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Tua Time: Analyzing the Dolphins’ Stunning Move, Why it Might Work and What Might Give Him Trouble

By: Taylor Bechtold

In one move, the Miami Dolphins generated a level of excitement and interest that hasn’t surrounded the franchise in quite some time – maybe since the days of Marino.

But their surprising decision has also led to plenty of questions about the when and the why.

Even though veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick had played a leading role in Miami averaging 30.3 points while winning three of its last four games, coach Brian Flores raised more than a few eyebrows Oct. 20 when he announced rookie Tua Tagovailoa would take over as the starter at quarterback in Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams.

“I’m really excited for this next chapter with Tua,” tight end Mike Gesicki told the Miami Herald. “I know everybody is excited. Both in this locker room and outside this locker room. Our fans. Everybody. So it’s a new week. We have a game off of a fresh bye week and we’re ready to get rolling.”

The Dolphins named Tua Tagovailoa their starting quarterback on Oct. 20.

Since Week 2, Fitzpatrick had averaged 268.8 passing yards while completing 70.7% of his attempts – fourth in the NFL over that span – and totaling 10 touchdowns with four interceptions. Along the way, he’s helped the Dolphins announce themselves as a playoff contender at 3-3 after dropping their first two games of the season.

Because that usually doesn’t equate to a change under center, it led to speculation about whether this was the plan all along for the 2020 fifth overall pick or whether the Dolphins have been influenced by how well No. 1 selection Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals and sixth-overall pick Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers have fared in their first seasons.

A couple of the comparisons that come to mind are Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and Colin Kaepernick taking the starting job from Alex Smith in 2012, but Bledsoe and Smith had both suffered injuries that led to those moves. In reality, there have only been two other situations in which a team was .500 or better through at least six games and replaced a starting quarterback with at least 100 career starts with a one making his first start (excluding those involving injuries or rest).

Both occurred in 2006 when the 3-3 Dallas Cowboys replaced Bledsoe with Tony Romo and the 7-4 Denver Broncos replaced Jake Plummer with Jay Cutler about a month later. The Cowboys finished 9-7 and made the playoffs but lost their opener after Romo’s infamous botched hold, while the Broncos also ended up 9-7 but missed out on a postseason berth.

So is there more of an exciting unknown with Tua that needs to be explored while the ceiling with Fitzpatrick is likely to be a playoff spot and maybe one victory?

Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) had guided the Dolphins to three wins in their last four games.

At least for now, the Dolphins are treating Tua as their franchise quarterback – someone who makes them a consistent championship contender instead of merely a playoff team every once in a while. But just because Burrow and Herbert are proving they belong, does that necessarily mean Tua will do the same?

Herbert ranks third in the NFL with 308.4 passing yards per game with 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions for the 2-4 Chargers. Burrow is fifth in the league with an average of 289.0 passing yards, nine touchdowns and five picks for the 1-5-1 Bengals. But the biggest difference might be that Tua is expected to win games for the Dolphins.

Tagovailoa made his NFL debut in Week 7’s blowout win over the New York Jets, completing both his pass attempts for a total of nine yards while certainly showing better mobility than Fitzpatrick in the pocket. It was his first game action since suffering a serious hip injury last November that ended his Alabama career.

From 2017-19 at ‘Bama, the left-hander became the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing efficiency rating at 199.4 – Kyler Murray is far behind in second at 181.3. Tua also won the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards in 2018 when he finished second to Murray in the Heisman Trophy race.

While we don’t have enough pro data on Tua to compare him to Burrow and Herbert at the NFL level yet, we can take a look at the three performed during their final college season:

2019, OVERALL

PlayerTeamAtt.OpenTgt%WellThrown%AirYdsChoicexComp%
TagovailoaAlabama24584.978.48.67.374.4
BurrowLSU51377.083.29.57.372.3
HerbertOregon42876.675.08.86.767.2
Power 5 avg.N/A22,92873.273.79.26.764.2

Overall, it’s easy to see that Tua more than holds his own alongside Burrow and Herbert. While he had considerably fewer pass attempts in 2019, Tagovailoa led all Power 5 quarterbacks in Open Target Percentage and finished second in xCompletion Percentage and 10th in Well Thrown Percentage.

He was second behind Burrow in Well Thrown% and didn’t finish last among the three in any of these categories. Burrow’s Well Thrown% of 82.4 was third in all of Power 5 and tops among any QBs with an average attempt of over 8.5 Air Yards.

Open Target% is measured by how often the target is open, though it does include screens, RPOs, check downs, etc. Air Yards is the average distance downfield per throw and Choice, also referenced in the table above, takes into account Air Yards and Open Target%, giving us a better measure of which quarterbacks are able to find open receivers down the field.

Well Thrown% is the rate of balls being thrown accurately to total pass attempts, while xComp% is the expected rate of completing passes based on Well Thrown% and whether or not the passer is targeting open receivers.

2019, UNDER PRESSURE

PlayerTeamAtt.OpenTgt%WellThrown%AirYdsChoicexComp%
TagovailoaAlabama4977.661.212.49.558.2
BurrowLSU11077.377.310.68.268.5
HerbertOregon9158.263.713.17.649.7
Power 5 avg.N/A5,08062.162.811.77.251.6

2019, ON THE MOVE

PlayerTeamAtt.OpenTgt%WellThrown%AirYdsChoicexComp%
TagovailoaAlabama2792.663.08.47.867.9
BurrowLSU5778.984.212.49.873.4
HerbertOregon5172.574.59.56.964.2
Power 5 avg.N/A2,86574.668.78.76.562.2

One thing to watch is how many opponents attempt to put pressure on Tua. While he does have better mobility than Fitzpatrick, Tagovailoa struggled as a junior at ‘Bama when facing pressure. He was below the Power 5 average (62.8) and behind Burrow and Herbert in Well Thrown% in those situations despite finishing well above average and ahead of Burrow and Herbert in Open Target% and Choice.

He also fared poorly when forced on the move, ending up below the Power 5 average (60.5) and behind the other two in completion percentage (59.3) and Well Thrown% despite ranking second among Power 5 QBs in Open Target%.

2019, DESIGNED ROLLOUTS & BOOTLEGS

PLAYERTEAMAtt.OpenTgt%WellThrown%AirYdsChoicexComp%
TagovailoaAlabama1492.964.36.66.269.5
HerbertOregon2878.682.19.87.772.5
BurrowLSU366.766.78.75.856.8

Even on designed rollouts and bootlegs, Tua was behind Burrow and Herbert in completion percentage (57.1), Well Thrown% and Choice while leading the way in Open Target%. Essentially, he just wasn’t able to make good, accurate throws despite targeting open receivers in those situations.

That doesn’t bode well heading into his first start against Aaron Donald and a Rams defense that ranks third in the NFL with 24 sacks heading into Week 8.

“I’ve seen a lot of him in practice, how athletic he is, how incredible of a player he is,” Dolphins defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “You get to see it Sunday this week. It’s going to be incredible. He’s going to lead his team in the right way.”

And there are a lot of people in Miami who are looking forward to it.

 

Data modeling and analysis by Greg Gifford, and research support provided by Sam Hovland.

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