There he was. There was the quarterback the Miami Dolphins saw in drafting him. There was the thinking, the accuracy, the playmaking and fully-functioning package right down to the aftermath when Tua Tagovailoa talked about his favorite play in a day of favorites, an 11-yarder to receiver Trent Sherfield, that was ruled just short of the end zone in the third quarter.
“I think they took away his touchdown,” Tua said to the media after the Dolphins’ 31-27 win against Detroit.
He singled out this play for more than his telling coach Mike McDaniel not to use it, that he didn’t like it, and being proved wrong after seeing Sherfield open across the middle. All day Tagovailoa made magic with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. He wanted Sherfield to be rewarded with a touchdown, too.
“They took that away — do we agree?” he asked, then turned to another reporter and asked. And another. And …
“That’s five, six,” he said, still counting, having fun now. “There’s about 12 people raising their hand.”
He smiled here, still fighting for another yard Sunday when his offense had a full load of them. Tua had a big fourth quarter in coming back against Baltimore more than a month ago. This was the first game in three years his offense put the accelerator down from the first play and didn’t let up until he was done completing 29-of-36 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns.
Did he feel unstoppable?
“Well, we feel the only guys that can stop us is ourselves,” he said.
His best complete game?
“I wouldn’t say so, not yet,” he said. “Too early still.”
Ever since he arrived, the parade was ahead of Tua, as if he’d already accomplished what people hoped he would. Now some accomplishments have started this year. It was true he was great on Sunday. It’s also true he did what most every quarterback does against 1-6 Detroit, too.
The Dolphins (5-3) 31 points in their strong performance?
They didn’t match the average 32.3 points Detroit’s defense surrendered the previous six games.
So there’s room to say this Dolphins offense showed the signs of impact you want and say they have to show it consistently to say something special is at work here. Does this game allow this offense to get on tracked now? Does it show this type of game next Sunday against a good Chicago (3-5) defense?
Is this what to expect from Tagovailoa now, too? That’s the real question here, the one that’s been asked in some form since draft day.
So this performance by this offense, including Tua, only matters beyond Sunday if it builds to something more. There were signs all through the day. McDaniel went to a play in which Tua threaded an 11-yard touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki to give the Dolphins lead in the third quarter they held to the end.
“That was the fourth option,” McDaniel said.
That was the quarterback they drafted, the one they wanted, the arm that’s been given the league’s fastest supporting cast with Hill and Waddle. Hill is the MVP of this team, the guy defense’s fear. He had 12 catches for 188 yards on Sunday. That’s four times he’s caught more than 160 yards this year. Mark Duper holds the team record with eight such games. It took Duper 69 games to get there.
“We didn’t want it to be a track meet,” Detroit coach Dan Campbell said
It was a track meet where the Dolphins took gold and silver with Hill and Waddle, just as they will against most teams. Tua fit into that perfectly Sunday. Look at his third-down stats: 9 for 9 for 142 yards and two touchdowns.
He also ran 18 yards on a third down and then did something equally important. He slid to the ground as a Detroit defender closed on him. His teammates cheered that slide as much as the play considering the hits he’s taken this year.
“The guys were happy to see that,” Tua said.
He stood here, the end of his best game, even if he didn’t want to say it.
“This is sort of what I envisioned [Sunday], but the greatest thing about this game is you can never get content,” Tagovailoa said. “You’ve got to continue to keep growing. We’ll go and watch the film and look at things that you know we could have done better. That’s the best part of it.”
There he stood, the player the Dolphins saw in drafting him. The next question is if he can be that player most Sundays.