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The Proving Ground of Tua Tagovailoa

As he enters his third NFL season, Tagovailoa has already become all too familiar with injuries, incompletions, and institutional chaos. But can Mike McDaniel’s belief, the buy-in of a star receiver, and better protection unlock a new version of the Dolphins QB?

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NFL teams have spent the past six months reshaping their rosters and now, finally, the 2022 regular season is nearly upon us. But which teams have truly pushed all their pieces to the middle of the table and are ready to make a serious run to Super Bowl LVII? Welcome to The Ringer’s All In Week, where we’ll examine the quarterback moves, team-building philosophies, and gambles that teams have made to compete for a championship and determine what it truly means to be all in.

A couple of days after Mike McDaniel was hired to be the 14th head coach of the Miami Dolphins, he FaceTimed his new quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, from an airplane to say hello. “We’re gonna have an extensive professional relationship, my man!” McDaniel said by way of introduction. McDaniel, now 39, had been working in football for 16 seasons, climbing from Denver Broncos intern to San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator to, now, his first NFL head-coaching gig. “I’m elated, bro,” he went on. “It is an unbelievable opportunity for me that I do not plan on wasting in the slightest. I promise you that. I’m all in. You’re going to get the best out of me that you could possibly get.”

McDaniel already had been thinking about how he might get the best out of Tagovailoa, too. He watched tape after tape of the former Alabama quarterback and no. 5 draft pick in 2020, throw after throw. “I’d heard all these conflicting things,” says McDaniel, speaking with The Ringer one recent Saturday morning before a Dolphins training camp session. So had most NFL fans. The typical knocks on Tagovailoa over his first two seasons were well-known: that he couldn’t reliably hurl the long ball, that his passing stats were middling at best, that he lagged behind contemporaries like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert.

“But then when I watched,” McDaniel says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is really very accurate.’ And I think that he has a pretty cool feel for the game at the quarterback position, relative to all quarterbacks.”

As McDaniel began interacting with Tagovailoa in person rather than observing him on-screen, the coach’s perception of his would-be marquee player deepened and widened. Something that struck McDaniel was that, while the 24-year-old’s physical skills were evident and obvious, so were some of his psyche’s constraints. “When I got around him,” McDaniel says, “there became more and more evidence that there were a lot of things going on in his mind that were projected from past experiences that he didn’t need to worry about.”

What kind of past experiences? Per Tagovailoa’s own recounting, basically all of them. Early this past June, during minicamp, the quarterback remarked to reporters that “I’ve never been around a coach like this who’s just extremely positive. Growing up, my dad’s always been hard on me. My high school coach has been hard on me. [Alabama] coach [Nick] Saban has been hard on me, and all the coaches that I’ve had prior, they’ve all been hard on me.”

Tagovailoa has repeatedly thrived under this sort of pressure, rising to every challenge from childhood to a collegiate national championship. But the reward for doing so has been more pressure still. Which is how he now finds himself facing abruptly high stakes in just his third season as Miami’s quarterback: live up to his own historically onerous standards, or risk going from generational talent to what-might-have-been bust.

Of course, that’s not how his new coach wants him to think. Since being named Dolphins head coach, McDaniel has implemented not only an idiosyncratic playbook but also his intuitive interpersonal approach. And as McDaniel got to know Tagovailoa, “I thought he was just, to be honest, a little hard on himself unnecessarily for things that he didn’t need to be hard on.” Old habits die hard!

For Tagovailoa, working with a new play-caller who is as serene as he is cerebral has been an adjustment. “Mike is always trying to encourage you and trying to keep you going, so for me, it’s a little backward,” Tagovailoa told reporters at minicamp. “I’m used to being hard on myself and the coach getting hard on me, too, whereas I’m getting hard on myself and he’s trying to tell me, ‘Hey, it’s going to be OK. We’re only in May. We’re only in June.’”

