Are Dolphins a Super Bowl contender? How Tua Tagovailoa and 2-0 Miami measure up for ultimate gauge vs. Bills
When was the last time the Miami Dolphins had a truly fun, leave-you-sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of offense? The answer is probably sometime prior to the 21st century in the era of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino (1983-1999). The 2001 Dolphins, led by head coach Dave Wannstedt, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and quarterback Jay Fiedler, did average 21.5 points per game, good for the eighth most in the NFL, but that figure would've ranked as the 19th-ranked scoring offense in the 2021 season.
In 2022, with first-year head coach Mike McDaniel leading quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the fireworks are undoubtedly back for the 2-0 Dolphins. Trailing by 21 points (35-14) in the fourth quarter on the road against the Baltimore Ravens this past Sunday, Miami was staring down a situation in which NFL teams had lost their last 711 games, the equivalent of 41 straight seasons of not overcoming a three-touchdown, fourth quarter deficit.
Tagovailoa -- after completing 23 of 33 passes for 270 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the first three quarters -- turned into a futuristic Marino for a quarter, completing 13 of his final 17 passes for 199 yards, four touchdowns (tied for the most in the fourth quarter of a game in NFL history), and no interceptions. He threw his final pass to Waddle for a seven-yard touchdown with 14 seconds remaining to ice the victory. Finishing with career-highs in completion percentage (72 percent, 36-50), passing yards (469), passing touchdowns (6) and passer rating (121.4), he won his first career AFC Offensive Player of the Week award.
His performance was the 10th game in NFL history with a quarterback having 450 or more passing yards and six or more passing touchdowns, the first since Patrick Mahomes did so in 2018. The six passing touchdowns also tied the Dolphins franchise record, one Tagovailoa now shares with Marino and fellow Hall of Famer Bob Griese. In the eyes of his coaches and teammates, Sunday was the first exhibition of Tua's full capabilities. He made the leap to show potential greatness, working in the outside-zone running/play-action scheme that McDaniel has installed since becoming the Dolphins' head coach this offseason.
"I think [Sunday] allows him [Tagovailoa] – it kind of makes it tangible what his teammates, myself, the coaching staff have been seeing this whole offseason," McDaniel said on Monday. "It makes the evolution – he took such a step in the right direction yesterday [Sunday] and threw an interception that he was absolutely disgusted with himself. In that game, to take the coaching and still press forward with – it was probably his biggest mistake that he's had all his season, so that makes it that much more real and what it can do for him, if he's just worried about playing the next play and not pressing or not being overly hard on himself.
"So I think the messaging for that and for his personal growth is huge, but I also think it's awesome for a player to feel – he knows that he did some really, really good things. I think deep down – he wouldn't ever say it – but I think you'd have to be kind of delusional not to be like, 'hey, six touchdowns was pretty good, right.' But I think there's also something to the fact that none of his teammates were surprised, which is much more impactful than words. You can feel that when guys, they're not like, 'woah, dude, where [did] that come from?' I think that's great for him. He deserves it."
Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki, who has been Tagovailoa's teammate for all three of the quarterback's NFL seasons, echoed his head coach's sentiments about what they've seen from the former top-five draft pick.
"He's [Tagovailoa] dealt with so much criticism and outside noise from people that aren't in the building and people that aren't aware of the situation," Gesicki said. "People that don't know the play-calls, they're still going to say and do anything they want to draw attention to a negative situation. Unfortunately, that's the world we live in, people want to be negative rather than understand that he's a young quarterback who has made plays and is only getting better. He's made plays for this organization for the third year now."
Plenty of credit for Sunday's historic comeback can also go to general manager Chris Grier. This offseason, Grier traded for former Chiefs star Tyreek Hill (4 years, $120 million) in exchange for five draft picks. He also acquired running backs Chase Edmonds (2 years, $12.1 million) and Raheem Mostert (1 year 2.1 million), wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (3 years, $22.1 million), and offensive linemen Terron Armstead (5 years, $75 million) and Connor Williams (2 years, $14 million).
Those additions paired with starters he added in the last three drafts, such as wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (sixth overall in 2021, 11 receptions, 171 receiving yards, and two receiving touchdowns), guard Robert Hunt (39th overall in second round in 2020) and guard Liam Eichenberg (42nd overall in second round in 2021). All contributed to the perfect fourth quarter in Week 2, with all four possessions ending in Tagovailoa passing touchdowns. After being graded as the league's worst pass-blocking unit by Pro Football Focus last season (51.8), the offensive line didn't allow a sack on their quarterback's 50 pass attempts, the lone sack on Sunday occurring on a missed block by a tight end. That time in the pocket allowed Tagovailoa to find his guys in Hill and Waddle on 22 of his 32 passes their way as they became the first pair of teammates in NFL history to both have more than 10 catches, 150 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns in the same game.
