Tua Tagovailoa’s NFL debut as the Dolphins’ rookie first-round quarterback started off in disaster. It ended with an easy day at the office, resulting in the first victory of many to come in his pro career.
Tagovailoa was strip-sacked on his first dropback — and Miami’s second offensive snap — in Sunday’s surprise 28-17 win over the Rams. He was quickly introduced to Aaron Donald, the league’s best defensive player, who rattled him and forced a fumble.
Instead of going downhill from there, Tagovailoa, the No. 5 overall pick out of Alabama, got a huge break with shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey not playing because of illness. Tagovailoa got bigger breaks, with the Dolphins’ defense and special teams combining for two touchdowns and setting up another from the 1-yard line.
With a big 28-7 second-quarter lead, Tagovailoa wasn’t called upon to do much. That Donald hit was the only sack he took, and he finished 12 of 22 for only 93 yards a touchdown.
The completion percentage (54.5), yards per attempt (4.0) and passer rating (80.3) didn’t really tell us much about Tagovailoa, as offensive coordinator Chan Gailey put his rookie into full checkdown and caretaker mode. Bottom line, the Dolphins just wanted to get to 4-3 with Tagovailoa taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick. They took few chances, and the team failed to score any points in the second half.
But when the outcome was still in doubt, Tagovailoa took care of what he needed to do. Following an interception by Rams counterpart Jared Goff, he enjoyed his best drive of the game that resulted in his first NFL touchdown pass.
Tagovailoa showed some of his special qualities to end the first quarter on a three-minute, six-play, 33-yard march to the end zone. With Ramsey down, he threw a bullet outside to ancillary wide receiver Jakeem Grant for 15 yards, attacking Ramsey’s replacement, David Long Jr. He did so again, firing a touchdown pass to top wide receiver DeVante Parker on a quick inside route.
Those were Tagovailoa’s only completions to Grant and Parker in the game. He targeted nine receivers in all, with running back Myles Gaskin having a game-high three catches for 16 yards. Tagovailoa was asked to avoid taking any chances with deep shots, and didn’t see any designed runs as Miami grinded with the lead. The Dolphins rushed 22 times for only 60 yards with Gaskin and Matt Breida.
The most important trait Tagovailoa showed was his patience and resilience. He did what was asked: not more, not less. He comes from an Alabama that was strong in every phase and gave him plenty of help, so there was familiarity immediately in the transition. At the same time, Tagovailoa passed confidently, flashing some of his strong left arm and athleticism. He didn’t look overwhelmed and didn’t take long to shake off the memory of Donald’s hit.
With Goff struggling while trailing against a good Dolphins’ pass defense, Miami could afford to put Tagovailoa in a shell. He could focus on getting the ball out quickly and protecting it. That likely won’t be the case for Miami next week, when they travel to take on Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. Arizona is coming off a bye and is ready to light it up on the other side.
Even without Ramsey, the Rams’ pass defense was formidable: The Cardinals are a weaker group, but will also present challenges with unique blitzes and the presence of safety Budda Baker.
Tagovailoa doesn’t quite get an “incomplete,” but gets a little more than a passing grade. Let’s hope Gailey and the Dolphins will let Tagovailoa let it rip more while looking for a big splash opposite Murray, now that his feet are successfully wet from a team perspective. The Chargers have allowed No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert to be aggressive out of the gate to fine results. The Dolphins need to tap into all of Tagovailoa’s upside, too.
Tagovailoa is capable of handling much more and getting the most out of a talented, diverse group of receivers. Once he’s allowed to be more of a playmaker, we can get a real read on just how bright his future can be in Miami.
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