Tua Tagovailoa has never started an NFL playoff game, but he is no stranger to playing meaningful football in January. Sunday night’s AFC East decider between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills will be Tagovailoa’s fourth career game in the first month of the year. In 2021, he led Miami into Buffalo with the chance to lock up a wild-card berth in the final week of the season. He threw three interceptions, and Miami lost 56-26 and missed the playoffs. A year later, the Dolphins played the Titans under similar circumstances. They held on to the final wild-card spot in the AFC with two games remaining, but a loss (plus a Chargers win that day) eliminated them from playoff contention. Tagovailoa threw for 205 yards on 38 attempts, and Tennessee rolled to a 34-3 win.
Those two games, arguably two of the most important of Tagovailoa’s career to date, remain his two worst performances by expected points added. And that fits into a larger, more troubling pattern: A lot of Tagovailoa’s worst career performances have come late in the NFL calendar, when games tend to matter more and when we expect true franchise quarterbacks to rise to the occasion.
Tua Tagovailoa’s Worst Losses as a Starter by EPA
This weekend’s contest—which will decide the division and seeding for Miami and potentially whether Buffalo makes the postseason at all—is an opportunity for Tagovailoa to prove he’s a true franchise quarterback. The Dolphins have yet to start paying him like one, while the other quarterbacks from the 2020 draft class—like Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts—have already received nine-figure contract extensions. Even Jordan Love, who’s wrapping up his first year as the Packers starter, technically received an extension before Tagovailoa did (albeit a much smaller one than Tagovailoa will be seeking this offseason). The Dolphins picked up Tagovailoa’s fifth-year option but didn’t work out an extension in the offseason as the Bengals and Chargers did with their young signal-callers. That is typically the first sign that a team may be ready to move on from a first-round quarterback. There were a number of factors influencing Miami’s lack of commitment, of course—the 25-year-old’s terrifying history of concussions being at the top of that list. But with Tagovailoa on the verge of starting a full slate of games for the first time in his career, concerns about his health will soon take a back seat to questions about his capacity to lead the Dolphins to a Super Bowl. And those types of questions typically get answered around this time of the year.
So while a playoff berth isn’t on the line for Miami this weekend, the stakes are as high as ever for Tagovailoa. He has an opportunity to deliver the Dolphins’ first division title in 15 years, debunk the narrative that he doesn’t play his best in the biggest games, and maybe even convince Miami’s front office to write him one of those nine-figure checks that all of his peers have gotten. Or there’s the flip side: If he comes up short in yet another big spot and follows that up with a forgettable performance in the playoffs, it may be the last chance he gets before the Dolphins start looking for his replacement.
The idea that Tagovailoa struggles in big games is mostly a narrative thing. But as with many narratives, there is a layer of truth to it: Nearly all of his worst performances have come in high-profile games. There was the stinker against the 49ers last season, the dud against Justin Herbert on Sunday Night Football last December, and the blowout loss in Buffalo earlier this season. But Tua has had monster days against good opponents as well. He outplayed Josh Allen in a statement win over the Bills early last season. He threw six touchdowns and led Miami back from a three-score deficit against the Ravens, which resulted in Mike McDaniel’s first big win as Dolphins coach in 2022. And two weeks ago, he orchestrated a game-winning drive against the Cowboys. There are enough counterexamples of Tagovailoa playing well in big spots to push back against the idea that he’s not equipped for those games.
But while I don’t believe that Tagovailoa has a big-game problem, the numbers show that his play under McDaniel has worsened as we’ve gotten deeper into the season.
Tagovailoa’s Performance by Month, Since 2022
We’re talking about a team from Miami here, so you might be thinking that weather is the explanation for this trend. Practicing in nice, sunny weather does not prepare a team for late-season trips to the Northeast. McDaniel even poked fun at the weather theories last season. But if we just look at home games, we see a similar pattern:
Tagovailoa’s Home Performance by Month, Since 2022
And when you drill down even deeper, you find a similar pattern even within the games themselves: Tagovailoa is at his best in the first quarter and at his worst in the fourth.
Tagovailoa’s Performance by Quarter, Since 2022
These trends might be more troubling than the idea that Tagovailoa doesn’t perform well in big spots. It also matches what a lot of analysts observed during Miami’s 56-19 loss in Baltimore last Sunday: that Tagovailoa and McDaniel couldn’t adjust after the Ravens defense got acclimated to the speed and precision of the Dolphins passing game. Throws that were open in the first quarter were covered later on, and Miami had no answer. After scoring 10 points on two drives in the first, Tua and Co. scored just nine across the rest of the game.
“I think the offensive players were feeling that success, and then I think they went a step further and tried to force some plays that ended up in turnovers,” McDaniel said of his team’s late-game performance. “And that’s kind of what derailed the entire game from the offense’s perspective. … Those types of things came in the heat of the battle that didn’t present themselves at the beginning of the game, so you have to get your mind right for how long these competitions are.”
Like many coaches, McDaniel has an opening script of play calls that he follows at the beginning of games. These are plays designed to attack specific defensive weaknesses that his staff identified on tape—and McDaniel is one of the best at doing just that. His opening scripts are typically effective, even against the NFL’s best defenses. Miami scored on each of its first two drives against the Ravens on Sunday. Tagovailoa led two early scoring drives against the Bills earlier this season. And over the course of the year, the Dolphins quarterback has been at his best over the first 15 plays of a game—the typical number that’s included in a coach’s script:
Tagovailoa Dominates the First 15 Plays
|First 15 Plays
|Rest of Game
When the Dolphins offense is on script, Tagovailoa performs like an MVP. Off script, though, he’s producing at a league-average level. He’s not the same player the second and third time through the batting order, which tends to happen to hurlers who have only one or two good pitches. That’s an apt way of describing Tagovailoa’s game at this point in his development: He has only two good pitches, and while they’re damn effective ones, opponents will eventually get a feel for them.