"I hadn't personally been around two players in the same position group of that caliber [before]," McDaniel said on Wednesday. "I'm pretty sure every other defense also took note and will have a plan to get in front of them as well."
The McDaniel Effect
Much of the rapidly-growing popularization of the outside-zone running/play-action scheme ran by McDaniel's Dolphins can be traced back to Mike Shanahan's stints as an NFL head coach with the Denver Broncos and the now-Washington Commanders. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan (Mike's son), Rams head coach Sean McVay, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, and McDaniel all worked under the elder Shanahan in Washington. McDaniel worked alongside Kyle in 14 of his 15 seasons as an NFL assistant coach on five different teams.
The goal of this offense is to simplify the information a quarterback has to process before and during a given offensive play. McDaniel's iteration of this offense involves a high usage of pre-snap motion and play-action passing. In fact, the Dolphins utilize motion on 77.3 percent of their plays and play-action on 28.1 percent of their plays, both the highest rates in the NFL so far in 2022. The 49ers led the NFL in motion usage (69.1%) last season with McDaniel as the team's offensive coordinator.
"[With motion] we get to see what kind of defensive front they run, if they do adjust their fronts, our motions with our tight ends and then our jet motions with Tyreek [Hill], Jaylen [Waddle] and all our guys on the back end, we get to see how they move within their coverages," Tagovailoa said on Wednesday.
One aspect of the consistent motion McDaniel heavily utilizes is luring the defenses' eyes in different directions, leading to defenders being out of position as well as potentially being lulled to sleep, leading to big plays for an offense.
"On one instance where Chase [Edmonds] ran the ball in the fourth quarter [on Sunday] to get us into the red area, I don't know if it was the 10 or the 5, somewhere down there," Tagovailoa said. "We've been running a certain play where I keep the ball and dish it out to guys. That motion allowed for guys to get out of their gaps and Chase [Edmonds] was able to run and get a tremendous amount of yards. I would say that's how we look at plays complimenting other plays."
In the small sample size of two games, with the bulk of the production coming at the Ravens on Sunday, Tagovailoa has risen to the top of the NFL's passing leaderboards, leading the league with 739 passing yards while sharing the NFL lead in passing touchdowns (7) with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Carson Wentz.
Tagovailoa has played a completely different brand of football in 2022, a stark contrast to the reputation his play created in 2020 and 2021. Tua also leads the NFL in passing yards on passes of more than 10 air yards (434) and is tied for the NFL lead in completions (18) with New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston and passing touchdowns (5) on passes of more than 10 air yards with Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz according to Next Gen Stats.
He has four career completions traveling more than 40 yards downfield, and two of them happened in the fourth quarter against the Ravens on both of Tyreek Hill's touchdowns.
In Tua we trust
Tagovailoa's progress is also illustrated by the trust his teammates clearly have in him. Tua's 60-yard scoring strike to Tyreek Hill that tied the game at 35 with 5:19 occurred after the duo effectively communicated the Ravens lining up in one-on-one man coverage without safety help against the NFL's leader in touchdowns of 60 or more yards since 2016 (12).
"I'm cheesin' already," Hill said after the game when he noticed the Ravens' defensive alignment. "Immediately cheesy, man. You know, and I did my thing to Tua, 'EEE-EEE!' and you know when I do that 'EEE-EEE!', just throw it no matter what and I'll make a play for you. He [Tagovailoa] already knows, that's the kind of chemistry that he and I built during this offseason. Being able to see Cover Zero together. He saw it, I saw it, the whole stadium saw it. We didn't check to that play, it was already the play call. Sometimes you have to dress it up a little bit with a 'EEE-EEE' to say this is it right here. Just one of those."
Waddle, who set the NFL rookie receptions record with 104 last year, was utilized on shorter, quick-developing out routes on 26.7% of his routes last season, the most frequently run route of his a season ago per Pro Football Focus. This season, he's already halfway to his receiving touchdown total from a year ago and his receiving yards per catch have nearly doubled.
