Habib: The Tua Question towers over all others this Miami Dolphins' offseason
You think you know, but you don’t know.
Those were the words of noted philosopher Jim Mora in one of his oratories on the intricacies of football, spoken years ago but as applicable today as they were back when.
Tua? We think we know, but we don’t know.
You don’t know. I don’t know.
Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t know.
Maybe Brian Flores doesn’t know.
A Dolphins season that was supposed to reveal the answer may have instead raised questions.
And please: Defenses down, Tua supporters. This is not another Tua-bashing that’s liable to turn into a freezing cold take as quickly as the Josh Allen-bashing of a year or two ago. Rather, consider this a meeting in the middle to take stock of what we have.
There was a moment, three plays into the second half of Sunday’s disaster in Buffalo, when Tagovailoa took a snap, felt the pocket collapsing, and let fly a deep throw toward the left sideline. Not only had DeVante Parker not yet gained separation against cornerback Josh Norman, but the slightest off-target throw would have put Norman in position to intercept and Parker all but helpless to do much about it.
But Tagovailoa threaded it into the space between Parker and the sideline. Parker leaped, adjusting in midair to meet the ball over his left shoulder rather than his right, and came down with a 25-yard gain, setting up a touchdown.
Where was that in the first half, when it was still a game?
Where was that the week before and some weeks before that?
Everybody thought, a year ago, that after stockpiling a dozen draft picks, the heat was on general manager Chris Grier to produce. South Florida was in a zero-tolerance mood: It was franchise quarterback or bust.
As it turned out, once the Dolphins were satisfied with Tagovailoa’s health, this decision became a no-brainer.
If Grier really wanted to know what pressure felt like, welcome to 2021.
This week, Grier and/or Brian Flores will offer their postmortem on the season to the media. That did not happen Monday, likely because everybody wanted time to catch their breath on The Tua Question before saying a word. It’s probably also why the only offensive player available to the media Monday was center Ted Karras, who praised Tagovailoa’s leadership and pointed out the biggest jump players make is from Year 1 to Year 2.
Nobody else was quite ready to touch The Tua Question. Or questions.
At this point for the Dolphins, every other question must take a backseat toward making sure Tagovailoa is the answer. They must answer it now, not in 2022. The Dolphins are in the unique position of rising in the standings (10-6) while soaring in the draft order (third, via the trade with Houston). If the Dolphins haven’t convinced themselves their franchise QB is already here, there will not be another golden opportunity in the near future to draft him — one would hope.
There was a time, after Tagovailoa was relieved by Ryan Fitzpatrick for the first time, versus Denver, that Tagovailoa called it a learning experience, both from watching Fitzpatrick taking shots that required trust in receivers and from listening to Fitzpatrick between series on why he was moving the team with fluidity when Tagovailoa could not. (Fluidity is one point that cannot be overemphasized. Even Tagovailoa’s staunchest supporters must concede there were times when the offense simply felt more fluid, more likely to strike, with Fitzpatrick at the controls.)
Flores immediately extinguished the slightest sniff of a quarterback controversy by saying Tagovailoa remained his starter, and when Tagovailoa followed by passing for 296 yards against the Bengals and 316 vs. the Chiefs over the next two weeks, it appeared all was swell.
It wasn’t. Against the Patriots, Tagovailoa needed 20 completions to manage 145 yards, just 7.25 yards per completion. Against the Raiders, conservatism was dialed up even more: 17 completions netting just 94 yards, or 5.5 per, with no attempts deep. It wasn’t until the second half of the finale against the Bills, with the Dolphins in desperation mode, that Tagovailoa was keeping the defense honest by stretching it. He finished with a career-high 361 yards.
Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who came out of retirement after three seasons to join Flores’ staff, became an obvious target even though only those on the inside know if Tagovailoa’s diet of 4-yard passes was the result of being gun-shy or simply following instructions.
Either way, it’s incumbent upon Flores to stomp this out. It’s one thing to claim you’re taking what the defense gives you, another thing to give the defense everything it wants.
Gailey turns 69 Tuesday. If he should not return next season, one candidate might be tight ends coach George Godsey, who had a bigger voice as the season wore on. Another name that might come up is that of former Texans coach Bill O’Brien, who worked with Flores in New England. Anthony Lynn, fired Monday as Chargers head coach, had outstanding success with rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, drafted one spot after Tagovailoa.
Adam Gase: maybe not.
Whoever calls plays in 2021 must be bold in the red zone. Down 21-3 Sunday, the Dolphins drove to a first-and-goal on the Bills’ 9 on the strength of a legal double pass (via a lateral), which was creative. But after Myles Gaskin ran 2 yards on first down, calling a run on second down — it lost 7 yards — screams a lack of confidence in your quarterback. The Dolphins settled for a field goal. For the season, the Dolphins scored touchdowns on 58.3 percent of their red-zone trips, tying for 17th.
Other questions linger, some more legit than others. Tagovailoa is too short and can’t see over his line, say some, who apparently have never heard of Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray.
Tempo? That’s legit. Tagovailoa appears to thrive at it. It can’t always be used. How’s about using it more?
The hunch here is that Tagovailoa, given a couple of more weapons and a green light, will prove to be the answer. If Flores determines this to be the case, he should declare that.
If he and Grier aren’t sure, they must be bold.
Playing it safe won’t get this team where it wants to go.