Dave Hyde: Dolphins can’t pay Tua Tagovailoa like a franchise quarterback until he is one

The smartest move the Miami Dolphins can make right now is to not give Tua Tagovailoa one of those mega-contracts franchise quarterbacks are getting until he is a franchise quarterback.

They could offer him half the going $50 million rate in a way that helps team’s salary-cap in the short term, too. Maybe they get talked into $28 million to be nice. Even then, the structure of the deal needs to provide a quick exit ramp if in two or three years if this is all the further he can advance his game.

Beyond a general idea of adding some grit to this offense, what to do with Tagovailoa is the first order of business this offseason because so many other financial decisions have to be made. He makes a guaranteed $23.2 million next season because the team picked up his fifth-year option last winter. The question now is if they let that contract play out or extend it.

General manager Chris Grier and coach Mike McDaniel have been sunny-side-up about everything about Tagovailoa the past couple of years. That served a purpose after he was beat up his first two seasons. But they need to protect the franchise by not mortgaging the future on Tagovailoa when no one’s sure who he is after four years.

Grier said Monday the goal is to, “have him long term playing at a high level,” but any contract discussion would remains private. He should privately say Tagovailoa needs to take another big, mother-may-I step forward before a big contract. He should privately say the quarterback needs to be better against good teams. He should privately say, “Don’t be surprised if we take a quarterback with the first pick if the opportunity is there.” Yes, that’s how you protect a franchise.

The Dolphins gave Tagovailoa the keys to the kingdom the past two years and have nothing to show for it but some big statistics and fun moments against bad teams. Against good teams, Tagovailoa hasn’t done much. When the season was on the line, he didn’t help to save it.

If you were looking for a franchise quarterback in these past three Dolphins games, he was on the other side. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes showed you what that kind of player looks like.

Did Tagovailoa resemble any of those players? That doesn’t mean he can’t. It doesn’t mean this team should be done with him. It means there are some questions about his ceiling after the manner his fourth season played out.

That means the Dolphins can’t give him a contract that marries them for the next several years. We’re not at that point after four years. There’s this nagging question in just writing that timeline. If you don’t know by now, don’t you really know? Are the Dolphins going to Ryan Tannehill this by going to a sixth and seventh year saying he does a lot of good things?

Against opponents with losing records, the Dolphins were 10-1, as Tagovailoa threw 22 touchdowns against eight interceptions with a 110.7 quarterback rating.

Against opponents with winning records, they were 1-6 as Tagovailoa threw eight touchdowns against seven interceptions with an 80.8 rating.

Is it him? Is it the offense? Is it like the Florida Panthers when they had the best regular-season team with a high-flying offense a couple of years ago that went bust in the playoffs? The Panthers realized that style doesn’t win tough, gritty games. They made fundamental changes.

Besides winning, McDaniel had one primary job in taking over the Dolphins two years ago: Figure out what they have in Tagovailoa. He did that. The coach then refined the offense last season around the quarterback’s “superpowers,” as quarterback coach Darrell Bevell called them. Accuracy. Timing. Anticipation. Vision.

That quick-throw offense also hid Tagovailoa’s super problems of a lack of size, arm strength, mobility and ability to create a play out of chaos when the planned play falls apart. Good defenses sniffed out those problems. They took away the horizontal passes like receiver screens, quick strikes over the middle and outside runs that are central to making the Dolphins offense look like a track team.

Like Kansas City, defenses often played two safeties deep against the Dolphins in a manner that frustrated receiver Tyreek Hill. The Dolphins didn’t have a tough running game to take advantage of that. Tagovailoa was asked to beat it and couldn’t against teams down the stretch. The bitter cold in Kansas City didn’t help. But the Dolphins play in a division filled with cold-weather teams.

Ask yourself this: If Tagovailoa hit the open market right now, does another team pay him $50 million a year?

No chance. So, the Dolphins would be bidding against themselves, which is something bad organizations do given the importance of the quarterback position and salary-cap implications on the larger roster. The New York Giants did in paying Daniel Jones $45 million a year. Do the Dolphins really want to repeat that mistake?

Be smart like a smart franchise. The Baltimore Ravens didn’t pay Jackson at first. They didn’t like the price and wanted to see more from him. Maybe it cost them when they contract was drawn up, but look who they spent it on: A two-time NFL Most Valuable Player whose led the No. 1 seed this year.

You see young quarterbacks getting defined with the season on the line. Houston’s C.J. Stroud and Green Bay’s Jordan Love made plays franchise quarterbacks make in their first seasons. DallasDak Prescott didn’t in his eighth season.

Tagovailoa didn’t down the defining stretch of the season as the Dolphins lost to Baltimore, Buffalo and then Kansas City in the playoffs. It doesn’t mean he can’t win those games. It doesn’t mean you give up on him.

It means the Dolphins can’t reward him like a franchise quarterback when he hasn’t proved he’s one.