Miami Dolphins fumbled easiest part of the rebuild. It’s now haunting them

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·7 min read
CHARLES TRAINOR JR/ctrainor@miamiherald.com
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Two months ago, when the Dolphins were 1-7, widely-respected receiver Mack Hollins noted that Dolphins players were not going to “tank,” which was amusing because:

1). Players never tank; that’s an organizational management decision.

2). Tanking would be pointless, because the Philadelphia Eagles own the Dolphins’ first-round pick.

But Hollins’ remark got me thinking about how the Dolphins mismanaged what should have been the easiest part of this overhaul: the tanking.

Remember: The Dolphins fell to fifth in the 2020 draft mostly because coach Brian Flores replaced an ineffective Josh Rosen with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback before the Dolphins’ sixth game and Fitzpatrick led the Dolphins to all five of their wins, including a key overtime victory against the Bengals that essentially clinched the first overall pick for Cincinnati.

Fitzpatrick had 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions in those five wins, after Rosen produced a dismal 52 rating in his six appearances and three starts.

If the Dolphins had tanked correctly — and merely stuck with Rosen — they likely would have Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, and they wouldn’t remain ensnared in Deshaun Watson rumors that will extend well into the spring and ultimately could cost the Dolphins three, four or five high draft picks.

Can we say with certainty that playing Rosen would have earned the Dolphins the top pick? Of course not. But it seems very likely, considering Fitzpatrick was far better that season (85.5 rating, 20 TDs, 13 picks, 5-8 record as starter) than Rosen (52 rating, 1 TD, 5 picks, 0-3).

Remember, the Dolphins considered Burrow the best quarterback in that draft and tried to acquire the No. 1 pick from Cincinnati before the draft.

Fast forward two years.

In Week 16, Burrow threw for 525 yards in a win against Baltimore, the fourth most in NFL history. In Week 17 last Sunday, he threw for 446 more yards in a win against Kansas City. So during the past two games, Burrow has 971 pass yards, eight touchdowns, no picks and a 145 passer rating.

During those past two games (against New Orleans and Tennessee), Tagovailoa has 403 passing yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 68.7 passer rating.

Burrow has risen to second in the NFL in passer rating (behind Aaron Rodgers), and the gap between Burrow and Tagovailoa has only widened in recent weeks.

Tagovailoa, in 12 games this season, has 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 212 yards passing per game and an 89.8 rating, which ranks 20th in the league and isn’t much better than his 87.1 rating as a rookie.

Burrow, in 16 games, has 34 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, 288.8 yards passing per game and a 108.3 passer rating, which is much improved over his 89.8 rating as a rookie.

So Tagovailoa, as far as passer rating goes, is where Burrow was as a rookie.

Now let’s be clear: Tagovailoa has a chance to be a good NFL starter. As we wrote last week, I would love to see what Tagovailoa can become if the Dolphins surround him with more help. The Dolphins have failed Tagovailoa, providing him with neither a sturdy offensive line nor enough playmakers around him.

If there weren’t potentially available Pro Bowl quarterbacks via the trade market, it would be a no-brainer to stick with him for a third year.

But...

Burrow, as he has displayed in recent weeks, already is special.

“Joe Burrow has what every franchise wants and chases in a QB,” ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky said. “He’s a top-five QB. That is not for a conversation anymore.”

Drafting Tagovailoa instead of Justin Herbert (35 TDs, 14 INTs, 99.5 rating) was regrettable, especially after the Dolphins had a year to evaluate tape of both.

But that was a judgment call, and many in the league would have made the same decision the Dolphins did, though one longtime AFC executive told me he cannot understand how any team could have compared the two players’ skill sets and measurables and thought Tagovailoa was better.

The view here is that fumbling the tank was more egregious than picking Tagovailoa over Herbert because it was so avoidable.

You might remember that those who defended Flores for playing Fitzpatrick instead of Rosen cited the importance of Flores “developing a winning culture.”

I made the point at the time that developing a winning culture should have been secondary in a season that the Dolphins made no attempt to field a playoff-caliber team, because that group of players generally wouldn’t comprise the roster when the team was ready to win.

But did that “developing a winning culture” in 2019 contribute to success today?

Seven to eight starters remain from that 2019 team: DeVante Parker, Jesse Davis, Michael Deiter, Christian Wilkins, Jerome Baker, Xavien Howard and Mike Gesicki/Durham Smythe.

Does it now matter that Fitzpatrick beat the Eagles and Bengals and Patriots late in the season and that Flores and Fitzpatrick extracted five wins from that team? Did that make any difference in how those eight players played this season or Sunday at Tennessee?

Or would the franchise have been in better shape by losing and drafting Burrow?

The answer has become obvious, even for those — like myself — who appreciate Tagovailoa’s skill set and what he could become with a better supporting cast.

The notion of tanking — intentionally sacrificing a season, as the Dolphins did in 2019 — to ensure a high draft was distasteful but understandable because of the franchise’s inability to win in a way that would require smart decisions and creativity.

And for a time in the months before that 2019 season, they were solemnly devoted to the tank, which included the hilarity of subbing out 14 players before the 59-10 loss to Baltimore in the opener.

But then they lost vision of the grand prize — the best quarterback in the draft.

Flores has done so much right in developing this roster, transforming this defense into one of the league’s better units, cajoling players to buy in and inspiring his men to stay engaged after a 1-7 start.

And in Flores’ defense, he gained the players’ respect by reinserting Fitzpatrick over Rosen.

But that decision badly damaged the Dolphins’ chances of landing the quarterback of their choice in that 2020 draft, which was objective No. 1 of the overhaul.

It would have gone against everything Flores — and most any coach — stands for to play the clearly lesser of two quarterbacks. But he easily could have justified it by saying the Dolphins needed an extended look at Rosen after general manager Chris Grier inexplicably traded second- and fifth-round picks for him.

If the Dolphins were going to intentionally sacrifice 2019 for the franchise’s future, they shouldn’t have gone halfway.

Tanking should have been the easiest part of the rebuild, and the coach, general manager and owner should have agreed before that season that winning wasn’t going to be the driving factor in any personnel decisions in that one season.

And owner Stephen Ross or Grier should have intervened and reminded Flores of this before deciding to play the quarterback who ultimately would ensure them just enough wins to miss out on the quarterback who’s blossoming into an NFL star.

Ross has made a lot of mistakes, but not conveying to Flores the importance of coming away with the best QB in the 2020 draft — and doing everything to ensure that was accomplished within the rules --- ranks among his biggest failings.

It’s a decision the Dolphins could regret for a decade.

Here’s my Thursday Dolphins 6-pack, with news on Xavien Howard, Jaelan Phillips, Jevon Holland, Duke Johnson and much more.

Here’s my Thursday media column, with an update on Dolphins announcers Jason Taylor and Joe Rose (who have COVID-19), NFL TV news, Kirk Herbstreit fallout and more.