Being an NFL quarterback means constantly being scrutinized. Sometimes, however, we go a little overboard. Take, for instance a mid-June minicamp performance from Tua Tagovailoa. The second-year passer threw five interceptions during practice (in monsoon-like conditions) and you would have thought the world was spinning off its axis.
The problem with criticizing Tua in that moment was that it missed the larger picture, one that had to be spelled out by Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores the next day.
“I think practice is a time where — not just at the quarterback position, but at every position — you test the waters and see what works, what doesn’t work, so that you can go back, learn from it, make adjustments and try to improve,” Flores said during a conference call with reporters in June. “We’re going to see if we can fit some throws in and then there might be a minor adjustment that we need to make (in order) to make the play. How do you know that if you don’t make the attempt?”
Flores probably had this mentality ingrained in his football brain long ago, but it’s hard not to correlate his current perspective with his longtime experience in Foxborough under Bill Belichick, where that willingness to take chances — in a practice setting — was commonplace. Whether it was Jimmy Garoppolo throwing five interceptions during a training camp practice in his second season, or Tom Brady regularly firing footballs into the crowd in frustration before spewing off expletives for any of a number of reasons, those sessions — especially in the spring and summer months — were opportunities for the quarterbacks to test themselves and, at times, their teammates.
Tagovailoa still has to earn the trust of his teammates, both those left over from the 2020 season and the new additions that were clearly brought in to make his life easier (SEE: first-round pick Jaylen Waddle, free-agent signing Will Fuller).
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Tua’s rookie season was categorized by many as disappointing, even though he accounted for twice as many TDs as he did turnovers (14 to 6). Several unnamed teammates reportedly wondered why the former Alabama star was inserted into the lineup over Ryan Fitzpatrick during the team’s Week 7 bye despite the veteran passer playing well in consecutive Miami wins. Then, as the offseason machine powered on, there was relentless chatter that the Dolphins were actively pursuing Deshaun Watson (before allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced) or were considering drafting another quarterback in the first round. Neither of those rumors materialized, leaving Tua, heading into Year 2, knowing he needs to be better. And he can already sense improvement, both physically — another year removed from his hip surgery — and mentally.
“What I’m saying is that I didn’t actually know the playbook necessarily really, really good; and that’s no one else’s fault but my fault,” he said back in late May. “Our play calls were simple when I was in. I didn’t have alerts and checks, whereas now, feeling more comfortable, I can kind of maneuver my way through these things now.”
Part of that maneuvering is knowing he played too conservatively last year. Tua averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt, third from the bottom among qualifying QBs. And surprisingly, those numbers dipped precipitously on third down, to 4.7 yards per throw, ranking him 34th out of 35 qualifying QBs. Only Nick Foles’ mark was lower. Which leads us back to that mid-June day and those five interceptions at minicamp.
“The emphasis for us coming out to this first day of minicamp was just to be aggressive and push the ball down field,” Tua relayed back on June 15. “Obviously you want to be smart; but, if there is a time to make mistakes, now is the time to make mistakes. We’re trying to see what we can fit in the hole, what we can throw within coverages, come into the film room and then learn from it.”
“I don’t think Tua is going into a shell,” Flores said after that five-INT practice. “I think — look, I tell him to continue being aggressive. … It’s using this time to practice pushing the ball down field, then we’ll make the adjustments and the corrections. Then we’ll go at it again the next day. That’s the normal progression of how this goes.”
Flores and GM Chris Grier have built a program in Miami that is poised to take its next step. But just how big a step that will be likely depends on their young quarterback, who knows his clock is ticking in Miami — fair or unfair.
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