Teams make quarterback substitutions for all sorts of reasons: There’s only one quarterback on the field at a time, and it’s the most important position on the team, so choosing whom to play can be a fraught decision. Or it can be completely benign, like it seemingly was when the Dolphins subbed out their starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, late in Sunday’s blowout victory over the Jets. This happens a lot. Backups often see garbage-time snaps so that the starter can remain uninjured. And so Fitzpatrick smiled and joined the crowd cheering for Tua Tagovailoa, the rookie who was making his debut when he entered the game.
But nobody subs in Tua Tagovailoa for benign reasons. Just ask Nick Saban. The few snaps Tagovailoa took on Sunday, it turns out, were in anticipation of the rookie’s ascension to the starting role. Fitz is out. Tua is in. The Dolphins have announced that Tagovailoa will be the team’s starting quarterback for their next game, against the Rams following a bye week. Fitzpatrick, for his part, seems utterly stunned by the decision. He had no idea what he was cheering for on Sunday.
It seems like bewildering timing: After going 5-11 last year, the Dolphins have won three games in four tries. Fitzpatrick has played exceptionally, and the Dolphins are only a game back from the lead in the AFC East, which the team hasn’t won since 2008. Shouldn’t this team be focused on making the playoffs rather than developing an untested rookie?
With a player as special as Tua, that’s not the calculus. The Dolphins aren’t choosing between making the playoffs with Fitz (who, by the way, has never made the postseason in 15 NFL seasons) and letting their fledgling quarterback test his wings. They’re choosing to make the playoffs—with Tua Tagovailoa.
Brian Flores does not seem like a coach on board with strategic losing. Last year, he refused to keep giving second-year quarterback Josh Rosen reps even though Rosen’s piss-poor performance was helping the Dolphins achieve their apparent goal of tanking. Instead, Flores put in Fitzpatrick, who powered Miami to three December wins in a 5-11 season. And maybe, by winning those games, Fitzpatrick thought he’d bought himself another year as Miami’s starter by bumping the team well out of the range in the draft where they could select obvious no. 1 pick Joe Burrow.
But in my eyes, Tagovailoa was the best prospect in the 2020 draft. Read draft profiles of him: The “weaknesses” sections are always full of shrugs. “Based purely on talent, Tua is the total package,” wrote Danny Kelly in The Ringer’s draft guide. “He’s a franchise player when healthy,” it says at Pro Football Focus. There were some modest worries about his arm strength (even though his deep-route passing numbers are off the charts) and some concerns that his stock was lifted by the players around him (even though no Alabama quarterback had ever produced stat lines remotely close to his). There was only one real worry: The dislocated hip that ended his college career and threatened to derail his pro prospects. (Bo Jackson’s career was permanently altered by a similar injury.)
So I understand why the Bengals took Burrow, given the worries about Tua’s durability. (It’s not just the hip—Tagovailoa also suffered high ankle sprains in both of his years as Alabama’s starter.) Tua fell into Miami’s lap with the fifth pick because of injury concerns, but does this look like a player with injury concerns?
Had to be done: Tua’s first completion, set to the Titanic theme pic.twitter.com/t8u9Ginr1M— Clay Ferraro (@ClayWPLG) October 18, 2020
If Tua is healthy, he’s a god. He holds college football’s all-time records for yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and passer efficiency rating. It’s funny to think that after the national championship, it seemed like Tua’s big problem was a tendency to commit turnovers—he finished at Bama with 87 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But the most impressive things about Tua are things that can’t be defined by numbers, or even words. He makes plays that simply look different from anybody else’s—and not just because he’s the first lefty QB to play in the NFL in five years. The guy can do this.
Many NFL teams still abide by the idea that young quarterbacks need time to get ready for the pros. But it seems like young quarterbacks are better than ever: In 2018, the Ravens sat Lamar Jackson for months, then let him play, and he turned what looked like it would be a dismal season into a playoff run. It now feels almost comical that Tyrod Taylor ever played this season over Justin Herbert for the Chargers. (Or two seasons ago in Cleveland over Baker Mayfield, who has actually grown worse as he’s gotten experience.)
Two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season were Week 1 starters in their rookie seasons: The Seahawks brought in Matt Flynn to be their starter in 2012, but Russell Wilson won the job, because he’s Russell Wilson, and then promptly began a run of five straight playoff appearances. And it took an offseason injury in 2016 to Tony Romo to get Dak Prescott the starting job, but he immediately proved his worth by leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 campaign. The league’s best quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, of course, infamously sat on the bench while Alex Smith started for the 2017 Chiefs. But should we praise the Chiefs for giving Mahomes time to develop? Or should we wonder whether they cost themselves a chance at an earlier Super Bowl appearance by leaving the league’s best quarterback on the bench? If you watched Mahomes play in his limited snaps from that season, you know: That dude was ready.
College football teams have done the same thing with true freshman quarterbacks. It seems ridiculous that a team playing in the national championship game might bench the quarterback who had gotten them to two straight national championship games for a 19-year-old with less than a year on campus. But that’s what happened in 2018, in a game I will never, ever shut up about. (I also never shut up during the 2018 season about how I thought Alabama needed to start Tua when he was riding the bench.) With Jalen Hurts at quarterback, the Tide were shut out in the first half. Then Nick Saban turned to Tua, and as soon as he entered the game, Alabama’s offense transformed, exploiting options that simply wouldn’t have been there with any other quarterback. Tagovailoa led Alabama to a title in a 26-23 win, throwing a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime. (If you have a microscope and look at the top-left corner of the screen, you can see me standing behind the end zone filming a celebrating Jerry Jeudy and Devonta Smith.)
You don’t sub in Tua Tagovailoa because you want a young kid to get reps. You sub him in because he’s better than the starter—even if that starter just brought you to back-to-back national championship games or is a 16-year vet playing some of the best ball of his career. You leave Hurts or Fitz in to avoid controversy. You play Tua because he’s the best.
Tua Tagovailoa has always been completely unfazed by pressure, whether in the form of defenders trying to destroy him or being asked to perform in moments seemingly meant for more experienced players. The Dolphins were waiting to play Tua until he was ready. But if you’ve watched Tua throughout his career, you know: He’s always been ready.