Waddle and Tagovailoa have a similarly strong connection as Waddle has been his quarterback's go-to guy in clutch situations so far this season. Facing fourth down and seven yards to go with 24 seconds remaining in Week 1 against the New England Patriots, Tagovailoa zipped a pass through a crowd of defenders into Waddle's chest and the receiver did the rest, sprinting away for the game-sealing score that put the Dolphins ahead 17-0 in a game they won 20-7. Last week in Baltimore, the Alabama Crimson Tide connection came through again: Tagovailoa rolled out and threw a jump ball to Waddle in the end zone for the game-winning seven-yard touchdown with 19 seconds left to play.
"It's an exciting time, Tua told us in the huddle that it's us or them right now," Waddle said. "He called the play, we executed it and [we're] lucky to get the win."
The Measuring Stick: Super Bowl favorite Bills
One of McDaniel's defining philosophies as a head coach is that of positive reconditioning, training the mind to embrace tough situations. His quarterback donned a "I wish it were hotter" T-shirt at his Wednesday press conference. When asked why he was wearing that shirt, Tagovailoa said that phrase is commonly used during practice by McDaniel when the Miami humidity begins to take over. While McDaniel is happy the Dolphins resiliently battled back to overcome a historic, 21-point fourth quarter hole last week, he knows that likely won't work against the odds-on favorite (+400) to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy this season, the back-to-back AFC East champion Buffalo Bills.
"Not to take me so literal and excessively; that was a little too much adversity for my liking," McDaniel said with a laugh on Monday when asked what he said to his team after their win on Sunday. "No, the biggest message is that you don't ignore the obvious. The Buffalo Bills have won the division and done an unbelievable job in all three phases, so what better for the Miami Dolphins that's a young team that is really invested and they're very eager to play football; what better opportunity than playing the best and seeing where you're at? So I think you don't hide from it. I think you embrace the fact that they're a good football team and that there's one way to be put in the category of good football teams: you beat good football teams."
Like Aaron Rodgers and his "ownership" of the Chicago Bears (Rodgers' 23 wins against them are the most by any starting quarterback), the Dolphins also have a Bears-like divisional nemesis they would like to overcome in Josh Allen. After going 15-25 against the Patriots during Tom Brady's 20 seasons alongside Bill Belichick in New England, the Dolphins have struck back, winning each of their last four games against New England. The new AFC East all-world quarterback, this season's NFL MVP favorite (+300) Allen has led his Bills to seven consecutive wins against the Dolphins, six of those by double-digits. With one more win, the Bills would be tied with two Jets teams, the 1998-2001 and 1966-1969 versions, for the longest winning streak ever against the Dolphins. Allen has thrown 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions during those seven wins.
Allen has multiple passing touchdowns in all eight of his career games against the Dolphins. With two more on Sunday, Allen would become the third player in NFL history with multiple passing touchdowns in nine straight games vs a single opponent, joining Marino against the Jets (1991-1997, 10 games) and Matthew Stafford against the Packers (2014-2018, 9 games).
Getting in Allen's face hasn't worked out for the Dolphins, as his 11 passing touchdowns (his most passing touchdowns when pressured vs any opponent) and one interception when pressured vs. Miami would indicate.
"It's definitely a challenge when you have a quarterback that can move around," Dolphins linebacker Melvin Ingram said. "Josh Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in the league as far as running and throwing. He does it all, so you just have to try and cancel out every phase. Have to have good rush lanes and play complimentary football."
Slowing down Allen will be an even bigger challenge considering he's on an all-time hot streak with four consecutive games recording four or more total touchdowns dating back to last season. Only Peyton Manning has more consecutive games with four or more total touchdowns, with five such games in 2004. Manning won the NFL MVP award that season.
The Dolphins may need to follow the Chiefs' playoff game plan from last season to defeat Allen's Bills, which is just keep scoring and get lucky in order to knock off the league's highest-scoring offense (36.0 PPG). To do that, Miami needs Hill and Waddle to continue blowing by defenders like they're both Usain Bolt. The top three NFL receiving yards leaders will all be on the field in Miami on Sunday with Hill (284, most in the NFL), the Bills' Stefon Diggs (270, second-most) and Waddle (240, third-most). Hill and Waddle lead all wide receivers in yards after the catch this season, with Hill out in front with 115 yards after catch, and Waddle (111 yards after catch) right behind him.
The Bills' defense allows 4.4 yards after the catch per reception, the fourth-lowest in the NFL. The NFL's second-best scoring defense has allowed only 17 points this season against the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and last year's top AFC playoff seed, the Tennessee Titans. Whichever defense can come through to get that one crucial stop will likely emerge victorious in a matchup of two of the top five scoring offenses in the NFL. If Tua helps the Dolphins turn two wins into three on Sunday, MVP chants could begin in South Beach, and Miami could emerge as a legit Super Bowl contender. Read More