Tua Tagovailoa starting football games for the Miami Dolphins is the culmination of over a year's worth of planning. From hiring a sharp, level-headed coach in Brian Flores to gutting the roster in 2019 in order to set up for a tank job, starting Tagovailoa (or whichever young quarterback they could have stumbled upon) over the past two weeks had been more or less calculated well in advance. Miami even took things slowly with Tagovailoa this season. The supposed savior of South Beach sat on the bench through the first six weeks of the season in favor of perpetual journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who, to his credit, was actually playing rather well.
Early returns on Miami's year-plus quest for a quarterback look good though. Tagovailoa's first start against the Rams in Week 8 was a dud statistically, but he came out hot against the Cardinals last Sunday. Tagovailoa completed 20 of 28 passes for 248 yards and two scores while helping lead Miami to its third-best passing offensive DVOA of the season, behind only the Week 5 49ers game and Week 3 Jaguars game.
Above all else, Tagovailoa proved to have the baseline level of processing required to be a pro passer. Coming out of Alabama, one of Tagovailoa's most notable traits was how well he could cycle through his first few reads, maintain the integrity of a passing concept, and play on time. The Alabama offense sure freed up plenty of open receivers, but Tagovailoa often found them with ease and delivered accurate passes. It should come as no surprise that Tagovailoa is already showing success in that department in the NFL.
Here are a couple pre-snap screenshots of Arizona's defense on a first-and-10 to open the second quarter. When both sides first get set, Arizona is in a two-high shell, but eventually morphs into a one-high shell with the strong safety dropping down. Since the strong safety drops down over the strong outside linebacker (Haason Reddick, 43), Tagovailoa can probably assume Reddick is rushing and that the strong safety will be a coverage player towards the flat in some capacity. It's either that, or the strong safety bails into a deep half at the snap and the weak safety flies off the hash to the boundary to do the same.
Just before and after the snap, Tagovailoa has eyes on the strong safety who dropped down. Tagovailoa knows that if that safety stays down, the other safety is almost certainly playing a deep-third down the middle. As Tagovailoa sees the strong safety hang down, he holds his eyes to that side of the field for as long as possible before quickly turning to fire off the top of his drop. Tagovailoa never tips his hand in wanting to throw vertically down the left sideline, nor does he waste any time at the top of his drop in getting the ball out.
Being aware of and holding a deep-third safety like this is not the peak of intelligent quarterback play, but it is certainly one of the layers at the bottom of the pyramid. Young quarterbacks must be able to do this and build off of it. The mental clarity, timing, and accuracy Tagovailoa showed in this rep proves he can do it at a pro level.
In the previous week, his debut start against the Los Angeles Rams, Tagovailoa showed off some other baseline-level processing skills and arm strength. In the clip below, Miami calls a relatively simple intermediate passing concept. To the left-hand side, the two pass-catchers are running a scissors concept. The inside player (a tight end, in this case) runs a deep corner that breaks just under the outside player running a deep post. To the right, the lone receiver is running a deep curl/comeback route.
Tagovailoa opens first to the scissors side, likely looking to throw the corner route to the tight end if the Rams were to be in some sort of one-high coverage. Alas, the outside cornerback immediately falls off the No. 1 (outside) receiver and floats up underneath the corner route. Tagovailoa does well to recognize the concept is doomed and transitions straight into a throw to the comeback route on the opposite side of the field. The timing is absolutely perfect, too. Tagovailoa's eyes reach the comeback as soon as the receiver is turning back to break, giving Tagovailoa just enough time for a quick hitch to let it rip. Again, this is not the most advanced quarterback play, but that Tagovailoa is already executing with this kind of confidence and timing is inspiring.
Aside from just baseline processing, it is easy to see Tagovailoa's arm strength on these plays, too. Though he certainly did not have a bad arm coming out of Alabama, arm strength was never really a talking point for Tagovailoa. His arm was good enough and that was all that needed to be said. At least through a couple games, though, Tagovailoa's arm feels less like the B- it was at Alabama and closer to a B or B+-caliber arm. It's a minor difference, but it helps.
Check out this throw across the field, for example. Miami's No. 3 (innermost to trips side) is running a deep corner route with two underneath routes below him. That is a common theme for any trips formation. The tight end running the corner route gets jammed, though, which somewhat delays the timing of the route. At the same time, Tagovailoa is being pressured in the pocket a bit, with Markus Golden (44) breaking through the line. Since Golden is breaking through the offensive lineman's outside shoulder, Tagovailoa can not just slide back and/or to the left; if he does, Golden gets a free shot at him. Tagovailoa has to slide right, which creates even more distance between himself and the corner route. Despite that, Tagovailoa still rips this pass across the field to pick up a fresh set of downs.
The rookie quarterback may not have a god-tier arm, but it already seems abundantly clear that he has more than enough juice to threaten every section of the field. Throwing a corner route to the opposite side of the field while sliding away from pressure is about as "NFL" as it gets, and Tagovailoa nailed this throw without much trouble. If all these stationary throws were not enough to convince one of Tagovailoa's arm strength, he also made a number of throws on the run against Arizona. Whether by design or necessity, Tagovailoa put up plenty of quality throws from outside the pocket.
These two plays, in particular, were the most impressive. The second throw is especially outrageous seeing as Tagovailoa throws from the left hash to the right sideline while his body momentum is still sort of taking him to his left. It takes a good degree of core strength to be able to make throws like this consistently, and it seems Tagovailoa has it. Tagovailoa also has such a clean punch at the top of his throwing motion, both in the pocket and on the move, which helps him generate the velocity required for these throws.
For rookie quarterbacks, sometimes all you can hope for is that they do not look lost and that they have the tools required to compete at the NFL level. Simply avoiding disaster is a lot more than many first-year quarterbacks provide. Likewise, not every rookie quarterback, even the sharpest such as Joe Burrow, comes out of the gate looking to have the physical tools to excel as a pro. In a very general sense, Tagovailoa has checked the box on mental competence and physical tools.
As the year rolls on and Tagovailoa grows into the role, the offense will probably start to open up and ask more of their young quarterback. Then we will get a better picture of where Tagovailoa's ceiling may be at, particularly from a processing perspective. But for now, just two games in, there is plenty of reason to be satisfied with where Tagovailoa is and reason to believe he can continue progressing throughout the year.