Film Review- Tua Tagovailoa: Sophomore Surge or Slump

Film Review- Tua Tagovailoa: Sophomore Surge or Slump

NFL

Film Review- Tua Tagovailoa: Sophomore Surge or Slump

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Life is all about perspective. When you compare Tua Tagovailoa to the two other star QB’s from the 2020 NFL Draft class, Tua is going to look like a game-managing backup. If you look at Tua from the perspective of a rookie quarterback coming off of a major hip injury with no training camp, he’ll look exactly like the QB we expect. Today, we don’t give a damn about Herbert, Burrow, or any other quarterback in the NFL. Today, we’re specifically looking at Tua’s rookie season, and analyzing if he can take the next step as an NFL QB. I watched every snap of his nine starts (so you don’t have to) and here’s my thoughts on what I saw with examples to back it up.

Evaluating the Miami Dolphins 2020 situation:

One of the biggest concerns with the Dolphins offense over the past couple of seasons has been the lack of diverse receiving talent. In 2020, their offense ranked 26th in the league in yards after catch (YAC) per reception, and its top three receivers, DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki, and Preston Williams each finished in the bottom 10 in average separation. Miami addressed this need by adding two dynamic receivers, Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller, both of which will add much needed explosiveness to the offense.

Another major concern with Miami was its 28th ranked offensive line, and they didn’t do much to improve it for 2021. Tagovailoa was lucky to only play two games against a Top-15 pass rush, and during those games (Rams, Bills) he was under constant duress and it forced him to play extremely conservative. Miami can expect some improvement after starting three rookie lineman last season, but that combined with the addition of Liam Eichenberg (second-round rookie) won’t push this unit into the Top-20.

A final concern I have for the Dolphins and their second-year signal caller is a possible regression on defense. Defenses typically decline after ranking top-three in turnovers. This aided Tagovailoa in playing with a lead in five of the nine games he started. The other four? Well, those were either losses or he was unceremoniously removed from the game in the fourth quarter.

Where he had success:

The Quick Game

The Dolphins former offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey did a terrific job of making Tua look comfortable with a ton of quick reads, rollouts, RPO’s and screens. The former Alabama QB was able to consistently play in a rhythm with rollouts to his strongside (left) and quick curl concepts when secondaries would play with a cushion. His ultra-quick release allows for this part of his game to be his strong-suit, and will continue to keep him in a rhythm throughout his career. 

Throwing with anticipation

One of Tua’s biggest strengths coming out of college was his ability to throw with anticipation. A common occurrence in the film of all-time great QBs like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and others is the ability to throw the ball before or as a receiver is breaking on his route. Tagovailoa displayed this at an exceptional level, whether it was curl, comeback, or in breaking routes.

Extending plays outside of the pocket

While Tua’s playstyle is purely a pocket passer, he still exhibited his mobility to extend plays with his legs outside of the pocket, and run when needed. Whether it was on RPO’s, bootlegs, or blown up plays, Tua’s legs didn’t show any issue after he had his major hip surgery in the offseason. 


Trusting his Wide Receiver’s

While he didn’t have a huge level of success in his downfield passing (analyzed later in the article), his willingness to throw the jump ball is a major success in my eyes. There were many instances where he saw a 1-on-1 matchup on the outside and was willing to throw the ball up without hesitation (23 times in nine starts). Expect for this aspect of his game to greatly benefit his two big-bodied X receivers, DeVante Parker and Preston Williams next season. Not only did this benefit his receivers, but the offense as a whole benefited because these one-on-one throws generated four passing interference calls which garnered a total of 135 added yards.

Where he needs to improve:

Patience

The biggest issue I saw with Tua was his impatience, especially on third downs. The curls, RB flares, and the flat routes were consistently open, but he was extremely hesitant to let the play develop past his typical three-step drop. One of the biggest signs of a QB’s impatience is when they get rid of the ball within three seconds with a clean pocket still intact, and this was something that routinely happened with Tua. There were many instances (check the above tweet) where he would play it safe on third and long instead of being patient and looking downfield for a first down. 

Taking Bigger Risks 

This is the aspect of Tua’s game that will define his ability to be the Dolphins franchise quarterback. A perfect example of this inability was when Brian Flores pulled Tua in the fourth quarter of two games because of an extremely stagnant offense, opting for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who immediately stepped in and threatened defenses in a way Tua didn’t do all game. The example shows two plays, a routine levels concept and a seam route from Mike Gesiki. In the first play, Fitzpatrick attacks the second level without hesitation while Tua has consistently gone to the receiver in the flat. In the second play, Fitzpatricks first pass of the game is a seam route that Tua failed to attack until his final start of the season. 

Tua displayed a stronger comfortability in attacking the second level instead of settling for the safer option as the season went on, but he still didn’t do it at a consistent level. His final three snaps of the season were a perfect example of this improvement as he attacked a deep crosser, a seam route, and a double move, all three with accurate balls. 

Last season, he got a pass because Chan Gailey’s offense was completely predicated around the short game, even with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB (Fitz’s intended air yards per pass attempt was only 0.3 higher than Tua’s), but this season he won’t have that excuse.

Downfield passing 

While he showed the ability to trust his receivers on 1-on-1 matchups, that doesn’t mean that the throws were consistently on target. He was the second most accurate deep-ball passer from a clean pocket, whereas he ranked 29th while under pressure. Similar to his “lack of patience” he has to develop the poise in the face of pressure if he’s going to develop into an elite-downfield passer. I understand that it won’t be an easy fix, but in order for defenses to respect the downfield passing attack he has to become more accurate. 

Takeaways from Tua’s 2020 season, and what to expect in 2021:

We now know that Tua’s rookie season was full of quick reads and missed opportunities on longer developing plays. Regardless of what the consensus thinks, Tua’s floor is a game managing quarterback, and his ceiling depends on his development as a risk-taker. 

An aspect that everyone must also realize is that while last year’s offense was predicated on the short passing game, even when Fitzpatrick was the QB, they’re going to have to take the training wheels off, expand the playbook, and give him more downfield opportunities.

I expect to see Tua continue to thrive as a decisive short-game quarterback, but also for Dolphins new offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey to open up the playbook with two dynamic receivers in Waddle and Fuller, and a QB with a full year under his belt. I’m not shying away from the reality that there will be more growing pains; he’ll make more mistakes with the more chances he takes. I also expect for the lack of a power running game and the below-average offensive line to continue to hinder this offense as a whole.

No one should be saying he can’t succeed, because he clearly showed that he can, but will he do it at a consistent level is the question. We saw in games against the Chiefs, Cardinals, and Bills (fourth quarter) where he attacked the second level of defenses and was super aggressive with the ball. If Tua can trust his eyes and his arm, then, and only then, will he possess the aggressiveness needed to scare the hell out of defenses. 

Predicted 2021 17 game Statline: 65.5 comp % | 3400 yards | 22 touchdowns | 11 interceptions | 220 rushing yards | 6 rushing touchdowns

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