Schad: Don't draft Tua Tagovailoa's replacement, Dolphins, build around him

Joe Schad
Palm Beach Post
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa runs against the Bills defense during the second quarter of Sunday's game.

Tua Tagovailoa's rookie season was not dazzling, eye-popping or breathtaking.

But no, the Dolphins should not move to draft his replacement.

Tagovailoa was unimpressive in Miami's 56-26 loss at Buffalo, with a playoff berth on the line. There were three interceptions and only one late touchdown.

"They can communicate things last minute and do things to try to confuse you," Tagovailoa said of the Bills, when the trouncing was over.

Tagovailoa did some encouraging things over the course of his first nine professional starts. Mostly, what he did not do, such as complete deep passes, is cause for concern.

But for the Dolphins, this is absolutely not the time to panic. Even though they hold the third pick in the next NFL Draft, and quarterbacks Justin Fields of Ohio State and Zach Wilson of BYU will be hotly-debated, a Miami trade down is more strategic.

"There’s a lot of things here and that includes Tua," Miami coach Brian Flores said. "He’s got to play better as well, but everyone’s a part of that. Look, he’s played well over the course of the season."

Tagovailoa has largely done what the coaches have asked of him. And mostly, it's been to be a game manager, with the team leaning on its strong defense and special teams.

Tagovailoa deserves a chance to go through a second professional season with many of the benefits he did not enjoy this year.

He had no on-field rookie camp. He had no preseason. He did not open the regular season as the starter, in an offense specifically crafted to suit his strengths.

He played behind an offensive line with three rookie starters. He did not play with an elite running back or a receiver that could be trusted to consistently catch the ball.

Who exactly was going to turn a 5-yard slant into a 75-yard touchdown?

These are not excuses. This is the reality of the situation. Let's see what Tagovailoa can do when odds are geared more in his favor.

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Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was frustrated after being sacked in the first half of Sunday's loss to the Bills.

Tagovailoa will forever be compared with Justin Herbert of the Chargers. And this makes sense. Miami chose Tua over Herbert, selected one spot later.

On Sunday, Herbert passed for three touchdowns, again. Herbert has done that six times this season. Tua did not do it once in his rookie season.

This is not to suggest that Tagovailoa won't pass for three or more touchdowns many times in his career. He was the fifth pick in the draft for a reason. Tagovailoa is 22 years old. One year ago, he was dealt a devastating hip injury.

And that's another reason for some optimism about how Tagovailoa will perform in Year 2. Tagovailoa will have had time to further strengthen the muscles surrounding his previously-fractured hip. He should be stronger, overall.

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Yet another reason for some hope? Think about the quarterback who looked worthy of league MVP consideration on Sunday and who blasted Miami.

Josh Allen was awful as a rookie. And there was every reason to think that he was so raw and so shaky and so inaccurate that Buffalo had made a mistake.

Of course, it was no mistake. It was a stroke of brilliance by the Bills, actually.

Tagovailoa has poise, maturity, leadership skills and accuracy, particularly on short- and intermediate-length passes. That's quite a good place to start.

What Tagovailoa needs, of course, is more NFL experience.

"I think he's done well," Dolphins tackle Jesse Davis said. "He's a rookie QB. He's trying to figure it out."

Tagovailoa needs more time to learn how to decipher NFL defenses. He needs more time to learn when to hang in the pocket longer and when to give up on a play. He also needs to learn when to press the issue with more downfield options.

At times, it was frustrating to watch.

Twice, Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced a pulled Tagovailoa. For the season, Fitzpatrick and Tua attempted about the same amount of passes: 267 for Fitzpatrick, 290 for Tua.

But Fitzpatrick completed nine passes of 30 yards or more.

Tua completed only three passes of 30 yards or more.

Tagovailoa must prove, early next season, that he is capable of driving the ball down the field. This will force opponents to defend all three levels of the field.

This is not to suggest that if and when Tagovailoa is playing championship-level quarterback for Miami, the focus won't be on ball control and sustained drives.

That is perfectly acceptable, and can also be attractive and effective. The Dolphins must implement more tempo in their offense. More no-huddle. More run-pass option.

Miami and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey must decide if they want to work together again in 2021, and if so, in what ways they may tweak the offensive plan. 

Every decision Miami makes must be based on how the organization can better support its franchise quarterback. If that means drafting yet another gargantuan offensive lineman in the first round, do it. If that means drafting a dynamic wide receiver in the first round, of course, Miami should do it.

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Tagovailoa, correctly, took some responsibility for a rookie season that was not lights-out. Nobody is reserving a spot for Tua's bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But it is incorrect, also, to suggest that we have enough evidence to declare Tua a bust.

Tagovailoa's rookie season was not as impressive as Herbert's, or Joe Burrow's in Cincinnati.

There are some quarterbacks who were so magnificent in their rookie campaigns that it was clear they were destined for greatness. Think of talents such as Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

There are others who needed a bit longer to cook, but who got there. Think of players like Allen, who the Dolphins may see up close for the next decade.

Miami tore its franchise down to the studs to land a quarterback like Tagovailoa, a player with the talent and pedigree to lead the franchise into championship contention. 

There will be temptation to draft a quarterback to replace him. The Cardinals, for example, once quickly moved on from Josh Rosen for Kyler Murray. 

Tua is not Josh Rosen.

Tua is a quarterback worth building around.