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Miami Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa hitting back at doubters with elite returns in special season
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Last Updated: 06/11/22 10:12am
Tua Tagovailoa is in the MVP discussion, Tyreek Hill is burning coverages as the NFL's leading receiver, Jevon Holland is humming like a perennial stud, Bradley Chubb has arrived to anchor a menacingly-dormant pass rush, Mike McDaniel is matching lovable goof with slick schematics and the Miami Dolphins are Super Bowl contenders.
All looks Mcdandy in South Beach.
Trading in college defenses for NFL Alpha squads is no quarterback walk in the park. Not with Patrick Mahomes inciting treasure hunts for every team's own Patrick Mahomes off-platform wizard-equivalent, not with Josh Allen morphing from untamed cannon to cold-blooded slayer, not with Justin Herbert and his palm-stingers transitioning seamlessly to the next level, certainly not with Tagovailoa's recovery from a car crash-calibre hip dislocation and posterior wall fracture following him out of Alabama and into his rookie season.
The latter and his accompanying obstacles are a distant memory, disparity between his impact and that of Herbert is narrowing and the Dolphins lefty is right there in the conversation alongside Mahomes and Allen as chief conductors in the AFC's royal rumble.
He has heard and politely brushed off heavy doses of arm strength ridicule since entering the league, and is retaliating by stringing together an elite season within a creative Tua-tailored scheme, behind competent protection and armed with reliable weapons. Funny what a combination like that can do.
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Through eight weeks he leads the NFL in passer rating (112.7), quarterback rating (78.8), EPA/play (0.365) and Expected Points Added and Completion Percentage Over Expectation composite (0.203). For context, he would have ranked second in EPA/play and tied-first in EPA-CPOE composite at this point last season, second in both at this stage of the 2020 campaign and first and tied-second, respectively, at this stage in a 2019 campaign that saw Mahomes lead the Kansas City Chiefs to Super Bowl success. What's more, his 142.7 passer rating on third down is currently the highest in history since 1991 ahead of Steve Young.
He has adopted some McDaniel moxie in the process for good measure, addressing those deep-ball queries and his progress in that department while speaking to the media this week.
"Well, I think I've grown a lot with the deep balls, huh? Don't we think?" Tua said. "That was probably a subtle jab, but it was a jab. So I would say the deep ball, and then I can continue to get better on the deep ball."
Cocky Tua is a fun and earned addition to modest Tua. Long may it continue.
No lies were told, either. He currently ranks first in PFF's passing grade (94.5), passer rating (131.3) and completion percentage (66.7) on passes of 10+ yards so far this season. He also leads the way with 5.9 completed air yards per pass attempt, is fifth in air yards per attempt (9.3) and second in air yards per completion (8.2). He notably has double the 10+ air yard completions over the middle of the field than any quarterback this year - McDaniel's boy be slinging it (is how I imagine the Fins coach speaks).
The Chicago Bears might have been hosting an unbeaten Miami Dolphins if not for their starting quarterback's concussion scares keeping him sidelined in recent weeks.
He is playing out of his skin, but not anomalous to the glowing projections Miami may have had for the rapid-fire arm, silky processor and relentless competitor they drafted fifth overall for a reason. This version of Tua was the vision, but always required coaching stability and a suitable, sustainable, balanced roster.
McDaniel is putting strain on coverages with condense/expand variation, rehearsed three-level receiver spacing and RPO mastery that is laying out a red carpet to his quarterback's eye talent. It was all on display in Sunday's win over the Detroit Lions, Tua dropping the best game of his NFL career to date as he went 29 of 36 passing for 382 yards and three touchdowns while sitting in the 98th percentile in EPA/play, 98th percentile in CPOE and 90th percentile in average depth of target.
