NFL News & Analysis

No, really, who is stopping Tua Tagovailoa and this Miami Dolphins offense?

Chicago, Illinois, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel talks with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Miami defeated Chicago 35-32. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

There was no easier engagement play on social media this offseason than to lampoon Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The jokes were always the same and inevitably went viral: 

Even when his own coach and own wide receivers went to bat for the accuracy of their young quarterback, the masses still didn’t want to listen. Just look at the replies to the tweet below.

Now nine weeks into the 2022 NFL season, it’s Tua and Dolphins faithful doing the laughing. Miami hasn’t lost a game Tagovailoa has started and finished this season. They lead the NFL in expected points added per play when he is under center. And per PFF’s ball charting through nine weeks, Tua is the most accurate quarterback in the game. Here are his numbers on throws 10-plus yards downfield this season: 

On-Target 60.5% 1st
Uncatchably Inaccurate 16.3% 1st

So, how did so many get it so wrong? It starts with one of the most difficult tasks in player evaluation: quantifying a supporting cast's impact on quarterback performance. To see exactly why, we’ll have to go back to last season when the Tua narrative really started to take hold. 

That season was Tagovailoa’s first as the unquestioned starter in Miami, and even then he reportedly rarely had the support of former head coach Brian Flores. Tua played behind an offensive line that was dead last in pass-blocking grade. He threw to a receiving corps that primarily featured a tight end in Mike Gesicki and a wide receiver in DeVante Parker, who both ranked second at their respective positions in rate of targets that were contested. Regardless of who's playing quarterback, that’s a near-impossible situation to look consistent in.

And Tagovailoa wasn’t. He faltered to a 67.3 passing grade on 388 dropbacks. Enter, Tyreek Hill. As you can see in the table below, the Dolphins' entire target share from a season ago that was going to two contested-catch weapons has now been given to the single best separator in the NFL. The results … well, they speak for themselves. 

Player Targets Contested Target Rate Yards per Target
2021 Jaylen Waddle 138 12.3% 7.4
2021 Mike Gesicki 106 30.2% 7.4
2021 DeVante Parker 73 41.1% 7.1
2022 Tyreek Hill 99 13.1% 11.2
2022 Jaylen Waddle 68 19.1% 11.9

Of course, there’s more at play here than a simple talent upgrade. Tua himself has evolved as a passer — particularly under pressure. He went from a 34.2 passing grade when facing the heat last season (26th) to a 56.0 mark this season (10th) and is one of only five starters to not have a single interception under pressure in 2022.

That development is also inseparable from the schematic upgrades brought in by head coach Mike McDaniel. PFF’s Seth Galina did a fantastic job on It’s Just Football last week of breaking down what makes the Dolphins so difficult to defend.  

The key tenet of the Dolphins' offense is speed. They utilize quick game better than any offense in the NFL. The secret is that, unlike most quick passes you’ll see around the NFL, Miami's quick passing attack is based on vertical routes — not horizontal ones.

The Dolphins are always selling go-balls first from their speedy weapons at the snap, and only when that threat has been established do they break to open space horizontally. It’s why Tua leads the NFL in average depth of target on throws in 2.5 seconds or less:

Tua Tagovailoa Ranks on Throws 2.5 Seconds or Less
Stat Rank
Attempts 133 19th
Completions 95 19th
Comp. % 71.4% 22nd
Yards 1,136 11th
Yards/Att. 8.5 1st
ADoT 8.1 1st
Passer Rating 117.2 1st
Passing Grade 85.0 2nd

Combine those vertical routes with Miami's league-leading usage of pre-snap motion (81.2%), and it gives the impression that everything is moving faster than it really is. And the Dolphins' weapons are already moving pretty darn fast.

Here at PFF, you’ll often see our social team pose the question, “Who’s stopping this offense?” When Tua is playing as he has over the past two weeks with a 95.4 passing grade, when Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are healthy and when Mike McDaniel is dialing it up, the answer is: no one.

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