If you’ve watched Tua Tagovailoa’s first three weeks as an NFL starter and felt underwhelmed, you were not alone. Sure, the Dolphins went 3-0 in that stretch, but on Sunday, in the fourth quarter of what became a 20-13 loss to the Broncos, Miami coach Brian Flores benched the rookie QB. Initially, it looked like the move may have been related to a sack in which a defender rolled over Tagovailoa’s ankle, but Flores clarified postgame that the decision to bench Tua (who will be back in the starting role next week) was entirely about the quarterback’s performance.
Tagovailoa finished the day 11-of-20 for 83 yards, one touchdown, and zero picks. It’s the type of performance that’s become routine for him as a Dolphin: not disastrous, but not notable, either. While Tua’s one touchdown of the day came on a perfect throw to DeVante Parker…
… the quarterback also took six sacks, and five of his eight offensive drives ended in three-and-outs. Miami simply could not move the ball, and while the sacks are an indictment of the offensive line, Tagovailoa also noted postgame that he held the ball too long, at the expense of making completions.
Veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick came in in relief, but failed to provide much of a spark. While he connected on his first few throws—and was not sacked on 18 dropbacks—he led just one scoring drive, a field goal in the fourth quarter that cut Denver’s lead to seven. And when the game was on the line on a third-and-8 in the red zone with just over a minute remaining, Fitzpatrick threw an interception. He finished 12-of-18 for 117 yards, no touchdowns, and a pick. The loss moves Miami to 6-4, ends the team’s five-game winning streak, and temporarily halts their playoff rally.
Tua was not the answer on Sunday, but surely Flores didn’t think Fitzpatrick would be, right? While the 16-year veteran is known for his up-and-down Fitzmagic, the Dolphins just went through this. Flores made the switch from Fitzpatrick to Tagovailoa on October 21, and in a press conference at the time, he repeatedly used the phrase “moving forward,” seemingly emphasizing both the long-term and short-term benefits of switching to the no. 5 overall pick. “At the end of the day, as a team, we felt like the best thing to do for our team now and moving forward was going with Tua,” Flores said then.
But Flores also said of Tua: “Accuracy, decision making, all of those things have been good in practice. But again, practice is very different than a game. We’re comfortable and confident that he’ll be able to be competitive in those games when the time comes.”
So far, that hasn’t been the case. Over his first three starts (not including Sunday), Tua averaged just 170 yards per game. He’d thrown for five touchdowns and had yet to toss an interception, but his average of 6.7 yards per attempt would have ranked 27th in the NFL if he qualified for Pro Football Reference’s season leaderboards. Tagovailoa came into Sunday as Pro Football Focus’s 33rd ranked quarterback, well below Ryan Fitzpatrick, who ranks tied for 15th.
Tagovailoa’s best game of the season so far was surely his performance in the Dolphins’ 34-31 win over the Cardinals, but even that game left something to be desired. Tua totaled just 248 passing yards to go with 35 rushing yards and two touchdowns through the air. But that was about it—Miami’s offense produced just 312 yards of total offense to Arizona’s 442. A fumble-return touchdown from Shaq Lawson in the first quarter of the game put the Cardinals in an early hole and ultimately proved decisive. That mirrored Tagovailoa’s first start, in which the Dolphins defense scored another fumble-return touchdown and the special teams scored on a punt return in a 28-17 win over the Rams. Tagovailoa hasn’t made any major mistakes for Miami, but it’s easy to win when the other team is giving away free points.
Rather than be the Dolphins’ savior, Tagovailoa has so far looked like a game manager. Stout defense and an effective running game—despite a rotation at running back due to injuries—have powered the Dolphins to their recent winning streak.
But none of that means that the Dolphins should have benched Tagovailoa. Part of starting a rookie quarterback is signing up for the ups and downs that go with it. No new player is helped by constantly being yanked in and out of the lineup, and the Dolphins can’t afford to make benching their prized rookie a habit. Flores clarified postgame that Tagovailoa remains the starter, and Fitzpatrick made it clear that he doesn’t expect to compete for the job, but the fact that they even had to address it shows how messy of a situation a team can make for itself when it benches a highly drafted rookie:
Ryan Fitzpatrick, asked if he sees himself competing for starting job moving forward: "It's very clear this is Tua's team."— Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) November 23, 2020
A month ago, Flores said that Tua needed to be the starter for the team to move forward. That remains true. Maybe Tua will return from this benching and look like the quarterback Flores saw when he inserted him into the starting lineup in the first place. But that’s the only way this’ll have been worth it.