Name another NFL quarterback, please, who had an eye-popping turnaround like Tua Tagovailoa in his third season?
Josh Allen, you say? His Buffalo franchise never attempted to dump him, twice, in his second year.
Nor did another turnaround talent, Drew Brees, have his confidence so beaten down by a tough-love coach that he stood before a mirror and asked, “Do you suck?” Tagovailoa did that.
With every proper pass Sunday, every point-guard dish in the Miami Dolphins 30-15 win against Houston, the story on display is on brick-by-brick rebuilding of a quarterback by coach Mike McDaniel.
It’s not done. There remain hurdles ahead. There also is a nature-or-nurture question of what’s really at work in Tagovailoa going from a player the team wanted to replace to one leading the league in quarterback rating as November turns to December.
McDaniel didn’t enter the job last winter by deferring and letting events decide what he thought of Tagovailoa. Nor did his work end with his Facetime call on the plane to Miami after taking the Dolphins job in which he anointed Tagovailoa as his quarterback.
“It had to be more than that,” McDaniel said.
How do you coach confidence? That was the first question here. Tagovailoa lost his the first two seasons under tough-love coach Brian Flores and a limited offensive cast.
“You try and put yourself in other people’s shoes as best you can,” McDaniel said. “I think that’s an important component to being a head coach. No one really — I think it’s hard for people to truly wrap their head around what it is to be a quarterback in the National Football League in terms of you talk about as much pressure as one could ever have.”
McDaniel assembled several hundred good plays that Tagovailoa performed, as first told by the CBS broadcast team. Nice throws. Good decisions. See what you can do?
That struck a chord in Tagovailoa.
“I think anyone here can attest to someone believing in them and how that changes how they see themselves but also things around them, so perspective,” Tagovailoa said. “But it was awesome. There’s a lot of details that entail me sitting down with him and other things as well, but it’s awesome.”
What’s more, there was a strategic component to the rebuild. Tagovailoa wasn’t previously allowed to play to his strengths beyond the simple accuracy. Quick reads. Finding the right receiver. Distributing the football like Chris Paul does the basketball. Those were tools he couldn’t use.
“I felt like he was put behind the 8-ball in a way with the — basically his strengths, he couldn’t play to,” McDaniel said.
You saw the point-guard passes on Sunday’s opening drive. First play: A short pass Jaylen Waddle turned into 12 yards. Second play: A short pass Tyreek Hill turned into 13 yards. Fifth play: A longer pass to Waddle for 22 yards.
That’s how Sunday started, how Tua had 290 yards passing at half, how with the defense’s help the Dolphins sprinted to a 30-0 halftime lead.
There were problems. The primary one is left tackle Terron Armstead’s pectoral injury. Tua was sacked twice in the previous four games and wasn’t sacked Sunday until Armstead went out late in the first half.
He then was sacked four times on three drives. He was brought out of the game after that, having completed 22-of-36 passes for 299 yards and a touchdown.
That gives him 19 touchdowns against three interceptions this year.
The rebuild is done, but the answers aren’t. The Dolphins have beaten five consecutive losing teams with a combined record of 14-37-1.
How will they do moving up in weight class? How will Tagovailoa hold up when the weather is cold or windy, as is coming?
What we know is how he looks for a long stretch of Year 3 compared to the opening two years. A chuck of that is McDaniel’s good work. And the other chunk?
“No matter how good your relationship is with someone, you’ve still got to go out and play football,” Tagovailoa said. “And that’s with all of our guys. I could have a great relationship with our running backs. I mean, having a good relationship with you, I can’t help you rush for 2,000 yards or rush for however many yards you want to in the game.”