Now, though, September is coming, and Miami has spent the summer fitfully attempting to outfit its quarterback with the right tools for a fresh start: an encouraging rookie head coach, an All-Pro receiver, a revamped offensive line. Might that be enough to help Tagovailoa rise above the injuries, incompletions, and institutional chaos of his short professional career? Or will it feel more like Groundhog Day? As Tagovailoa drops back to contemplate the unfolding possibilities of this crucial season, all he can do is hope that this new route will lead the right way.

As a kid growing up in Hawaii, Tagovailoa played lefty not because he was a lefty, but because his father implored him to become one. As a highly touted teenaged true freshman backup QB at Alabama, Tagovailoa pulled off something that almost sounds fake: Thrown abruptly into the national championship game at halftime, he threw three touchdown passes, one of which tied the game late in the fourth quarter and another that won his team the title. Total king shit! In the aftermath of that win, though, he worked so hard to live the lessons that had always been drilled into him—stay humble, act like you’ve been there before—that he never got to abandon all decorum and simply rule. “I think I was probably the only one not celebrating as much as I probably should have,” he said on the Fish Tank podcast this spring about that game, an assessment borne out by this footage. (“He convincingly played the part of a veteran,” one postgame assessment said.)

After that win and the adulation that went along with it, things got trickier for Tagovailoa. Students’ parents would show up at Alabama lecture halls, hoping to get a quick pic with the player. His team returned to the national championship game the following year but lost. His junior season, he was sidelined with injuries that would require hip surgery and ultimately affect his NFL draft stock. (It didn’t help that, during the early days of COVID-19, teams weren’t able to medically assess his recovery in person.) The most efficient collegiate passer of all time was once expected to go first in the NFL draft; instead, Tagovailoa went no. 5 to the Dolphins, a team that last won a playoff game in Y2K and had started six different quarterbacks in the preceding five seasons. The once-iconic franchise hoped Tagovailoa might recapture that old rookie magic.

In his first two seasons, Tagovailoa went 13-8 in games he started, injured his thumb and his rib, endured rumors in the fall of 2021 that the team was hoping to trade for Deshaun Watson (a transaction that yielded the grim quote “I don’t not feel wanted”) and worked with a coach in Brian Flores who was, you guessed it, hard on him. He has had flashes of excellence, with best-in-league short-game accuracy and an ability to make unusually quick decisions. But he has also taken a lot of shit, much of it well beyond his control.

During his rookie season, the Dolphins’ yo-yo management of Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick made for an unpleasant, chaotic welcome. In his second year, Tua took snaps behind one of the NFL’s least-effective offensive lines. This May, he suffered the rare indignity of the secondary self-own when the Dolphins team account tweeted out a video of him underthrowing a receiver with a rocket emoji as a caption. (A poor team PR rep had to explain all this to him at the time, assuming he’d be asked about its implications by the media.) Earlier this month, training camp was interrupted by the news that team owner Stephen Ross was being fined and suspended for his role in tampering with quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Sean Payton (and that the team would be docked a draft pick). “How many ways can this organization undermine Tua?” a Miami sports radio host on the Joe Rose Show asked the next morning, with exasperation and maybe even a little pity.

Still, South Florida is well-positioned to appreciate the clean slate of each sunrise. And as everything barrels toward a new steamy, muggy football season—August zooming past July, merging without signaling just like a true local—things in Miami Gardens are in the midst of a reset, with Tagovailoa at the center.

During the offseason, the Dolphins traded for a speedy new Super Bowl–winning receiver—albeit one with an ugly past—in Tyreek Hill. They also picked up some people chosen specifically for their ability to support the starting quarterback, like offensive lineman Terron Armstead and journeyman gunslinger Teddy Bridgewater. The hiring of McDaniel, with his offensive schemes rich with play-action and streaking, sweeping, lopsided formations, suggested a new approach to finding Tagovailoa’s sweet spot. And while McDaniel retained the bulk of the defensive coaching staff from the Flores era, he brought in some new personnel across the line of scrimmage, including a quarterbacks coach in Darrell Bevell who helped discover Russell Wilson back in the day. “I know the question keeps coming up about him throwing the deep ball,” Bevell told reporters of Tagovailoa. “And you know, from what I had seen up to that point, there’s not going to be any issues with the throws that he’s going to be asked to make.”

