Dave Hyde: Two paths to Super Bowl show Dolphins’ tough decision with Tua Tagovailoa

They can’t win like Kansas City.

Can we agree on that?

The Miami Dolphins can’t surround their quarterback with an average group of offensive players, draft well enough to have the second-youngest defense in the playoffs and sustain a five-year Super Bowl run like Kansas City did this season.

Probably no team can win like that. The only quarterbacks giving Patrick Mahomes’ team a scare in recent playoffs are Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow (who beat Mahomes in 2021), Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and San Francisco’s Brock Purdy and Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Dolphins don’t have Allen, Burrow or Jackson at quarterback.

Tua Tagovailoa is in the Hurts, Purdy and Garoppolo (2020 vintage) tier after four years. Good. Possibly great if everything around him is great. But capable of lifting average talent to greatness?

No one’s seen it. Maybe it happens his fifth season considering the good steps taken the past two years. Do you bet the future on it?

This leads to the risky model the Dolphins could follow if they’re serious about a title and not just good seasons:

Play Tagovailoa next year on the fifth-year option of his contract and find a young quarterback to develop. If Tagovailoa doesn’t take the next step meriting a big contract and lesser supporting cast, decide if the young quarterback can become good enough with strong talent around him.

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Maybe that’s too ambitious. Maybe the Dolphins shouldn’t be all about a title. Maybe they should just chase 11 wins, get a playoff victory for the first time in two decades, have a puncher’s chance for more and call that a nice season. Think Dallas with Dak Prescott.

This is why Tagovailoa’s contract is of such interest this offseason. It’s the larger model at work. All the whispers are the Dolphins will give Tagovailoa an extension to reward his past couple of years and show full faith in him.

The team also can lower its short-term, salary-cap number from his current $23.2 million in a winter where it needs to lower a lot of numbers. Everyone’s happy, right?

This Dolphins culture is all about having happy players, too (Christian Wilkins excepted). Big money has been thrown like confetti to the likes of Tyreek Hill, Bradley Chubb, Jalen Ramsey, Terron Armstead, Emmanuel Ogbah, Xavien Howard, Byron Jones

It’s not just money. New defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver’s first play was to placate Ramsey with words of an expanded role that previous coordinator Vic Fangio didn’t allow.

It’s a players-first culture under coach Mike McDaniel, and Tagovailoa leads that idea. So, again, the Dolphins probably don’t work like Baltimore in making Jackson play out the fifth-year option of $23.1 million in 2022 before watching him another year and signing him to a defining deal.

If that’s the case, the Dolphins really don’t want to go the San Francisco Way. But that’s the only other proven model to be a sustained contender for a title besides how Kansas City does it.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has been brilliant in managing his roster and its timeline. First, he hasn’t over-invested salary-cap dollars in good-not-great quarterbacks. Second, he’s developed good quarterbacks and surrounded them with top talent while gauging their ceiling.

Shanahan and Garoppolo went the 2020 Super Bowl. But San Francisco moved off Garoppolo when he didn’t become top-shelf great.

Shanahan traded three first-round picks to move up and select Trey Lance in the 2021 draft. That didn’t work out. But last-pick-in-the-draft Purdy did. Shanahan kept a roster of talent and developed Purdy in two years to within a missed extra point, botched punt return, bad overtime decision and Mahomes’ greatness of a title.

There’s your two paths to a ring in the past decade:

Path 1: Get a great quarterback, pay him, draft well for enough cheap labor and win. Tom Brady (seven titles), Mahomes (three titles) fit best in that category. Matthew Stafford (one title) applies, too.

Path 2: Get a good quarterback on a lesser contract to allow more talent around him. Philadelphia’s Nick Foles is the only such quarterback to win a ring the past decade, but Purdy, Hurts, Jared Goff and Garoppolo reached the Super Bowl.

If Tagovailoa signs and doesn’t become elite level, the Dolphins’ Super Bowl model is Atlanta in 2016. Matt Ryan was a second-tier quarterback whose Falcons nearly beat New England in the 2017 Super Bowl.

The easy move is to give Tagovailoa a contract and make everyone happy. But who’s watching out for the greater organizational good here?

If good quarterbacks like Tagovailoa are hard to find, it’s harder still to find a good-not-great, expensive quarterback winning with a lesser supporting cast. That’s why the move is to gauge him in a fifth year — and gauge a young quarterback as you do, too.