The Miami Dolphins entered Week 16 in a position the team probably didn't expect to be in back in September. Get a win in Las Vegas and in Week 17 in Buffalo, and one of the three wild-card spots in the AFC would be theirs.
Well, the Dolphins accomplished the first of the goals compliments of a wild, last-second 26-25 win over the Raiders. But the way that miracle win went down left the Dolphins facing a tricky decision next week against the Bills—and potentially beyond that into the postseason.
Does Brian Flores turn to the future of the franchise under center in a must-win game by rolling out rookie Tua Tagovailoa? Or does he turn back the clock and go with the quarterback who appears to give Miami the best chance to win now and trot out the Bearded One in veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Tagovailoa drew the start for the Dolphins in Week 16, just as he had every week in which he was healthy since the Dolphins came out of the bye in Week 8. Tagovailoa hadn't exactly lit it up in his seven starts before Saturday's game, averaging 192.9 passing yards a game. But Tagovailoa had nine touchdown throws against just two interceptions, posted a passer rating of over 90 and won five of those seven games.
But against a Raiders defense that entered the week 26th in the league against the pass, Tagovailoa just couldn't get anything going through the air. He completed 17-of-22 passes, but threw for just 94 yards.
That's 4.3 yards per attempt, which is … not good.
With the Dolphins trailing in the fourth quarter, Flores made a call to the bullpen, re-inserting Fitzpatrick at quarterback. The 38-year-old had better per-game yardage stats than Tagovailoa in his seven starts (mostly at the beginning of the season) in 2020, but the king of the journeymen quarterbacks threw seven interceptions and went just 4-3 as the starter.
Once Fitzpatrick entered the game, the Miami passing attack suddenly sprang to life. In less than a quarter, Fitzpatrick threw for 182 yards and a touchdown with a passer rating of 137.5. Per ESPN Stats and Info, it tied for the most productive fourth quarter of Fitzpatrick's 16-year career.
Oh, and Fitzpatrick connected with Mack "Who?" Hollins on this prayer of a pass (while being facemasked, no less) to set up Jason Sanders' game-winning kick.
It was "Fitzmagic" at its finest. A Christmas miracle one day late. But after the partying dies down in the Miami locker room, Flores and the coaching staff now face a lulu of a decision.
When the Dolphins turned to Tagovailoa after the bye, there were a few quizzical looks, but nothing major. Sure, Fitzpatrick was playing relatively well and the Dolphins were surprisingly competitive. But no one was going to argue that Fitz was anything more than a temporary fix. A Band-Aid, A stopgap. Tagovailoa was the future—the wildly athletic young southpaw the Dolphins had just drafted fifth overall.
That changing of the guard hit a snag in Denver in Week 11, when Tagovailoa struggled in a loss to the Broncos. Just as on Saturday, Fitzpatrick relieved Tagovailoa in that game. But at the time, Head coach Brian Flores insisted that Tagovailoa's benching was temporary. Per Steve Wyche of the NFL Network, Flores said yet again after Saturday's win that Tagovailoa remains the team's starting quarterback.
However, he also intimated that just because Tua will start against the Bills doesn't mean he will finish the game.
"If we need to go to a relief pitcher in the 9th," Flores told reporters after the game, "it's what we'll do."
As great a job as Flores has done running the Dolphins this season (and he's absolutely in the mix for Coach of the Year) this is one instance where his course of action is one he could live to regret.
Before we go any farther, there has been nothing to indicate that either of these quarterbacks mind how things have played out to this point in the season. Fitzpatrick has made it clear all along that he accepts that his role now is as much mentor as quarterback.
"I think I have had such a great career in terms of the people that I've met and the people that have helped me out along the way," Fitzpatrick said in October while appearing on Adam Schefter's podcast. "And I just view it as paying it forward a little bit. And I've made enough mistakes for plenty of quarterbacks combined with the things that I've been through and done. And to be able to share those experiences—the good and the bad—with some of these younger guys, if I could be a smart part of helping them in their career and making them a better player, then that makes it worth it for me."
And even after Fitzpatrick entered the game, he could be seen speaking with Tagovailoa on the sideline reviewing plays between offensive series.
But Flores needs to decide—now—what matters more to these Dolphins. Is it winning in Week 17? Moving on to the playoffs? Maybe even pulling off an upset in the Wild Card round? Or is it developing Tagovailoa for a future that (after the 2020 season) probably won't include Fitzpatrick, who will be hitting free agency?
If the future is the priority, then that's fine. Here's the cold, hard truth—this Dolphins team might win a playoff game, but they aren't peeling off three wins in a row on the road in the postseason. Miami is better than anyone expected in 2020, but the team isn't a Super Bowl contender. Not yet.
But if Flores wants to milk every last drop he can out of 2020, then Fitzpatrick is the guy. It's not a knock on Tua. He's a rookie learning the ropes. It's OK to struggle some early reading coverages. To have reservations about pushing the ball vertically.
But Tua is having issues with finding the open guy, and tossing five yard passes all game long isn't getting you far against a good opponent—or even a mediocre one. The Miami offense looked light-years better in Week 16 with Fitzpatrick under center. He's better equipped to cope with Miami's injuries at wideout. And there's a "spark" when Fitzpatrick is out there. You can tell that his receivers have absolute confidence that the vet can throw them open.
What Flores doesn't want to do is make a habit of starting and then yanking Tagovailoa. Waiting for your young quarterback to dig a hole so you can ding his confidence by pulling him before he can dig out of it isn't a winning strategy. You either believe in the rookie—or you don't.
Make the call. One way or another. And ride it out.
Frankly, for one more week this could be moot. The Bills could easily be in a position with nothing to play for in Week 17. If Buffalo rests its starters, Tagovailoa's mission in Week 17 will be that much easier.
But that doesn't change the fact that Flores needs to pick a lane. Decide what matters more: now or later.
Because if the quarterback carousel continues, whatever success Miami has in the 2020 playoffs could come at the long-term expense of the most important position on the field.
And it would be incredibly unfortunate to see the Dolphins squander some of the remarkable momentum the franchise has built since beginning their rebuild in 2019.