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The Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa–Ryan Fitzpatrick Conundrum Just Won’t Go Away

After another subpar performance, Miami benched its rookie and replaced him with the longtime veteran. It was enough to overcome the Raiders, but what will happen in the playoffs?

Miami Dolphins v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

They don’t call him Fitzmagic just because it sounds cool. Throughout his 16-year career as a vagabond pro quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick has garnered a reputation for improbable comebacks and exciting plays. He’s also had his share of meltdowns and mistakes. But these things go together—for Fitzmagic to happen, teams have to take the good with the bad. They have to accept that Fitzpatrick is the type of quarterback who will take wild risks to make big plays happen.

It’s a lesson that Tua Tagovailoa may soon need to learn. On Saturday night, Tagovailoa was benched in favor of Fitzpatrick, who came in and guided the Dolphins to an astounding 26-25 victory over the Raiders thanks to a wild comeback effort. It was the second time Miami has benched their rookie this season, following a Week 11 benching in a loss to the Broncos. The decision to sit the quarterback they took at no. 5 in the 2020 draft for a second time could set off a quarterback controversy for the 10-5 Dolphins, who are on track for a playoff appearance. While most teams would and should opt to see what they have in a rookie rather than trot out a 38-year-old, the Dolphins are on the cusp of their first postseason berth since 2016—and it certainly seems that Fitzpatrick is the quarterback that can do the most to help Miami win in the short term.

Against the Raiders, Tagovailoa was unable to get much of anything going. The offense turned four first-half possessions into two three-and-outs and two field goals. Then in the third quarter, Tagovailoa got things started with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. But on each of the following three possessions, the Dolphins offense failed to gain any yards and punted after three plays. Tagovailoa finished with a paltry 94 yards on 22 pass attempts before getting yanked. Coach Brian Flores clarified after the game that Tagovailoa will remain the starter going forward.

Fitzpatrick provided an immediate spark. On his first drive, the Miami offense picked up 84 yards on 13 plays, including back-to-back deep throws to tight end Mike Gesicki that netted the team a total of 48 yards. On the second drive, the Dolphins found the end zone in just three plays thanks to a 59-yard score from running back Myles Gaskin, who weaved his way through the Las Vegas defense after catching a short Fitzpatrick throw. And on the final drive, beginning with just 19 seconds left and a two-point deficit, Fitzpatrick gained 34 yards—plus another 15 for roughing the passer—on a pass to Mack Hollins.

It was a sensational comeback effort that keeps the Dolphins on a path to the postseason. Though the Bills have already clinched the AFC East, Miami has an 84 percent chance of taking one of the conference’s wild-card spots, per the New York Times. A win over Buffalo next week would punch the Dolphins’ postseason ticket as well as give the franchise its best record since 2008.

Miami’s rebuild is well ahead of schedule, which is what can make Tagovailoa’s play this season so frustrating. Typically, it makes perfect sense for a franchise with a highly drafted rookie quarterback to throw that passer into the starting lineup, even if a veteran on the roster might be the better short-term play. But the Dolphins need to win now, and through eight starts, Tagovailoa hasn’t been helping them do that.

This season, the only thing Tagovailoa has been particularly good at is avoiding interceptions. He’s thrown just two picks on the season, making him just one of three quarterbacks with an interception rate below one percent, and the other two QBs (Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes) are MVP candidates. But coming into Saturday, Tua was averaging less than 170 yards per game (easily the lowest among starting QBs), had thrown touchdowns on 4.3 percent of his passes (22nd), and was averaging 6.5 yards per attempt (28th). He ranks 32nd in Pro Football Focus’s passing grades (out of 39 qualified quarterbacks).

Tagovailoa has been far too conservative of a passer. Per PFF, Tagovailoa has thrown the ball 20-plus yards downfield on just 9.1 percent of his dropbacks, 29th out of 38 qualified passers. While an offense doesn’t need to have deep passes to be successful (the Saints and Titans have been just fine without them), on a night when the Dolphins desperately needed any big play, Tagovailoa did not go deep once:

Fitzpatrick is exactly the opposite kind of player. He throws for more yards per game, more yards per attempt, has a higher touchdown rate … and also throws significantly more interceptions. This season he’s thrown eight picks, making his interception rate (3.1 percent entering Saturday) more than triple Tua’s. But when Fitzpatrick is in, the Dolphins’ offense moves the ball better—as evidenced by the team’s frantic comeback against the Raiders. And sometimes, that can be more important than an increased risk of a turnover.

It’s easy to think the worst thing a quarterback can do is throw interceptions, but that isn’t really true. Often the worst quarterbacks aren’t the players who constantly chuck it to the defense (though that certainly isn’t good), but the ones who are so risk-averse that they fail to make any big plays at all. At best, these types of conservative game managers can have a career like Alex Smith’s. For example, Jameis Winston’s infamous 33-touchdown, 30-interception season last year totalled to an adjusted net yards per attempt of 6.15. Tagovailoa’s ANY/A stands at 5.72. This isn’t a fair comparison—Tagovailoa is a rookie, Winston was a fifth-year veteran in 2019—but it demonstrates a provocative idea: a team would rather have an interception-throwing lunatic at quarterback than Tagovailoa right now. And that’s exactly why the Dolphins have benched Tua twice.

And though it often gets overlooked, Fitzpatrick’s propensity to get the ball out to receivers in less-than-ideal situations also means he takes fewer sacks than Tagovailoa. He entered Saturday with a sack rate of 5.2 percent, while Tua’s stood at 7.1 percent. Tagovailoa took three sacks against the Raiders, while Fitzpatrick took zero.

To be fair to Tagovailoa, his offensive line did not put in its best performance against the Raiders. While Tagovailoa sometimes failed to step up in the pocket or navigate away from pressure, he also had Raiders defenders breathing down his neck for much of the night. Tagovailoa’s high sack rate this season is partially a result of his pocket presence not being finely tuned yet, but it’s also because the Dolphins’ offensive line is just bad.

Furthermore, Tagovailoa is in his first season. He’s still learning, and Flores’s quick decision to keep Tagovailoa in the starting role for Week 17 and beyond points to his understanding that the Dolphins’ rebuild goes beyond just one postseason appearance. This franchise has tied itself to Tua for now, and the best way for the rookie to learn is on the field.

Tua may even find Fitzpatrick to be a great teacher. In Week 11, after Miami benched Tagovailoa against the Broncos, Fitzpatrick told the rookie that when the defensive line is dominating up front, “sometimes … you’ve got to throw a little bit of a contested ball.”

But Tagovailoa has yet to put Fitzpatrick’s words into practice. “I’m going to continue to take what the defense gives me,” Tagovailoa said after Saturday’s game. “If that’s not open I’m not going to throw it.”

If Tua can learn anything from Fitzpatrick, it’s that sometimes you can’t just settle for what the defense gives you. Sometimes you have to make your own magic.