The Tua-McDaniel tandem emerged in all its glory on Waddle's 12-yard catch on second-and-eight from the Lions 21: Miami were in a condense-to-expand 11 personnel with running back Raheem Mostert shaded to Tagovailoa's left on the boundary side, an RPO out of a split zone look seeing Tua read the EMOL (End Man on the Line of Scrimmage) as he bit on the fake wham block from a motioning Mike Gesicki before delivering a laser that instructed Waddle to swivel his hips in the opposite direction at the sight of the lurking but late off-ball linebacker. Trent Sherfield had also played his part in occupying the drop down safety with a wheel route to open the soft spot for Waddle.
On the menu was counter-flow misdirection and elite processing from a quarterback putting his stamp on an exquisite design by commanding and trusting his receiver. Instinctive overreactive earns the big bucks these days.
Four plays later, Tagovailoa went back to Waddle for a five-yard touchdown. This time the Dolphins opted to pass out of shot-gun as a means of Hill, who was lined up to the left of his quarterback at the snap, sliding out as a flat decoy to drag Alex Anzalone with him before the Lions linebacker was pulled left again by Sherfield's hitch-and-slide, by which point Waddle had gained separation at the top of his crosser to the back of the end zone. While that was going on, Tagovailoa had swiftly head-feinted to Hill, pivoted a whisker right and released a perfectly-weighted ball on a plate for Waddle before he had even started his break between the two defensive backs primed to bracket him. The precision, touch and quick-trigger is old news, the maturity to his field diagnosis and anticipation defining features to his ascent.
He is averaging 2.57 seconds in time to throw by the way, bettered only by Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and PJ Walker, the latter of whom has featured in just four games.
A short game clinic had been teed up by a 'stick it to the people' deep-ball to convert on third-and-13 through Hill's 36-yard reception. Tua canned the initial play in the face of quarters coverage before over-exaggerating his head towards Sherfield in the out only to take aim in the direction of his star receiver's go-route, Hill notably five yards behind the two covering defenders at the time of release. Here was quarterback knowing and trusting receiver, accurate thrower knowing terrifying track star.
The drive alone encapsulated the stress McDaniel is putting on teams as chunk plays, even the mere threat of them, scared a defense into sinking into two-high safety shells, thereby opening up the digs and the crossers that unleash their embarrassment of yards after catch riches.
Behind the shop window are some fun traits. Sherfield has become a resident nuisance with a pre-snap motion into the backfield-turned-reload back to the outside, Tua has dressed up his RPO keeper with a pirouette-type move to pile onto the defensive disorientation, Mostert is getting his share of option routes underneath/outside based on what kind of chaos Hill and Waddle are dealing out, a wheel route-running Alec Ingold is the latest instalment of the NFL's fullback craze and panic stations are sounding in response to 3x2 empty raids.
A measure of their sizzling offense is Hill topping the NFL with 961 yards and being on course for a record 2,000 yards after eight games, while, perhaps more ludicrous, Waddle somehow boasts a fourth-most 727 yards at 17.3 yards per catch.
The Dolphins signalled their faith in Tua when they made a play for Hill, and underlined it this week by adding former Denver Broncos first-rounder Chubb to their pass rush arsenal before reuniting Jeff Wilson Jr with his San Francisco 49ers ground game companions Mostert and McDaniel.
"I would say you're right, on all fronts," McDaniel told reporters. "From the get-go, I've fully seen Tua as our quarterback for this team and this franchise. I think he is an unbelievable talent. And so I guess in a roundabout way, I think that that implication, I think that's fair.
"But it's not something that we all of sudden rethought after he had a good game. This is something that, since I've been here, have kind of known, and we've been able to operate with that in mind, with all the things that we've done."
He is throwing receivers open and freezing safeties with his eyes and baiting edge rushers with play-fakes and applying heat to settle late down conversions and meeting deep-overs in stride with off-platform boot-leg tosses and being aggressive downfield. The gulf in self-assurance and conviction between now and the Tua that first set foot in the NFL is refreshing while contributing to Championship credentials.
Nobody wants to stumble across this Tua and this Dolphins team in the postseason.
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