How Is Tua Tagovailoa Having a Season This Good?

Suspicions about Tagovailoa’s future mounted as the Dolphins organization heaped a little too much praise on their embattled young quarterback throughout the off-season. Tagovailoa could barely toss his socks in a laundry hamper during minicamp without the team posting a video of the throw and McDaniel offering a testimonial about its accuracy and velocity. Hill called Tagovailoa “the most accurate QB in the N.F.L.,” praise which, at the time, read more as an attempt to slight Patrick Mahomes than legitimate observation.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins signed the veteran Teddy Bridgewater as the sort of premium insurance policy a team rarely invests in when it’s truly committed to a young quarterback.

By the end of training camp, the Tagovailoa-led Dolphins were poised to flop like an overhyped summer blockbuster. Once the season began, however, it became clear that Hill, Waddle and McDaniel were accentuating Tagovailoa’s strengths rather than covering up his weaknesses.

Hill, who leads the N.F.L. with 87 receptions and 1,233 yards, is the league’s most elusive receiver. Waddle, fifth in the N.F.L. with 963 yards on 56 receptions, would be the fastest receiver on any team that did not employ Hill. No team has enough talent in their secondary to cover both of them, so opponents rarely blitz and invariably align their safeties deep to prevent quick-strike touchdowns.

With defenses constantly on their heels, Tagovailoa has plenty of time to throw and lots of open space for intermediate passes. Per Pro Football Reference, Tagovailoa’s average intended pass is 9.1 yards downfield, the second-highest figure in the N.F.L., and he is pressured on only 19.2 percent of his attempts, 24th in the league. Instead of a glorified handoff machine, Tagovailoa has been a more consistent downfield passer than Mahomes or Josh Allen of the Bills.

Tagovailoa uses shoulder fakes to feint defenders out of position and rarely looks to his intended receiver until it’s time to throw. A quick release and a deft touch compensate for his lack of a big-league fastball, and he lofts just enough deep bombs to Hill and Waddle to keep defenders wary. Reduced pressure and increased experience have also resulted in fewer mistakes: Tagovailoa has not thrown an interception or lost a fumble in his last five games.

Fans and analysts are now warming to Tagovailoa. He’s third among quarterbacks in early Pro Bowl balloting, behind Mahomes and Allen. He is also getting +500 odds for the Most Valuable Player Award, behind only Mahomes (-160) and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts (+350).

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