Tua Tagovailoa showed some promising signs during his rookie season. However, his overall performance was a mixed bag.
You can blame it on the fact that he was still working his way back from a severe hip injury. You can blame it on the inability to grasp a new playbook as a rookie with less practice time than in a non-Covid season. Or you can blame it on the lack of weapons around him. Either way, Tua’s status as the Dolphins’ quarterback of the future won’t last very long without a big leap in 2021.
Tua’s physical skills do not jump off the screen. He is athletic and has the ability to scramble, but he is no Lamar Jackson. He also doesn’t have a power arm. This means accuracy and timing become that much more important. It means he needs to be able to quickly decipher the defense, make the right read, and consistently distribute the ball where it is designed to go.
It’s in this area where Tagovailoa’s 2020 performance was a bit concerning.
Tua left too many plays on the field. This happened frequently enough that Head Coach Brian Flores pulled him multiple times in the 4th quarter when Miami was trailing and had to throw the ball. That’s a bit of a red flag.
Below are two great examples of his struggles seeing the field in 2020.
On this 3rd down against the Chiefs in Week 14, K.C. was playing man coverage. Focus on the right side of the formation, where Tua had two options. He could either take the corner route from the #3 inside receiver. Or he could work the quick-in/pick combo on the outside.
The corner route looked to be dead almost immediately after the snap. Not only was the DB playing with outside leverage, but the linebacker inside dropped out to provide a double-team, ensuring that the DB could stay to the outside.
Tua should have come down to the pick play at the bottom of the screen.
The only defender who could have provided help inside had vacated the middle to help with the corner route. This was wide open for what should have been an easy walk-in touchdown. But Tua never came off his first read. He pre-determined this throw and delivered a low-percentage pass into tight coverage for an incompletion.
The Dolphins had to settle for a field goal.
There was no reason to force this pass. Tua faced no pressure. He had a throwing lane inside to be able to see the open receiver underneath. He cannot afford to miss open receivers like this in 2021.
The below play in Week 16 against the Raiders was another great example of his struggles seeing the field. Here, he missed multiple open receivers to the bottom of the screen (where the ball was designed to go).
As soon as the cornerback at the bottom of the screen turned to run with the wheel route, Tua should have fired the ball to the out route.
Even if Tua didn’t feel comfortable executing that throw, he still had a wide-open running back sneaking out into the flat to the same side.
There wasn’t a defender within 10 yards in any direction of the running back. One reason for this was that the Raiders only had 10 defenders on the field. But Tua didn’t see it.
Tua’s eyes should have taken him to the flat to his left. Instead, he slid to his right just a bit to avoid some slight pressure. He allowed that to take his attention away from the design of the play, as you can see below.
There were no receivers to his right, yet Tua allowed his pocket movement to take his eyes in that direction early in the play. That can’t happen. Having to move slighty in one direction within the pocket to avoid a rush shouldn’t cut off half of the field to the quarterback (especially when that’s the side of the field where all of the receviers are). Tua had multiple open receivers on this play, but ultimately couldn’t take advantage. This was one of the games where he was pulled in the 4th quarter, by the way.
Despite his rookie struggles, Tua did show some attributes that will be critical to his success. When he sees it, Tua has the ability to play with good timing and anticipation (as you can see in this breakdown from last season). But that’s the big qualifier – “when” he sees it. Tua still needs help finding it in the first place.
The Dolphins’ passing game was heavily schemed with play-action, RPOs, and screens to help Tua see it in 2020. Miami also used boots to get Tua on the perimeter and give him the opportunity to use his legs as a safety outlet if no one was open immediately.
What do these types of plays have in common? The reads are simpler and more defined. That’s exactly what Tua needed to be able to perform during his rookie season. Miami did a good job of giving him the ability to focus on execution instead of having to dissect the defense quite as often. But that can only take you so far as a quarterback, as we saw down the stretch with Tua last season.
The Dolphins are on the right track in setting Tagovailoa up for success. After selecting him 5th overall, they added 3 offensive linemen in the first 111 picks of the 2020 NFL Draft. Those three combined to start 36 games in 2020. Miami added reinforcements this offseason via free agency in center Matt Skura and guard/tackle D.J. Fluker. They then drafted tackle Liam Eichenberg 42nd overall.
The Dolphins also added some badly needed playmakers at the wide receiver position, signing free agent Will Fuller and drafting Jaylen Waddle with the 6th overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. To be fair to Tua, he didn’t have a ton of weapons to work with last season. Hopefully for the Dolphins, this offseason’s upgrade will help.
At this point, Tua has the talent around him to be successful. He has an additional offseason under his belt to get stronger and study NFL defenses. He’s one more year removed from hip surgery. There are no excuses in 2021. It’s not exactly a “make or break” season for Tua, but it’s also not that far from it. While it depends on what options will be available to Miami at quarterback next offseason, a big 2021 for Tua would help quell any doubts about his future.