You didn't really think that Tua Tagovailoa's performance against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 8 of the 2020 season was going to be the new normal, did you? You'd be forgiven if you bought into the commentary throughout the course of this week—there was plenty of it. Suggestions that the Dolphins were holding a "try-out" for Tua Tagovailoa over the course of the next 10 games. That the Dolphins ought to be concerned with how close to the vest the offense played against the Rams. That the Dolphins were making a mistake by pulling the plug on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after six games with the Dolphins sitting at 3-3 on the season.
As quickly as all those thoughts came, they've now gone. Because it is officially Tua Time in South Florida—and Tagovailoa lived up to the legend he forged at Alabama in Week 9 in a brilliant performance against the Arizona Cardinals. His went 20-of-28 passing for 248 yards and two touchdowns and had another 35 yards on the ground, breaking the pocket on several plays to pick up chunk gains. And, most importantly, he earned a win. Tagovailoa and the Dolphins outscored the Cardinals by 10 points in the final frame to secure a 34-31 victory in this battle of top-five drafted quarterbacks.
It won't be the last clash we see between high-prized passers on the Dolphins schedule this season. Miami will next host 2020 No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert before squaring off with the No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow in four weeks; which will provide a tantalizing look at each of the top quarterbacks from the 2020 NFL Draft squaring off against each other. We were robbed of the chance to see the Chargers and Bengals lock horns with rookie quarterbacks in Week 1; as the Chargers started veteran QB Tyrod Taylor instead and squeaked out a close win. Miami will not neglect us of such showcases despite being the last to make the change.
And what's more is the next month is going to provide us with a fascinating look at the environments that each quarterback will be growing up in. There are plenty of ways to attack building around a rookie quarterback; and while each of the young franchise rookie signal-callers seems to be offered appealing dynamics on their respective teams, the one who builds the best overall product around their quarterback will likely reap the biggest reward. Because, while a stud quarterback can drag the rest of the team behind him to stay relevant and competitive (hello, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Deshaun Watson), the ones who see their teams' methodology of building around him are the ones that bear the most fruit (here's looking at you, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson).
The early returns of the first half of 2020 offer hope that all three of Burrow, Tagovailoa, and Herbert can be effective starting quarterbacks and winners at the pro level. But the early returns also indicate something else:
The Miami Dolphins have the best chance to build a winning environment around their young quarterback instead of hoping he elevates the rest of the organization.
Why? Burrow has been sublime through eight games. He's on pace for 4,500 passing yards and has equalled the Bengals' win total from all of 2019 in eight games (2). And Herbert? He's outperforming expectations at a stunning rate. He's statistically outpacing Burrow in just about every major category and is thriving in everywhere except the win column.
The Dolphins have attacked building their organization as a whole through a totally different lens than what both the Chargers and Bengals have to this point in time. The team appears to have a clear leg up in the coaching department, as Dolphins head coach Brian Flores has swung the tide of his team less than one year after questions about the integrity of Miami's team-building were called into question. Zac Taylor's football team is 4-19-1 under his watch and the organization appears stuck in a static mentality with team building: the team has little added NFL draft capital, has a woefully underwhelming offensive line for Burrow to work with (although they have admittedly been better in the last few weeks), and appears set to let key assets leave the team for nothing; indicating the personnel changes will bear no fruit or ability to retool and rework the roster outside of free agency and sparing draft picks.
The Chargers under Anthony Lynn enjoyed a terrific start to his tenure. The team was 21-11 in his first two seasons at the helm, but the regression we've seen since is worrisome. The Chargers are 7-17 since the start of 2019 and Lynn's Chargers appear snakebitten with their ability to close out tight football games. The Chargers are 3-15 in one-score games over that same stretch of time, a troubling trend that falls to more than the feet of the coaching staff but simply can't be ignored. The Chargers also have offensive line woes (although Herbert has thus far transcended them); but the coaching shortcomings will be difficult to overlook as the Chargers brace for the future. The seat should be considered warm for Lynn at this point in time; not scalding hot, but consider the pressure on. If the Chargers pace at the same rate for the second half of the season and undertake a coaching change, all bets are off for long-term stability around Herbert. More coaching changes fail than succeed—it's simply a law of averages.
The Dolphins? The team is right in line with both the Chargers and the Bengals in terms of 2021 salary cap and as the team proved last offseason, they're not afraid to spend it. But more importantly, they spent it responsibly—front-loading contracts to help offset risk and keep the door open for added flexibility moving forward as the team assesses which assets do and don't click with the team. Add in six selections in the top 75 of the 2020 NFL Draft and another four selections scheduled inside the top 50 of the 2021 NFL Draft and Miami has a greater infusion of talent and will have the 10-game sample size to assess what kind of assets it needs to surround their young quarterback with. The Bengals and Chargers will both have similar opportunities, just less ammunition to work with.
And then there's the coaching. Flores is now 10-14 as an NFL head coach after starting his coaching career 0-7 with a -161 point differential amid the start of the team's rebuild. Fast forward to today and Miami's +61 point differential through eight games is the fifth-highest figure in the league and the team has won four consecutive games courtesy of all different kinds of contributions: offense, defense, and special teams. Miami's special teams units have been terrific and the defense has scored a touchdown in each of their last two contests while logging 14 turnovers and allowing the fourth-fewest points allowed per game (20.1 points). The unit is significantly better than both the Bengals' and Chargers' defenses. And then there's the offense. Miami has scored 21-plus points in four consecutive first halves—the first time since the late 1970s that the organization has achieved such a feat. And Miami as a whole is averaging more points scored in the first half of games than they did per 60 minutes in 2019.
This Dolphins team has momentum. They have the best performing coach right now in their respective tenures. They have the best performing defense of the trio of teams. They have the most NFL draft capital and the most high-prized young talent that has the chance to hit and become fixtures on the line. And because of all that, the Dolphins have the best chance to build a prominent winner around Tagovailoa instead of relying on their young quarterback to drag the rest of the team behind them each week.
Does that mean that they'll actually do it? Of course not. But the writing on the wall offers plenty of hope and promise for the Dolphins to not ask Tagovailoa to worry about anything other than his 1/11th of each and every play. But as Sunday against the Cardinals showed, he too is more than capable of putting on a show when he needs to. We just had to wait a little longer to see it.