Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is too polite to tell his doubters what they can do with the popular narratives about him — that he cannot throw deep, that he’s limited physically, that he isn’t a franchise quarterback.
All of those criticisms — at least for a week, potentially much longer — evaporated Sunday, much like the Baltimore Ravens’ 21-point fourth quarter lead.
Asking and answering all things Tua in the wake of his glorious 469-yard, six-touchdown masterpiece in the comeback 42-38 win against Baltimore:
▪ Where does Tagovailoa rank among all quarterbacks statistically this season, entering the Bills-Titans and Eagles-Vikings Monday night games?
First in passing yards (739), fourth in passer rating at 116.5 (behind Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Kirk Cousins), seventh in completion percentage at 71.1, tied with Carson Wentz and Mahomes for first in TD passes (with seven) and third in average yards per pass attempt at 8.9.
▪ Where has the most improvement come?
Several areas, but here are two:
On third downs this season, Tagovailoa has a 151 passer rating, which ranked first among all quarterbacks who have played at least two games. His numbers on third down are eye-popping: 17 for 21 for 226 yards and four touchdowns.
Last season, Tagovailoa was 42nd in third-down passer rating at 81.5 (59 for 99 for 626 yards and six touchdowns).
He’s also much improved on intermediate throws (11 to 19 yards).
Last season, on all passes thrown 11 to 19 yards, Tagovailoa had a poor 68.6 passer rating: 50 completions in 98 attempts for 765 yards, with five touchdowns and six interceptions.
So far this season, he has a 124.3 passer rating on those 11-to-19 yard throws: 13 completions in 19 attempts for 240 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
▪ What about this criticism that he cannot throw the ball downfield well enough?
That’s out the window. He already has five completions of 40 yards or longer, three for touchdowns. Both of the late TD throws to Tyreek Hill traveled more than 40 air yards. Per Next Gen Stats, one of those passes traveled 55.5 air yards.
And on all throws that traveled at least 20 air yards this season, he’s 6 for 10 for 204 yards.
Last season, he was 14 for 29 on such throws.
So since the start of last season, Tagovailoa has completed 20 of 39 passes that have traveled at least 20 air yards. That 51.3 completion percentage is second best since the start of last season, behind only Justin Herbert (55.7 percent, 39 for 70).
▪ What’s the key to that, besides having two elite speedster receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle?
His lower body is the strongest it has been since a major hip injury in his final season at Alabama, and his body fat and weight are down from a year ago. Credit Tagovailoa and his trainer, Nick Hicks, for achieving that.
What’s the biggest difference in him physically now?
“His lower body,” Hicks said Monday. “Footwork, foundation, quick twitch.”
Last season, the Dolphins wanted Tagovailoa bigger (225). This season, the Dolphins list his weight at 217.
“Flo [Brian Flores] wanted him to be a certain weight so he could take on hits, which was crazy to me,” Hicks said in a phone interview during the summer. “This year, the plan was lean muscle mass and decrease muscle mass and working on pushing the ball downfield accurately, and throwing it off platform, where your feet aren’t set and you’re moving to your left or right [or back].”
We’re seeing the results.
As Hicks noted last summer, “it all starts with the lower half when you throw the football. His lower half was so used and abused that he started throwing with all arm. You don’t get the right velocity or trajectory that way; you are not allowing yourself to reach full strength capacity throwing the ball down the field.”
To that end, beginning in February, “we did shoulder separation drills, a lot of torso rotations and movement and trying to understand how to generate power from the floor.”
And the 55.5-air-yard throw to Hill on one of the two bombs wasn’t even close to his longest “air yard” throw of the summer. Hicks measured one throw at 71 yards.
▪ And what’s coach Mike McDaniel’s role in all this?
Besides doing a masterful job of play calling and instilling confidence in Tagovailoa, McDaniel has been able to get Tagovailoa in a rhythm by dialing up a lot of short throws where the receivers are in position for lots of yards after catch.
To wit: On Sunday, he completed 23 of 28 for 154 yards on passes thrown 5 yards or fewer. That — combined with his 4 for 5 for 155 on passes thrown 20 yards or more — were the recipe for an historic day.
▪ Tagovailoa joins Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Bob Griese as the only Dolphins quarterbacks with six TD passes in a game. So do all QBs who have this kind of day become great?
Most, but not all.
Tagovailoa is now the sixth active player to throw for six touchdowns in a game, joining Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. Three of those are all-time greats, two not so much.
Tagovailoa joined Vinny Testaverde, Joe Montana, Ken Stabler and Sage Rosenfels as the only QBs with four TD passes in a fourth quarter. Montana and Stabler are elite company.
Sunday marked the 52nd time that a quarterback has thrown for at least 469 yards in a game. Most of the quarterbacks who have done it were among the greats: Brady, Marino, Drew Brees, Montana, Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, Joe Namath.
Some weren’t great: Tommy Maddox, Elvis Grbac, Billy Volek, Ken O’Brien, Kyle Orton, Matt Flynn.
So while the 469-yard passing game is a good sign (no kidding!), it isn’t always a harbinger of future greatness.
Here’s a stat where Tagovailoa is in only great (and limited) company:
He became the second youngest player since 1950 to throw for at least 450 pass yards and six TDs, behind only Mahomes.
▪ So what’s everybody saying now about him?
CBS’ Boomer Esiason declared after the game that “Tua has arrived. He’s definitely right in the class of the top end quarterbacks in the AFC.”
ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, who has consistently praised Tagovailoa, said: “Maybe everything said about Tua by Mike McDaniel and Tyreek Hill this offseason was actually true. Yesterday was the first time I saw Tua, when it came to a coach designing something, and it’s there, you hit it. When the coach designs something and it’s not there, stay patient and you check it down. There’s a moment in the game that the defense wins the rep and I need you to go above the X’s and O’s and go make something happen. He did that multiple times.”
Former Dolphins defensive back Jason McCourty, on NFL Network said: “I’m in a group chat. My guys [always say], ‘He’s not this, he’s not that. Beginning of the game, I’m getting killed.’
“The moment is never too big [for him]. He’s always poised. Those are the traits you need to be a quarterback. I was fired up.”
▪ What about NBC’s Chris Simms, a frequent Tagovailoa critic who said recently that Geno Smith could do things in this offense that Tagovailoa cannot?
“He made some plays today,” Simms said Sunday night. “Way to go Tua. Tua was nice. Composure was great. We had a lot of questions about him being able to push the ball down the field. He did that today to Tyreek and Waddle. They’re a fast football team.”