The guy newly in charge of asking for the making of the throws is McDaniel, the latest branch of the Shanahan and Son/Sean McVay coaching tree to come into full bloom. McDaniel’s origin story involves riding his bike to Denver Broncos training camp as an NFL-obsessed child. His initial big break—becoming a Broncos ball boy—hinged, in his telling, on a lost-and-found “pretty obnoxious turquoise” Charlotte Hornets hat (and involved both tears and an eventual wedding). He walked on to the Yale football team; he mostly watched from the sideline. His chill millennial humor is so deadpan and finely tuned that when Rich Eisen challenged him to scatter some specific clichés into future press conferences as an inside joke, he did so almost immediately and effortlessly, all in one sentence, at the NFL combine. He was childhood friends with comedian Dan Soder and he also used to coach Denzel Washington’s son John David, which means he knows people on both Billions and Ballers, somehow. When reporters wished him a “good morning” at his 9:45 a.m. pressers during training camp, he corrected them: “Good afternoon.” His innovative (and occasionally downright slapstick) bag of X’s-and-O’s tricks has made for some of the most fun advancements in the sport. He’s the kind of guy that leaves people asking: Who is that?

One of those people was Dolphins wide receiver coach Wes Welker, a five-time Pro Bowler who played in the NFL for more than a decade before transitioning to coaching in 2017. Despite having such a résumé—and having played for six seasons under Bill Belichick—when Welker began working with McDaniel, he saw strategies that he’d never encountered before. “I remember him interviewing me,” Welker recalled of their first meeting, in San Francisco. “I believe his hair was super long. So I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” He quickly found out: McDaniel became something of a coaching mentor to Welker, showing him how he liked to splice together game film, among other things. “You get what you emphasize,” McDaniel would say.

“You see everything,” said Welker of McDaniel’s videos. “It’s telling a story. And you’re like, ‘Wow, that was, like, really cool.’ I’ve never had a coach do something like that. And I mean, I was in the league for 12 years!” Now, Welker said, that kind of communication has become second nature to him. “I know exactly the clip that I need to show the guys whenever they screw something up,” he said, smiling but serious. (According to several players, Welker often slips in footage of himself back in the day.)

“He makes it full circle, especially if you mess up,” said receiver Jaylen Waddle. “He shows you a play that you get the same look from the defense—kind of how it’s supposed to be. So he paints that picture in your mind so the next time you go out there, you know what to expect and how you’re going to treat it.” In a way, it sounds like the NFL version of the ol’ tried-and-true criticism sandwich.

“My expectation for myself,” McDaniel tells me, “is that I’m the best coach that the players have had—fully knowing that that’s really hard to do, and that they’ve probably been coached by really good coaches.” Which is why he seeks his edge in the editing room. “The idea is that maybe I can gain their attention more,” he says. “Maybe I can connect with them more. Historically, people have ADD, especially NFL football players. Well, can I keep their attention?

“It’s like, just understanding cognitive retention,” McDaniel says. “People’s ability to retain information is maximized when it’s told through a story.” And not only can he communicate something to a player directly, he can showcase what he wants to convey to the rest of the team, too. Which was something he has made sure to do when it comes to Tagovailoa.

“Not just show him the good stuff,” McDaniel says, “but really take him, and show other players what he was doing on a certain play so that they would understand what they were seeing and how good it was. You know, when Tua is doing stuff really well, it doesn’t look like he’s trying that hard, which is the common denominator with people doing great stuff. So then it became showing the team, so that as opposed to me just being confident, I knew the players needed to see what I saw as well.”

You get what you emphasize, after all.

