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Schad: Unspectacular Tua Tagovailoa fortunate to be picked up in first Dolphins start

Joe Schad
Palm Beach Post
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) receives the ball from wide receiver DeVante Parker (11) after Tagovailoa threw his first touchdown pass of his career in the first quarter Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.

MIAMI GARDENS — As Tua Tagovailoa dropped back to pass for the first time as the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, things began to go wrong.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald of the Rams worked past guard Ereck Flowers and knocked the ball out of Tua's left hand. Then defensive end Michael Brockers drilled Tua in his midsection and put him on his back as Los Angeles recovered.

"Body-slammed me," Tagovailoa recalled after the game. "I'm not going to lie. I did enjoy getting hit that first time."

The Dolphins upset the Rams 28-17 at Hard Rock Stadium. But this story won't be about how spectacular Tagovailoa was in his first game since he was handed the keys to the franchise.

On this day, Tua, who had not started a game in nearly one calendar year, was quite ordinary. Tagovailoa was carried by a defense that forced four first-half turnovers and a defensive score by linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel.

"I don't think I played to the standard of what this offense is capable of," Tagovailoa said. "There were certain plays I could have made a better play. But it's good that we still came out with the win. Aside from that — thank God we've got a good defense."

There was more anticipation for this Dolphins game than perhaps any by a first-time starting quarterback since Dan Marino in 1983. It didn't live up to the hype.

The Dolphins orchestrated a very conservative game plan. In part, this was because Tua is being eased into the NFL. In part, it's because Miami took a 21-7 lead in the second quarter after Van Ginkel scooped-and-scored from 78 yards, and Jakeem Grant returned a punt 88 yards for another score moments later.

"I love defense," Miami coach Brian Flores said. "But I love offense and special teams, too. I love all areas of the game. More than anything, I love winning."

More:Five instant takeaways from the 28-17 victory over the Los Angeles Rams

The Dolphins are 4-3, have won three consecutive games, and are squarely in the AFC playoff hunt, because they are a much-improved team. It would be difficult to argue — after Miami punted nine times on Sunday — that Miami's offense is as potent at the moment with Tagovailoa as it would be with Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) and wide receiver DeVante Parker (11) celebrate their touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

But the decision to start Tagovailoa is of course much larger than trying to limit punts and complete a few more deep passes. The Dolphins are going to gradually rev up the game-rusty Tagovailoa to a point where they're certain he's the car they want to drive in 2021 and beyond.

The Dolphins want to know what they got with the fifth pick in the last draft. And they have every intention to see him fulfill their expectations. But if for any reason he doesn't, there's always that high first-round Texans pick they own next spring.

It shouldn't have to come to that. And there should not be excessive over-reaction to the fact that Tagovailoa did not, in fact, light up the scoreboard on Sunday. It was quite boring on offense, actually, but some of that was by design.

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The Rams have one of the best pass-rushing defenses in the NFL. And though Miami averaged only 3 yards per offensive play, and gained only 3.9 yards per pass play, Tua was sacked only once and did not throw an interception.

It was short slant after short screen. And short slant after short out.

When I asked Flores how he thought Tagovailoa played, he said: "We won. We won the game. It's a team football team. It's not a one-man show. He made enough plays for us to win the ball game."

That tells you that, no, Tagovailoa was not eye-opening or exhilarating or dynamic in any way. But it turns out this is actually quite a good time and quite a good team for a rookie quarterback to be breaking into the league with.

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Tagovailoa is leading a playoff contender, which is not often the case for a highly drafted first-round quarterback. And it is clear, Tua will not have to do this all by himself.

Among the many other Dolphins who deserve to "get their name in the newspaper" on Monday: Christian Wilkins (interception), Emmanuel Ogbah (sack/fumble), Shaq Lawson (sack/fumble), Eric Rowe (interception) and Kyle Van Noy (fumble recovery).

This day was supposed to be all about Tua, but it really ended up being not about Tua at all. Except that he is still the quarterback, and so we are required to dive deep into his play.

Tagovailoa did throw the first touchdown pass of his career, a laser to DeVante Parker on a 3-yard slant. Tua said, yes, he will keep the ball and yes, it is special.

But in his low-key, post-game Zoom call with reporters, it was clear that this had not gone the way he expected. Tua is used to spectacular success, and leading an offense to only 145 yards is not something he's familiar with, at all.

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws a shovel pass to Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin (37).

And this is key — Tua, 22, accepted responsibility for some struggles in sideline conversations with his teammates.

"I told the guys, 'Hey that was my fault.' " Tua said. "We were talking about how we could fix certain things. They were giving us a little bit different looks than what we expected and what we had seen in practice."

Tagovailoa figures to play some important snaps over the final nine weeks of the season. After his first passing snap as a starter went awry, Dolphins defensive back Bobby McCain was among those who approached him on the sideline.

"Don't worry about it," McCain said. "We're going to pick it up for you."

And Miami's defense did. The Dolphins are only 1.5 games behind the Bills in the AFC East race. And only the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers and Colts have a better point-differential than Miami's +58.

The Dolphins are a good team, so far removed from the catastrophe and debacle of 2019.  And Tagovailoa will be a good quarterback, even if he didn't illuminate Hard Rock Stadium in a Dan Marino-like fashion in his first start.

Flores is prone to use coaching clichés like "total team effort" but it was fair and accurate to use it on this day. The Dolphins offense struggled, but their defense and special teams picked up the slack.

"At some point, Tua is going to pick us up," Flores said.

More:Tua Tagovailoa: He's prepared his entire life for this moment