Back in October, Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel was asked for his reaction to breaking the NFL’s record for most offensive yards through five weeks in a season. “Mission accomplished,” McDaniel said, dripping in sarcasm. “That was our goal, the whole time, the whole offseason, that was our goal, output after five games.”
Ironically, “output after five games” is exactly how we will remember these 2023 Dolphins. Miami lost 26-7 to the Chiefs in the wild-card round of the playoffs on Saturday night, which didn’t eliminate the Dolphins as much as it froze them solid and then shattered them into a thousand pieces like the school bully in Rick and Morty.
Miami was downright uncompetitive. Its only points came on a touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill that was so badly underthrown that Hill nearly had to come to a complete stop to catch it. Miami converted just one third down in the first 55 minutes of the game, and it became clear that, no matter what the weather, this Dolphins team did not have a comeback in it. And it seemed like McDaniel knew it, too. Down 19 points, with about seven minutes left and facing a third-and-10, McDaniel called a bubble screen that lost 6 yards. On fourth down, he called a quick slant. The offense that looked unstoppable in September and October and the quarterback at the helm of it had absolutely no juice in their biggest game of the season.
The video of Taylor Swift dancing to “Swag Surfin’” at the end of the game will live forever. But only Dolphins fans will remember it as a monument to their failure.
This was a bitter and disappointing end, but one that was emblematic of the Dolphins’ season. They were destroyed 56-19 by the Ravens in Week 17 (when they lost control of the no. 1 seed in the AFC) and lost the AFC East title when they were beaten by the Bills in Week 18.
Tyreek Hill: This is the right group of people to win a chip. We have to put together drives to help the defense out. We can’t just be a bunch of front runners.— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) January 14, 2024
There are obvious excuses that could help explain this Dolphins collapse. Receiver Jaylen Waddle and running back Raheem Mostert, who tied for the league lead in touchdowns, were injured down the stretch. Half of Miami’s starting defense suffered injuries and missed the playoff game, including its top three edge rushers. And it was a cruel twist that Miami, of all teams, had to play in one of the coldest games in NFL history. It was minus-4 degrees at kickoff time at Arrowhead Stadium, the fourth-coldest temperature at the start of a game ever. Only two games have ever had a worse wind chill than Kansas City’s minus-27. Just last season, the Dolphins played a home game in which the Vikings sideline was 122 degrees, which is a 149-degree swing in the feels like category.
Miami has excuses, but it also has decisions to make. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is entering the final year of his contract in 2024. Miami will have to decide this offseason whether it wants to give him a quarter-billion-dollar contract extension to keep pace with the ballooning quarterback market or replace the best quarterback the Dolphins have had since Dan Marino.
While Tagovailoa is under contract (the team picked up his fifth-year option for 2024 during the 2023 offseason), teams typically extend franchise quarterbacks before their final season. When teams make exceptions to this rule, it typically does not end well. Most recently, the Giants let Daniel Jones play out his contract in 2022 and last spring ended up giving him a contract worth $160 million. (Jones played in just six games this season, and the Giants went 1-5 in those contests, and Jones is dealing with a neck injury for the second time in four years.) Washington let Kirk Cousins essentially play on a one-year deal for three consecutive seasons, which led to the franchise paying him a ridiculous amount of money and still losing him in free agency without getting anything in return.
Dolphins fans may scoff at the idea of not re-signing Tua. Since the beginning of 2022, Tagovailoa ranks second in yards per throw, expected points added per pass attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt while ranking in the top five in yards per game and passing touchdowns. As a team, Miami has scored just under 25 points per game since the beginning of 2022, almost exactly the same mark as the Chiefs in that span, and is top seven in the league.
That sort of production puts Tagovailoa in line for $100 million more than what the Giants paid Jones. The other quarterbacks drafted with Tagovailoa in 2020—Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, and Jalen Hurts—each signed new contracts with a five-year value of somewhere between $255 million (Hurts) and $275 million (Burrow). It’s hard to imagine Tagovailoa agreeing to a deal worth much less than that, especially since he showed this season he is able to stay healthy for an entire year. Both Burrow and Herbert suffered season-ending injuries in 2023, while Tagovailoa, who suffered multiple concussions in 2022, did not miss a game. So the question becomes how much Tagovailoa is responsible for the Dolphins’ success and how much he has been pulled along by head coach Mike McDaniel and receiver Tyreek Hill.
My Ringer colleague Steven Ruiz noted in a column earlier this month that Tagovailoa disproportionately succeeds on the first 15 plays of the game—the plays McDaniel scripts—and struggles more afterward, akin to a pitcher with only one or two strong pitches who struggles “the second and third time through the batting order.” That, rather than anything weather related, may also be why Tagovailoa has struggled in big games late in the season. It’s reminiscent of the Jared Goff–era Rams, who would crush early and often collapse later in the season. The blame was put on Sean McVay, but in reality, it seems that the problem was that McVay could cover up Goff’s deficiencies for only so long. The Rams gave Goff a contract extension in September 2019, a few months after they lost the Super Bowl, but traded him just one year later and immediately won the Super Bowl with Matthew Stafford. It is not difficult to envision a similar scenario unfolding in which the Dolphins re-sign Tagovailoa but run out of offensive answers at the end of the year.
Moving on from Tagovailoa would feel radical for a team that has had such little quarterback success since Marino retired after the 1999 season. Tagovailoa made the Pro Bowl this season, ending Miami’s run of being the only team without a Pro Bowl QB in the 21st century. The Dolphins also have an underrated sad fan base. They have not won a Super Bowl in 50 years. They have not won a playoff game since 2000. The most exciting offense Miami had in the 21st century before McDaniel came along was the Wildcat, when they had little use for a quarterback at all. Miami traded Ryan Tannehill for a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder and watched him have a career renaissance in Tennessee. Nobody feels bad for Dolphins fans because they live in Miami, and other sad fan bases like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Minnesota have seemingly had it so much worse, and in much colder weather. Miami fans might not need to list the names of 37 different starters on the back of a jersey, but that is the type of sadness we are talking about. So suggesting that the Dolphins should simply move on is borderline heresy. Tua is not just a good Dolphins quarterback; for an entire generation of fans, he is the best they have ever known.
Miami has other big decisions looming. Offensive coordinator Frank Smith could be a head-coaching candidate and leave for a new job this cycle. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins will need a large contract extension (and is a candidate for the franchise tag). Edge rusher Andrew Van Ginkel is set for free agency, as is center Connor Williams and guard Robert Hunt. But the biggest decision by far is what to do about Tua.
Miami will probably re-sign him, and the offense will likely still look fantastic in mid-October. But if the Dolphins do care about things beyond offensive output after five weeks, he’ll have to be much better than he was Saturday night.