Miami Dolphins Training Camp Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This summer, not only have Tagovailoa’s teammates seen something in him, they’ve said something, too. In some cases, a lot of somethings. The first time Hill got together with his new quarterback following his trade from Kansas City, he tried to remain understated to match Tagovailoa’s energy. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll play it cool,’” Hill tells The Ringer following a recent practice, hopping from one foot to the other to keep his muscles from cramping. “If you look at it in all honesty, the quarterback is the face of the franchise. Maybe I’m just here to do what I’m supposed to do and make Tua look good, huh?”

To Hill, that meant both on the field and in the media—and it didn’t take long before he began publicly and conspicuously boosting his new teammate. “Tua actually has probably one of the prettiest balls I’ve ever caught in my life,” Hill told reporters in May. “It’s very catchable.” He called Tagovailoa the most accurate quarterback in the NFL (implicitly dissing Hill’s former teammate, Patrick Mahomes, in the process). Last week, Hill told reporters that the Dolphins quarterback was “bringing a little more swag to the game.”

Trent Sherfield, a Dolphins wide receiver, said that “my favorite thing about working with Tua is his response [to adversity],” adding: “Shoot, he faced adversity even at Alabama, so this is nothing new to him.” (Come to think of it, even Tua’s most celebrated college moment, that national championship–winning touchdown, came one play after a nerve-racking sack!) Chatting after a recent training camp practice, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tells The Ringer that he’s enjoyed getting to know Tagovailoa. “You know, he has a chip on his shoulder that I love about him,” Bridgewater says. “That swagger that you want to see. He’s becoming an alpha.”

Well … kinda sorta. NFL training camps routinely comprise a whole lot of false peaks, mirages, and collective hallucinations in which everyone involved is in the best shape of their lives and coming out of their shells and really hitting their strides. And so, in something of a time-honored tradition, it ranged from mildly comedic to truly compelling, over the course of a week of camp, to compare the Tagovailoa of past lore with the man right there himself. On the one hand, to hear teammates tell it, he has a skip in his step and he has started talking shit. On the other, when Tagovailoa did anything—from training camp drills to media sessions—he came across less like a braggadocious pro athlete and more like a brilliant, self-conscious Project Runway or Great British Bake-Off contestant: standing before the judges, waiting for the kind of critique that begets real inspiration, defensive and earnest all at once.

During early training camp practices, the predominant energy in the stands every time Tagovailoa touched the ball was one of shoulder-rubbing support; of almost prayerful pleading. One of the most satisfying spectacles came on the first day that camp was open to fans: Not only did Hill pull off a back flip, he also hauled in a 55-yard bomb from Tagovailoa that racked up some 3 million views when the video hit social media. (Asked days later why he thought there was such fascination with the play, Tagovailoa responded: “I think people don’t think I can throw the ball far.”) Another came about a week later, when the three quarterbacks on the roster took turns trying to throw the ball from midfield into a small net in the end zone. Tagovailoa hit his on the first try, and the crowd erupted like it was a Sunday in December. Bridgewater put one arm around his teammate and pumped the other one in the air as everyone chanted Tua’s name. (Tagovailoa returned the favor when Bridgewater and rookie third-stringer Skylar Thompson, who at 25 is a year older than Tua, made one, too.)

It was during Bridgewater’s third season, the same one Tagovailoa is just about to begin, that he suffered a catastrophic knee injury that changed the trajectory of his career. “Given the position that we play in, there is no guarantees” about the future, Bridgewater says. “I don’t know if I can say this or not, but sometimes you just have to drop your balls, you know?” (He doesn’t mean fumbling.) “And you see it now: He’s letting them hang.”

Speaking of hanging: Back in June, Hill invited Tagovailoa onto his podcast, called It Needed to Be Said, where he said many things indeed, including a pep talk for the ages.

“We gotta obviously follow Coach’s lead, and follow your lead,” he said to a bashful Tagovailoa. “We just gotta let the naysayers do their talking and motivate us. And then we just play ball on Sundays, man. You feel me? Everything else will take care of everything else, Big Dog, I promise you. Because I believe in you, and I know everybody else believes in you, Dog. And I’m saying that not only as your teammate, I’m saying that as your brother, bro. Because you are that deal, bro. And if you believe that you’re that deal, the sky’s the limit for you, Big Dog, I promise you.”