Those pitches are a beautiful go ball and his best throw, the post route. Nobody has gotten more mileage out of those post-route throws than the Dolphins quarterback this season, and it’s not particularly close.
Most Post Routes Thrown, 2023 Season
It’s not a coincidence that the next-closest quarterbacks are coached by McDaniel’s former boss, Kyle Shanahan, and his former colleague, Bobby Slowik. This has become a key route for the Shanahan coaching tree, but McDaniel has Tagovailoa spamming these throws like a teenager playing Madden. Miami has thrown 27 more post routes than the next-closest team. That gap is wider than the gap between second and last place.
Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are almost always on the receiving end of these throws. One of them will routinely line up to one side of the field with three receivers to the other, and the tilted formation usually opens up a window for Tagovailoa to throw quickly.
Tagovailoa is proficient when targeting post routes from any alignment, but he’s averaging 1.03 EPA per attempt with a 79 percent success rate when making those throws from trips formations. He’s also getting rid of those passes in just 2.28 seconds. This fits a larger theme within the Dolphins passing game, as Sports Info Solutions’ Bryce Rossler observed this week. “Miami has been far and away the best 3×1 gun (three receivers to the strong side, one to the weak side in shotgun) team in the NFL this season,” Rossler wrote. “On 172 neutral script plays, they’ve averaged a whopping 0.39 EPA per play in this family of formations, which is three times better than the second-best team. … On the other hand, they have been bad in their 2×2 gun formations (137 plays). They average -0.24 EPA per play—which is 30th in the league, just barely ahead of the New York teams—and the absolute difference between these two formation shells is easily the biggest for any team at a massive 0.63 EPA per play.”
The Dolphins passing game is really good at doing a few things, and they do those things over and over again. What makes McDaniel so good at his job—and why all the film nerds call him a genius—is his ability to repackage those concepts in a variety of ways. Here’s Shanahan, McDaniel’s old boss, explaining the foundational idea behind their larger offensive system:
This setup is why the Shanahan offense is considered QB friendly: Concepts can be repeated without fear because coaches use different formations and pre-snap shifts to disguise what’s coming. In theory, the offense should work even if a quarterback excels at only a few things—until defenses catch on, which tends to happen over the course of a season. Against the better defenses, that catch-up can happen over the course of a single game.
Over the past month, we’ve seen defenses doing just that. They’re getting defenders in the spots Tagovailoa has favored all season and daring him to adjust on the fly. Here’s an almost comical example from the second half of the loss in Baltimore. Watch Geno Stone, the safety at the top of the screen, step right into the window of Hill’s post route and just freeze.
From the end zone angle, you can see Tagovailoa fight the urge to make the throw, even with the defender obstructing the throwing window.
We’re seeing more and more examples of these plays as the season wears on and the Dolphins put more of their passing game on tape. Here’s one from the team’s Week 8 rematch with the Patriots, in which Tagovailoa is unable to fight the urge to throw to a covered receiver after a safety positions himself in the throwing lane.
In this example from Week 14, the Titans drop a safety into the middle of the field to cover the in-breaking route Tagovailoa wants to hit.
These defenders didn’t just end up in the right spots at the right time. They planned it. And it’s easier to devise effective plans when you can watch what worked for other defenses. That, I think, is what explains Tagovailoa’s poor track record in winter more than any of the narratives concerning his mental fortitude or clutch gene. He has a unique but limited skill set, and defenses eventually find the tactics that expose the limits of his game—namely, his inability to adjust after the snap if a defense takes away his primary options.
It’s not a coincidence that the most effective plans against the Dolphins have mostly looked the same, with a heavy emphasis on two-high zone coverage. “Just like every team we play, they seem to find their way to Cover 2,” Hill said of the Ravens’ defensive adjustments during Sunday’s game. “We’ve just got to find a way to put drives together when teams begin to feel comfortable in Cover 2. Watching film, the Ravens ran Cover 2, but it wasn’t that much. But towards the end of the game, whenever their corners went out, they fell in love with Cover 2. So, we just have to find ways to put drives together. If it’s passing the ball, whether it’s running the ball—whatever the case may be—we’ve just got to do a better job on that.”
They’ll get a chance to do that on Sunday against a Bills team that majors in two-high zone coverage. And Tagovailoa already knows what to expect. “They hide their problems well,” Tua said of the Bills this week. “I mean, they are really good in that sense. They’re really good also with their disguise and showing shell and then going one-high, and disguising that with their other coverages and their two-high deal. They present some good problems for us.”
You can bet McDaniel will have a good opening script for Tagovailoa that will lead to some early success, but there won’t be a prolonged feeling-out process for either team. This will be the fifth time the Dolphins and Bills have played each other over the past two seasons. Buffalo knows where Tagovailoa wants to throw the ball. It knows all of McDaniel’s calls to set up those throws. Tagovailoa’s biggest obstacle on Sunday night won’t be the big, bad Bills—he beat an even better version of this team last year. It also won’t be the pressure of a big game late in the season. He handled that just fine against Dallas last month. No, his biggest obstacle will be familiarity. If he can overcome that more regularly, starting with this weekend’s AFC title game, the big wins—and a contract offer—will follow.