Sometimes losing shows you more than winning. Tua Tagovailoa showed he can win in November. He played with strength and style, a marvel of accuracy and chemistry as he picked off open receivers from the center of a controlled football biosphere of opponent and weather.
The San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers cracked that biosphere the past two weeks. They made Tagovailoa uncomfortable. They got physical with this Miami Dolphins offense, the Chargers especially with the receivers. These defenses also did something every team that’s held down Tua this year has done.
“You’ve got to get to him,” said Chargers defensive lineman Brandon Fox, who sacked Tagovailoa in the Dolphins’ loss Sunday night.
“Hitting most quarterbacks over the course of the game that changes things,” teammate Breiden Fehoko said. “That’s something we did without a blitz.”
They didn’t get to Tagovailoa much. Two sacks, four quarterback hits. That’s all. Compare that to the four-sack, nine-hit licking the Dolphins put on the Chargers’ Justin Herbert. But there’s a line here, and it speaks to the biosphere the Dolphins (8-5) need to create to win.
Tagovailoa is not big and strong in the manner of 6-foot-5, 230-pound Herbert, who threw a career-high 39 completions Sunday despite taking all those hits. Nor is Tagovailoa big and physical like the quarterback the Dolphins face Saturday night, Buffalo’s 6-5, 240-pound Josh Allen.
In November, Tagovailoa was hit three times or less in three consecutive games. That’s the line of success this season. In the five games he has been hit three times or less this year, Tagovailoa has a 127.1 passer rating with 16 touchdowns and two interceptions.
In the six games he has been hit four times or more, he has an 85.9 rating with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Build a wall? That’s a good part of the biosphere. The Dolphin protection has been notable this year, too, as Tagovailoa’s 17 sacks rank him 29th among quarterbacks. Herbert, by comparison, ranks ninth with 30 sacks and Allen is 12th with 28 sacks.
Comparisons don’t matter here. Results do. As former NFL general manager Randy Mueller said last week: “Tua is efficient when all parts around him are functioning.”
The tight end isn’t functioning in this offense, as Mike Gesicki’s oddly invisible role keeps showing. That would help any quarterback. What other parts need controlling? There’s the Dolphins playing with the lead.
Tagovailoa led a dramatic comeback against Baltimore with 21 fourth-quarter points. But relying on the Dolphins to pass has its dangers as these latest losses to San Francisco and Los Angeles showed.
The Dolphins didn’t run the ball much — 27 times total in the two games — when playing from behind. By relying on the passing game, they played the one-dimensional game opposing rushers love. The 49ers’ Nick Bosa had three sacks and a forced fumble against Tagovailoa. The Chargers did just enough to make him uncomfortable.
“We knew they were throwing most every down,” Fox said. “That’s a big advantage out there, figuring they’re going to pass.”
Finally, a good quarterback biosphere needs controlled weather. Good luck with that in December. The Dolphins haven’t played in bad weather yet this year — unless you could last Sunday’s game where they had heaters behind the bench in the mid-50-degree weather.
It’ll be far colder in Buffalo (10-3) on Saturday and New England on Jan. 1 There won’t be a roof over those stadiums, too, as there were in Los Angeles and Detroit this season. So, it’ll be tough to create a biosphere in half the remaining games. Saturday’s forecast in Buffalo calls for a low of 26, a 58 percent chance of snow or rain and winds of 18 mph.
Tagovailoa hasn’t played well in four cold-weather games his previous two years. The most recent was a 34-3 loss on a cold and rainy game in Tennessee last January. Maybe those four games don’t matter much because his entire offense has changed for the better.
Tagovailoa gets to write his script. Buffalo, New England and the New York Jets rank among the top six of NFL defenses. Building that biosphere of him alone and comfortable in the pocket won’t be easy. But that might be needed if he plays and the Dolphins win like in November.