One encouraging aspect of the Miami Dolphins’ Saturday night loss to the Buffalo Bills, despite it being a third consecutive defeat, was how quarterback Tua Tagovailoa rebounded after back-to-back poor outings on the road against the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers.
This time, in the cold and hostile environment of Orchard Park and the stout Buffalo defense, Tagovailoa held up and had his moments in a 17-of-30 effort for 234 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
“I had complete faith in where he was going to go,” coach Mike McDaniel said, assessing his quarterback’s play the Monday that followed. “I saw him completely correct the things that I thought were really holding him back in the two previous [games].”
Tagovailoa, after bouncing back from two games where he completed passes at a combined 45.9 percent clip, for 440 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and several off-target passes that crushed drives, now looks to build off what wasn’t a perfect outing against the Bills but still one that shows he can pick it back up when things appear to be snowballing against him.
“It’s a very rare thing to do in sports, is to have control,” McDaniel said. “Really, just the strength, the mental strength it takes to harbor all the pressure, how people just will undress every single play or really hold you incredibly responsible or have a narrative flip in two games after playing however many — it’s a lot. And I think not too many people are built for that.”
Said Tagovailoa Wednesday: “Just had to take every game for what it was worth. Let every game stand on its own merit. Don’t let what ended up affecting us offensively from the 49ers game to the Chargers game into the next game that we played, which was against Buffalo.
“I think a lot of those things were corrected by a lot of us offensively, and it took the leaders to step up. I would say we did, offensively. Really, just got to continue to build off that.”
Tagovailoa found Hill nine times for 69 yards and an impressive 20-yard touchdown pass down the right side where he looked off the safety in the middle of the field. He hit Jaylen Waddle streaking deep over the middle for a 67-yard touchdown strike among Waddle’s three catches for 114 yards.
“Tua did his thing,” said Hill, still upset he didn’t do more for his quarterback, like come up with his chance at an earlier touchdown. “We just got to be better for our guy. Tua, he stepped up. He played very good, and we just got to make plays for him. I had a crucial drop in the red zone, which can’t happen to a top-tier guy on this team, a leader on this team. We just got to make plays.”
Hill and McDaniel defended Tagovailoa through his tough stretch, saying it was a collective offensive inefficiency that led to those performances on the West Coast.
Safety Jevon Holland took to social media recently to show his support for Tagovailoa as many wavered with where they stood on the third-year quarterback during the slump. Holland passionately defended Tagovailoa again when asked about it on Monday.
“Tua has been balling all year,” he said. “When Tua is out there balling and doing his thing, he’s getting all the love, but he has one [rough] game and now he’s the worst quarterback in the league. That’s just something that irritated me. You’ve got to have faith in somebody. You’ve got to believe in somebody. Like we have throughout his whole time here, we’ve believed in him.”
Regardless of whether he’s hot or cold going into Sunday’s Christmas Day game against Green Bay (6-8), Tagovailoa has put himself in position where he could end up named to his first Pro Bowl. Although he wasn’t among the three initial selections for AFC quarterbacks Wednesday night (Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Bills’ Josh Allen and Bengals’ Joe Burrow, he is the first alternate for a replacement. This after there were so many questions surrounding him his first two seasons.
“It’s cool to see the journey of how the first two years went, and then, all the narratives, and then we’re here now. It’s just a big blessing,” said Tagovailoa, who has completed 64.8 percent of passes for 3,238 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions in 12 games.
Tagovailoa, though, who led Pro Bowl fan voting, which counts for one-third of the process to earn a spot, still has his sights set on larger goals beyond the NFL’s all-star exhibition.
“I hope that I’m not available for that week,” said Tagovailoa, referring to prep for the Super Bowl that would occur in place of it should the Dolphins (8-6) go that far. “We have a lot of goals that we set as a team, and that’s really the main goal for me and for the team. Focus on this game, first, obviously, but make the playoff run and, hopefully, we get that opportunity to win those games deep in January and make a Super Bowl run.”
That next game will be versus Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Christmas at Hard Rock Stadium, which will be a surreal moment for Tagovailoa to duel against a quarterback he grew up watching.
“It’s special in the sense that I got to watch this guy ball ever since I can remember watching football,” Tagovailoa said. “When we come off, I like seeing good football, regardless of what it is. Obviously, we always want to win, but man, I turn into a fan at times just sitting back and watching, whether our defense is going off or the opposing team makes a couple plays.”