came out. Anyone who prefers the known quantity didn't like the move, as well as the NFL majority who subscribe to the idea that rookie quarterbacks need time to develop and learn from a veteran starter. 

One pro scout told Bleacher Report the week of the announcement, "If you have Fitzmagic and you are doing something, I have never been a fan of changing the sails when you are able to still function." 

Fitzpatrick was stunned by the move, saying he had no idea he may have played his last NFL game. A source in Miami says the rest of the players and coaching staff, aside from head coach Brian Flores, were just as surprised. They expected Tagovailoa would eventually play, but not when the team was 3-3 at its bye and second in the division with a quarterback who was playing well. 

"I thought it felt predetermined, like there was a timeline they believed in," says one NFL coordinator. "Because Fitzpatrick was playing really good football and lifting that team up with his leadership and energy." 

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Flores' press conference explanation was brief: "We just felt like it was the best move for the team right now."

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Since that decision, Miami has won two in a row with Tagovailoa, proving that the young quarterback might be just what it needs right now in a second-half playoff push. If he succeeds, the Dolphins' sudden switch to their rookie quarterback will be a highlight in a remarkable tale of maybe-tanking.

In his Week 8 starting debut against a scary Los Angeles Rams defense, Tagovailoa didn't move the needle much one way or the other. He passed for 93 yards and one touchdown and completed 54.6 percent of his passes. He didn't have to be great in that game because Miami's defense held the Rams to 17 points, picking off Jared Goff twice and scoring a touchdown on a fumble return. Special teams contributed a punt-return touchdown.

Miami simplified the playbook for the rookie, and the Rams defense used multiple rush packages and disguises to force Tagovailoa to see various coverages. He didn't look panicked, but he played small against L.A. and didn't flash his athleticism. 

But when faced with last Sunday's challenge of keeping up with an explosive Cardinals offense led by Kyler Murray, another young quarterback on the rise, Tagovailoa responded in a big way. Yes, it was against a lesser Cardinals defense, but one that challenged Russell Wilson the week prior, intercepting him three times in an Arizona victory. 

Tagovailoa passed for 248 yards and two touchdowns with a 71.4 completion percentage. Down 31-24 when the fourth quarter began, the rookie led a 93-yard drive to tie it up. He was 5-of-5 for 53 yards and had 23 rushing yards on two carries during the drive.

Just a year ago, the Dolphins were supposedly tanking for Tua. They traded away three starters to stock up high draft picks and got off to an 0-7 start in Flores' first season. 

Part of that "Tank for Tua" rallying cry holds true. They got Tua. But now, with a 5-3 record that's good for second in the AFC East and a spot inside the current playoff picture, is it possible Miami was never actually tanking? 

Tanking is a loaded term because it implies the organization is trying to lose on purpose, something that shakes NFL people, and any competitive person, to the core. When it comes to tanking as part of a multiyear rebuild, management may want one thing, and coaching may want another. 

"I didn't think they were tanking at all," says one team executive. "There are usually a lot of layers to those [trades], and they are rarely simple. … Miami is extremely well-coached, and they have an outstanding leader in Brian Flores. They have done a good job in creating an identity and a culture and finding the players who fit what they are looking for." 

Multiple NFL sources pointed to Flores' leadership and coaching as the reason for the Dolphins' surprising turnaround, and several sources interviewed for this story aren't surprised Miami is back in the playoff picture for the first time since 2016.

"I thought they had a chance to compete for that division this year," says the executive. 

After the victory in Glendale, Tagovailoa gave Flores the game ball. He told reporters it was a way to say to his coach, "Thank you for taking a chance on me."

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

There were no signs of the serious hip injury Tagovailoa sustained a year ago at Alabama on his 17-yard scramble through the Cardinals defense. He showed speed and agility and smoked several Cardinals defenders on his way to a crucial gain. 

Miami has a talented defense, but coaches there know the current rate of forcing takeaways (14, tied for fourth in the league and good for a plus-five turnover margin) isn't sustainable week-to-week.  The Dolphins are allowing 20.1 points per game, tied for fourth in the NFL. 

"Flores can evaluate talent," the coordinator says. "That defense looks like New England. They have cover guys and linebackers and big defensive linemen. Now they just need an offense, which is what is coming next." 

Miami has two first-round picks and two second-round picks in 2021, a result of their maybe-tanking trades last season. Flores shut down the notion that playing Tagovailoa for the second half is an audition to see if he is the quarterback of the future, but seeing more of him this season will give the coaches and front office insight on what types of players they need to keep building next year. 

"They certainly are set up to be a young and talented team provided they make the right picks and decisions moving forward," says the executive. "It's very dependent on the QB, like every team. If he stays healthy and plays well, then they have a chance to have a window of success." 

The window of success is officially open, and with Tagovailoa at the helm, Miami has a shot to turn around this "tank" in record time. 

       

Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings: @KalynKahler.