The non-health mystery that remains with Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa and what history shows

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Second in a four-part series on the Dolphins’ quarterback situation

The evidence, at the time, seemed compelling enough.

Here was Tua Tagovailoa winning every game that he started and finished or started and left with a big lead this season - eight of them - while completing 68 percent of his passes, leading the league in passer rating and playing better than any other NFL quarterback in the fourth quarter. His team was 8-3.

By any measure, Tagovailoa had met every standard to be considered a legitimate franchise quarterback.

And then everything fell apart.

First, the rough patch -- a handful of errant throws against the 49ers, 10 for 28 accuracy against the Chargers, then a return to TAHB (Tua At His Best against Buffalo) and then three fourth-quarter interceptions against Green Bay, after what was later diagnosed as a second-quarter concussion that ultimately sidelined him for the duration of the season and the playoff loss in Buffalo.

And accompanying the sudden concerns about his play was the issue that has dogged Tagovailoa since his days at Alabama -- the questions of durability and availability.

So we arrived at the end of Season Three of Tua with doubt again creeping in – doubt about whether he can be a 10-year solution at the position and doubt about whether his health will even permit that.

At the very least, we know this: Tua Tagovailoa is a clearly above average NFL quarterback, something that was hardly clear before this season. And we know that when he’s absolutely at his best, he’s as good as most anyone at that position.

What we still don’t know is this: Was the fabulous eight-game stretch to begin the season representative of what he will be consistently longterm?

Was the 0-4 stretch - with three subpar games and one good game - more reflective of who he is?

Or is it somewhere in the middle?

And just as importantly, can he be counted on for more than a dozen or so games a season? He ended this 18-game season with 13 games, but realistically, only 12 ½.

If you look to NFL quarterback history for an indication of future performance, the exercise won’t produce much clarity.

Tagovailoa finished this season with a league-leading 105.5 passer rating. He was one of six qualifying quarterbacks to top the 100 mark, along with Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Jimmy Garoppolo, Geno Smith and Joe Burrow.

I looked back at every quarterback over the past 18 years (before 2022) who produced passer ratings of at least 100.

There were 35 of them from 2004 through 2021. Thirteen of them had multiple seasons with ratings over 100 during that period, led by Drew Brees (10), Aaron Rodgers (9) and Tom Brady (8).

But here’s why no definitive conclusions can be drawn from a single season topping the magical 100 rating mark:

Of those 35 quarterbacks, 21 qualified as players that most people would call a franchise quarterback. Some (Brees, Rodgers, Brady, Peyton Manning) were on different tiers than others, such as Matt Stafford and four-time Pro Bowler Michael Vick.

The number is 22 if you include four-time Pro Bowler Kirk Cousins, who has topped the 100 mark on four occasions and whose career stats far exceed how he’s perceived.

But there are also 13 players who topped the 100 passer rating mark for a season who wouldn’t be considered quintessential “franchise quarterbacks.” Derek Carr was considered one at one point, but not now; the Raiders plan to trade him.

The others? David Garrard, Robert Griffin III (had one great season before his career began to unravel), Nick Foles, Josh McCown, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Carson Wentz (twice), Goff (twice and now ascending again), Ryan Tannehill (twice), Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kyler Murray and Garoppolo (this season was his second over 100).

The point is not to suggest that Tagovailoa won’t be a franchise quarterback; this season suggested that he absolutely can be one, if the September/October/November success can be repeated and if he can somehow stay healthy.

The point is that one season of excellence isn’t enough to make any longterm pronouncements.

Garrard, a decent starter for Jacksonville with a career 85.8 rating, had one year with 18 touchdowns, three picks and a 102.2 rating. McCown, a career journeyman, had a year with 13 touchdowns, one pick and a 109 rating.

Alex Smith’s one great year, in 2017, was pretty similar to Tagovailoa’s: 26 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 104.7 rating. He had an 85 passer rating during the rest of his career.

The passer rating formula hasn’t changed, but more quarterbacks are reaching that triple digit number.

Between 2018 and 2021, there were 36 quarterbacks who topped 100 in passer rating – one more than the number as quarterbacks who did it over a 10-year stretch from 2004 to 2013.

Should the Dolphins be encouraged? Absolutely. They’ve found, at the very least, a good NFL starter, one who -- at his best -- looks like a top-10 quarterback.

But they’ll need to see a larger body of work -- and hope for more durability -- to say anything definitive beyond that.

What happened with Tagovailoa over the final month of the season, according to ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, was sometimes the byproduct of incorrectly assuming that defenders would do what he expected.

“Tua has got to get back to predetermining [what he wants to do] but not assuming [defenders are] going to move,” Orlovsky said. “Tua catches that snap and immediately where he looks, teams are slowly starting to not go where that initial look is and saying ‘if you are looking over there, we dare you to throw it over there because we know you’re not going to.’”

ESPN’s Rex Ryan, the former Jets coach and ex-NFL defensive coordinator, was harsher: “Finally I think people realize this is a one-read quarterback. As soon as you change the math on him — in other words, your defensive pieces aren’t where you thought they were going to be — that’s where he struggles. That’s why you saw the three interceptions [against the Packers].

“This guy has ability. He’s accurate. But as soon as somebody is not where he’s supposed to be, that’s a problem with him because he’s struggling to improvise.”

But how much of the three interceptions against Green Bay can be attributed to the fact he was playing with a concussion and couldn’t remember some things when quizzed by Mike McDaniel the next day? All are unknowns.

The view here: Tagovailoa is far closer to the player who thrived in eight wins than the one who struggled in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I would be surprised if this year’s success was an anomaly.

Availability seems the bigger question than ability.

All of that will be part of the discussions when the Dolphins mull whether to exercise his $22.4 million fifth-year option for 2024, or instead delay a decision until after the 2023 season. That option is fully guaranteed, even if Tagovailoa misses the 2024 season due to health reasons.

If the Dolphins don’t pick up the option and Tagovailoa is great and durable, Miami could then place a franchise tag on him (likely topping $32 million) or work out a longterm deal.

But if they pick up the option by this year’s early May deadline, he will definitely be paid $22.4 million in 2024, and that number will be on Miami’s cap, whether the Dolphins choose to keep him as their starter in 2024 or not.

So the only risk of not exercising the option is needing to pay him at least $10 million more in 2024 if he’s very good and healthy next season.

At the very least, he will be their quarterback in 2023, with a chance to prove that his health can be trusted enough for the franchise to make a long, lucrative investment.

Here’s part 1 of the series, with concussion experts assessing Tagovailoa’s medical outlook.