Las Vegas Raiders v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Hill’s motivational speech stood out not because it rang differently from the types of things that could be heard throughout Dolphins training camp, but because it fit right in. After all, this is an organization where players define having a cohesive unit as “being able to come together, really show our love for one another, running after the ball, all of that,” as Jaelan Phillips put it to the media. Anthony Campanile, a linebackers coach, tells The Ringer that his and his players’ mindsets revolve around “making the people you love proud every day.” He doesn’t stop there, either: “If you’re bought into and not embarrassed about honestly loving each other and talking about that,” he says, “you’re going to get the best version of yourselves.” It’s not the type of language you’d typically expect to hear quite so much in a professional football setting.

But Sherfield, who played for McDaniel previously in San Francisco, told reporters that fostering this sort of environment had noticeable benefits. “I think you get a little more vulnerability from the players,” the receiver said. “When I say that, I mean the players are able to go to Mike because Mike’s door is always open.”

The way McDaniel sees it, embracing vulnerability on an organizational level can be an advantage. “People run away from vulnerability,” he says, particularly in the world of sports. “They perceive it as being a bad thing or a weakness. And ironically, I see it completely opposite. I see it as a strength: acknowledging what you want, acknowledging something that’s hard to do, maybe low percentage to do; trying to do something special.” (Like, say, declaring out loud that one’s ambition is to be the best coach these players have ever had, and meaning it sincerely.) Centering vulnerability needn’t carry the implication of being a pushover or giving everyone whatever they ask for. Quite the opposite: Done correctly, it means committing to the pursuit of a big answer without shying away from the difficult questions.

In 2017, McDaniel spoke with USA Today about a crucial turning point in his career: the time some of his colleagues on the Atlanta Falcons suggested to him that he might have a destructive relationship with alcohol, and then supported him as he sought treatment. “For the first time in my life,” McDaniel remarked then, “I had men stand behind me and say, ‘Hey, you’re not alone, dude.’” Five years later, he is now a head coach with the ability to shape not only his own path, but his players’. “In life’s journey, some of the things that you perceived to be the worst things that happen to you are the best,” he tells The Ringer. “Without being vulnerable, I don’t see how you can achieve anything other than average. And it can be relative, but I think it’s a sign of strength to sit here and say, ‘No, I want this. I want to go after it.’”

This kind of attitude has dovetailed with Tagovailoa’s evolving understanding of his own foundational, familial pursuit: being ever so humble. On Hill’s podcast, Tua pointed out that he didn’t want people to ever mistake his humility for a lack of confidence or competitiveness.

“I just don’t want people to get the misconception that being humble is being the nice guy,” Tagovailoa explained. “I’ve always had it inside: I’d be humble, but at the same time, in my mind, you wouldn’t know that I’m out there to still do what I want to do. Compete, obviously, throw a lot of touchdowns, and a lot of other things. Being a little more vocal with it has been something that I just started.”

Of course, it’s all just talk until the season gets underway—for the team, and for Tua. Last Saturday, the quarterback was solid in his preseason debut, completing six of eight passes over the course of two drives in an appearance that was pleasantly uneventful. But once the real games begin, all it will take to segue from “The sky’s the limit for you, Big Dog!” to “Does he have that dog in him?” is an underthrow here, a miscommunication there. And looming all season will be the prospect of Miami’s toughest, coldest tests: December and January divisional games in Buffalo and New England, oh my!

But for now, the team continues to bask in the warm hug of Florida, where one quickly realizes there are two very different ways to experience the dawn of a new day. You can plan ahead, wake up super early, and position yourself in just the right spot for the sunrise, a model of initiative and preparation. Or you can stubbornly wait up all night, lingering just a little bit longer and a little bit longer still, fighting the urge to close your eyes until, at last, the darkness starts to fade. Either way, that first glow feels hard-won. Either way, you wish others could see what you see. You could act like you’ve been there before, sure—but where’s the beauty in that?

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