Dolphins following AFC East rival's blueprint with Tua Tagovailoa playing like an MVP alongside Tyreek Hill
One of the most replicable blueprints to follow in order to win in the NFL is to surround a starting quarterback on their rookie contract with as much talent as possible. The Miami Dolphins are doing that now with their guy Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft -- surrounding him with pass-catchers like three-time First-Team All-Pro Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the sixth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Buffalo Bills followed the blueprint in 2020 with Josh Allen, the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, by acquiring Pro Bowl wide receiver Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for four draft picks, including a first-round pick. The turnaround was immediate: The Bills went 13-3 and reached their first AFC Championship since the glory years in the 1990s. Diggs became the first player in the Super Bowl Era, since 1966, to lead the NFL in receiving yards (1,535) in his first season with a new team as Allen finished as the MVP runner-up to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The 7-3, AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins, who have already notched a win against the Bills, are finding that same type of success just past the midpoint of the 2022 season. Their offseason trade acquisition of wide receiver Tyreek Hill, a member of the 2010's All-Decade Team, from the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for five draft picks has resulted in Hill leading the NFL in receptions (81) and receiving yards (1,148). He has found instant chemistry with Tagovailoa, who is putting up numbers that have him in contention for league MVP, and Hill's instant success with the Dolphins is borderline historic, considering he is on pace for 1,951 receiving yards, which would rank as the second-most in a season in NFL history behind Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson's 1,964 in 2012.
The threat of Hill has also opened up the field for second-year wideout Jaylen Waddle, who set the NFL rookie receptions record with 104, as his 878 receiving yards in 2022 rank as the fifth-most in the league and have him on pace for 1,492 yards. That would shatter his rookie year total of 1,015.
"It's fun, man. I feel like a guy like Jaylen Waddle doesn't get enough credit for what he truly does, kind of similar like me early on in my career," Hill said on Nov. 11 when asked about his teammates' success this season. "So just to see him succeed and just to see guys like Tua [Tagovailoa] succeeding in this league and just the whole offensive line doing their thing, man, it makes me smile. I'm just happy to be able to witness it all."
First-year head coach Mike McDaniel realized he knew Hill joining the Dolphins was going to be "different" back in spring during the first weeks of organized team activities after watching him run a specific route.
"There was a particular route that I think we [Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and McDaniel] came up with in 2013 [when McDaniel was Washington's wide receivers coach]. ... that's a deeper outbreaking route that not all that many people can run because the timing of the play and to push it that deep, you don't always have protection for it," McDaniel said on Nov. 9. "It kind of got steam, and we ran it the most when we had Julio Jones (when McDaniel was an Atlanta Falcons offensive assistant from 2015-2016), who was unbelievable at the route. Then seeing Tyreek [Hill] in, I think it was probably OTA four, if my training camp install schedule is correct in my brain, when he [Hill] ran that. I just had a lot of deliberate reps at viewing that [route] ran at an exceptional speed, depth, intent, and it was like, 'Whoa.' I've been fortunate to be around Andre Johnson in his prime, Julio Jones in his prime, Josh Gordon, Pierre Garcon, leading the league in receiving. All these great, great players, and he [Hill] is different. We knew then in OTAs that, yeah, this is a different deal."
Hill's presence has accelerated Tagovailoa's development with the third-year quarterback making the leap from putting up middle-of-the-road production in his first two seasons, 2020 and 2021, to playing like Dolphins Hall of Famer Dan Marino in Year 3 this season. The 2020 fifth overall draft pick currently leads the NFL in yards per pass attempt (9.1) and passer rating (118.4) while sharing the league lead in touchdown-to-interception ratio with Tom Brady (6:1). The last time a Dolphins passer led the NFL in passer rating, the year was 1984 when Marino won NFL MVP while leading Miami to their most recent Super Bowl appearance.
Tagovailoa deflected much of the credit for his breakout off of himself and back toward his head coach for utilizing Hill and Waddle in ways that has put him in the best position to thrive.
