Sports

How Is Tua Tagovailoa Having a Season This Good?

Tua Tagovailoa is on pace to have the greatest season in history by a quarterback who received very little credit for it.

Tagovailoa leads the N.F.L. in passing yards gained per attempt with 9.0, touchdown rate at 6.7 percent and efficiency rating at 115.7. He ranks second in completion rate at 69.7 percent and has the league’s third-lowest interception rate at 1.1 percent.

He likely would be among the league leaders in raw statistical categories like touchdowns and passing yards had he not missed two and a half games with a concussion. The Miami Dolphins are 8-1 in Tagovailoa’s starts, including wins over the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens, two top A.F.C. contenders.

Tagovailoa’s 2022 season so far hasn’t just been outstanding, but downright historic: Per Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (D.V.O.A.) metric, Tagovailoa is on pace for the fifth-best passing season in the last 40 years. Only Tom Brady in 2007, Peyton Manning in 2004 and 2006, and Dan Marino in 1984 have been more efficient on a per-throw basis than Tagovailoa has been this year.

While Tagovailoa’s statistical accomplishments thus far have been undeniable, some skeptics still consider the receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to be the true drivetrain of the Dolphins’ offense, with Tagovailoa regarded as little more than a hood ornament. That skepticism stems from Tagovailoa’s physical traits, his early career struggles and some overzealous boosterism by the Dolphins’ organization in the off-season.

When it comes to pure arm strength, Tagovailoa, a rare left-handed quarterback, appears to rate somewhere between a quality N.F.L. backup and an assistant coach in early middle age. His deep passes often float like soap bubbles, forcing receivers to throttle down and wait for their arrival.

The Dolphins concealed his shortcomings in his first two seasons with a steady diet of carefully scripted short throws, but Tagovailoa often fumbled or flung the ball straight at defenders when pressured. Brian Flores, the team’s previous head coach, yanked him from the lineup a few times. Tagovailoa, the 2018 Heisman Trophy runner-up and the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft out of Alabama, was on the verge of becoming a bust.

Not much about what happened next signaled the season Tagovailoa is having. In February, Mike McDaniel, the former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator who helped build the self-driving passing game that Jimmy Garoppolo often pilots to the playoffs, replaced Flores.

When Hill arrived from Kansas City in a blockbuster trade in March, it was widely assumed that McDaniel planned to use Hill and Waddle (Tagovailoa’s college teammate who had an impressive rookie season after being the No. 6 overall pick in 2021) as a courier service to deliver Tagovailoa’s micropasses downfield on foot.

Suspicions about Tagovailoa’s future mounted as the Dolphins organization heaped a little too much praise on their embattled young quarterback throughout the off-season. Tagovailoa could barely toss his socks in a laundry hamper during minicamp without the team posting a video of the throw and McDaniel offering a testimonial about its accuracy and velocity. Hill called Tagovailoa “the most accurate QB in the N.F.L.,” praise which, at the time, read more as an attempt to slight Patrick Mahomes than legitimate observation.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins signed the veteran Teddy Bridgewater as the sort of premium insurance policy a team rarely invests in when it’s truly committed to a young quarterback.

By the end of training camp, the Tagovailoa-led Dolphins were poised to flop like an overhyped summer blockbuster. Once the season began, however, it became clear that Hill, Waddle and McDaniel were accentuating Tagovailoa’s strengths rather than covering up his weaknesses.

Hill, who leads the N.F.L. with 87 receptions and 1,233 yards, is the league’s most elusive receiver. Waddle, fifth in the N.F.L. with 963 yards on 56 receptions, would be the fastest receiver on any team that did not employ Hill. No team has enough talent in their secondary to cover both of them, so opponents rarely blitz and invariably align their safeties deep to prevent quick-strike touchdowns.

With defenses constantly on their heels, Tagovailoa has plenty of time to throw and lots of open space for intermediate passes. Per Pro Football Reference, Tagovailoa’s average intended pass is 9.1 yards downfield, the second-highest figure in the N.F.L., and he is pressured on only 19.2 percent of his attempts, 24th in the league. Instead of a glorified handoff machine, Tagovailoa has been a more consistent downfield passer than Mahomes or Josh Allen of the Bills.

Tagovailoa uses shoulder fakes to feint defenders out of position and rarely looks to his intended receiver until it’s time to throw. A quick release and a deft touch compensate for his lack of a big-league fastball, and he lofts just enough deep bombs to Hill and Waddle to keep defenders wary. Reduced pressure and increased experience have also resulted in fewer mistakes: Tagovailoa has not thrown an interception or lost a fumble in his last five games.

Fans and analysts are now warming to Tagovailoa. He’s third among quarterbacks in early Pro Bowl balloting, behind Mahomes and Allen. He is also getting +500 odds for the Most Valuable Player Award, behind only Mahomes (-160) and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts (+350).

Tagovailoa may still be forced to share top billing with his receivers, but that’s a welcome change in perspective. His share in the Dolphins’ success means he’s no longer treated like some lip-syncing pop idol, and his receivers’ capabilities prevent the lone-hero narrative that congeals around so many of his quarterback peers.

Neither Drew Brees nor Joe Montana had superlative arm strength. All successful quarterbacks benefit from quality receivers and well-tailored schemes. Tagovailoa is only unique because his skeptics grew so insistent, the changes the Dolphins made around him were so drastic, and his turnaround was so sudden and dramatic.

His success illustrates that nurture is at least as important as nature to a quarterback’s success.

Tagovailoa will inevitably underthrow Hill or Waddle for an interception again this season, and his hecklers will re-emerge to decry him as a noodle-armed fraud. Until defenses find a way to stop the Dolphins’ three-man offensive power, however, focusing on how far Tagovailoa can throw is entirely missing the bigger picture.

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