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Habib: Dolphins can't hesitate to call on Ryan Fitzpatrick in relief if Tua falters

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post

There is no quarterback controversy. That much was unanimous from the three parties involved once the game, and with it the Dolphins’ winning streak, was over.

Brian Flores thought Ryan Fitzpatrick gave the Dolphins a better chance to rally Sunday than Tua Tagovailoa, so he called in a reliever, pure and simple.

Except nothing about quarterbacking in the NFL is that simple, so one of the first questions Flores faced postgame was whether he’s considering a quarterback change moving forward.

“No,” Flores said without missing a beat. “No changes.”

Fair enough. Flores was off the hook because Fitzpatrick came up a few whiskers shy of FitzMagic, throwing an end-zone interception in the closing seconds that clinched Denver’s 20-13 victory.

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa talks with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick during the final seconds against the Broncos.

More:Why was Tua benched by Miami Dolphins? Will he start next week vs. Jets?

More:Joe Burrow is out for the season, robbing Dolphins fans of matchup with Tua Tagovailoa

Takeaways:Miami Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa stunned at Denver, 20-13

So, yes, Tagovailoa is the Dolphins’ quarterback of the future.

But what about the present?

What about the fact that instead of a first-place tie with Buffalo at 7-3, the Dolphins are in a cluster of 6-4 teams fighting for a playoff spot, with the margin for error shrinking by the day?

Speaking of errors, Tagovailoa made his share Sunday, no shock for a rookie making only his fourth start. He held the ball too long, enabling the Broncos to feast on six sacks. He overthrew receivers and failed to spark the offense nearly the entire game.

That — and not any injury concerns about his foot — is why he was pulled.

And that last problem — failure to get the offense in rhythm — is why Flores sticking with Tagovailoa is fine, but there can be no hesitation about making the same change from here on out. That's the balance to be struck when you're starting a rookie quarterback on a contending team, which doesn't happen every day.

No further proof is necessary beyond this from Sunday’s game:

Dolphins, with Fitzpatrick: Two possessions, 128 yards, three points.

Dolphins, with Tagovailoa: Eight possessions, 95 yards, 10 points.

For Tagovailoa, there would be no ninth try.

“We just felt it was the best move at that point in the game,” Flores said of the change. “We had to get in two-minute mode. We just felt he gave us the best chance to tie the game, which we had at the end.”

After driving for a quick field goal, Fitzpatrick was handed the ball again with 5:13 left on his own 1-yard line. He nearly made it those 99 yards, driving to the Denver 15 before safety Justin Simmons stepped in front of DeVante Parker and intercepted a pass in the end zone with 1:03 remaining.

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is tackled by Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb during Sunday's game in Denver.

Fitzpatrick was kicking himself for not looking off Simmons another “millisecond,” in which case, “we’d be having a happy press conference.”

Leading a team in such circumstances, Fitzpatrick said, means “creating a catalog” in a quarterback’s head.

“I learned those things in 16 years,” Fitzpatrick said, adding he accepts that it’s his job now to “accelerate” how long it takes for Tagovailoa to unlock such secrets. At the moment, Tagovailoa is about on Chapter 1.

It’s no secret that of those three prior wins, only the rally against the Cardinals meant putting the game in Tagovailoa’s gifted left hand. Defense and special teams did most of the dirty work in the other games, just as it did in handing Tagovailoa the ball on the Denver 22 in the first quarter. Blessed with yet another short field, he found Parker for a 2-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead that felt awfully familiar.

Then, Broncos coach Vic Fangio turned up the heat on the rookie, and six sacks for 33 yards ensued. Uh-oh.

“I felt like I was holding the ball a little too long,” Tagovailoa said, so consider that lesson learned.

Once Fitzpatrick went in, Tagovailoa said he was studying the things Fitzpatrick was doing that he wasn’t. Excellent. Fitzpatrick’s second pass went to tight end Mike Gesicki for 26 yards, longer than anything Tagovailoa managed. Continuing the up-tempo, Fitzpatrick managed to elude the same men who dropped Tagovailoa those half-dozen times. Until the interception, Fitzpatrick connected with receivers who Tagovailoa described as “covered, but uncovered, if that makes sense.”

Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III eludes Dolphins safety Bobby McCain during Sunday's game in Denver.

Flores can just be glad he has a rookie who knows what it is he doesn’t know and a veteran willing to share his “catalog” of knowledge at all times.

“There’s no controversy,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is his team. He’s going to continue to lead this team.”

That he will — until it’s time to call in a reliever again.