"I think Coach Mike [McDaniel] does a great job putting us in great situations offensively," Tagovailoa said earlier in November. "He has a lot of, people would say window dressing. He doesn't like that term, because it's just a part of our offense with the movement, shifting, motioning. It's a part of what we do. So, I think it's a lot of credit to what our head coach has done within installs and things like that to help put us in those situations. We can say that I go out there and throw, Tyreek [Hill] and [Jaylen] Waddle and all these other guys catch and run. [McDaniel] continues to give other people praise, but he doesn't get as much praise as I think he should, and a lot of that is because of him."
To be fair to the quarterback, a lot of credit deserves to be flowing his way for executing McDaniel's plays as the Dolphins are undefeated, 7-0, this season when Tagovailoa has played the entire game this season. Miami's offensive output when the third-year passer is present on the field -- 6.79 yards per play -- is equivalent to the third-best total by any team in a season during the Super Bowl era. Four of the five previous teams to move the ball down that field with that much success on a per-play basis were led by players who became that season's league MVP.
After shaking off the rust following his two-game absence due to a concussion, Tagovailoa has shined, becoming the first player in NFL history with a passer rating of 135 or higher in three consecutive games with a minimum of 30 pass attempts in each contest. His three games in a row with three or more passing touchdowns and no interceptions are tied for the sixth-longest such streak in NFL history.
"I think the thing that Coach Mike [McDaniel] has helped us offensively with is he's kind of tailored the offense towards what we do best," Tagovailoa said. "If you look on film, he tries to tailor it to what Tyreek runs the best, what Jaylen likes running, what I like throwing, what I'm good at throwing and things like that, whereas you watch their film from when they were with the [San Francisco] 49ers. They did things a little different because of what those guys were good at and what they liked. … So not much of, 'Why are we doing it like this?' or 'Why are we doing it like that?' It's more so, 'How do you see that play if they get this or if they get that? How do you see him running it and where do you think I should go with the ball on this?' Just more of that kind of conversation."
The arrival of Hill -- the NFL's leader in receiving touchdowns of 20 or more yards (34), 30 or more yards (29), 40 or more yards (23), 50 or more yards (14) and 60 or more yards (10) since entering the league in 2016 -- and McDaniel in Miami has led to Tagovailoa flipping the narrative about his ability to throw deep being a weakness upside down as he's become one of the NFL's best deep-ball passers in 2022.
On deep passes -- defined as passes of 20 or more air yards, according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats -- Tagovailoa leads the league in completion percentage (60.0%) and passing yards per attempt (19.6) while ranking fifth in completions (18) and third in passer rating (109.7) on such throws. He has nearly equaled his career total for completions on passes of 20-plus air yards (26 completions) in eight games played this season (18 completions).
"Ummm, boy, I think I've grown a lot with the deep balls, huh," Tagovailoa said sarcastically on Nov. 2 when asked where he's improved the most this season. "Don't we think? Yeah. That was probably a subtle jab, but it was a jab."
However, McDaniel said Monday that one his favorite things about this year's Dolphins is no one on the roster is content with their improvement and 7-3 start since the AFC East is one of only three divisions in which all four teams have at least six wins through Week 11 since divisional realignment in 2002, joining the 2014 AFC North as well as this season's NFC East.
"It's a very cool vibe because you get worried," McDaniel said. "Call a spade a spade. We're above .500. At this stage of the season, you have a bye week. Do people get comfortable? The vibe was exactly the opposite, exactly what I'd want to see, which was a group of people that are confident but hungry. That's what you want to gain from winning football games is confidence, not any complacency. I haven't seen any of that. I see a team that recognizes they have an opportunity in front of them. They also recognize how, like it is every year, parity is crazy in the National Football League. In particular, our division, which first and last place is [separated by] a huge one game. … I think they've come in refreshed. I asked them to deliberately rest and I feel like they did. But they are definitely charged and ready to go to play the sport they love and see how far we can take the team."
With Tagovailoa playing the quarterback position at a level not seen in Miami since Marino's legendary 1984 season alongside wide receivers Hill and Waddle, perhaps 2022 could be the season they return to the Super Bowl. Read More