Friday, June 2, 2023

Tua Tagovailoa airing it out on and off the field as Dolphins QB primed to prove his critics wrong

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Tua Tagovailoa attacked Thursday’s minicamp practice with his usual intentionality.

He had to have better ball placement than the day before, when the defense dominated the offense and Tagovailoa was proving all the doubters wrong. And he did. A 45-yard completion to shiny new toy Tyreek Hill was later followed by a probably 55-yard touchdown to Hill toward the end of practice.

Unless it’s lopsided like it was Wednesday, it’s impossible — or unfair — to determine which side won a day of practice with no pads and a couple months into a new coaching staff. But Tagovailoa needed to lead the offense to a better performance Thursday and so he did.

That intentionality transferred to the outdoor press conference area, where the third-year quarterback had decided he would speak up and defend himself against, well … everything.

“If you saw the third to the last play that we had, I don’t know if I can throw the ball downfield still, but by my account I think that might have been a touchdown to Tyreek,” a saucy Tagovailoa said. “If not then we scored two plays after that to Tyreek. However you want to break down any of that to social media or whatever outlets you guys are with, you do so.”

And then later …

“We come out to practice, everyone else, Twitter warriors or keyboard warriors whatever you want to call them, they’re not out here practicing with us working hard,” Tagovailoa continued. “I don’t know if you guys recorded that last one to Tyreek.

“I don’t know about you but that looked like money.”

The funny thing is, I believe Tagovailoa is actually oblivious to what everyone says about him. When the Dolphins posted that ill-fated video of a deep ball that appeared more like a wounded duck in slow motion, he didn’t know about it. When Hill hoped on his white horse to come to Tagovailoa’s rescue, the quarterback said he didn’t have any clue about it until he was informed by the media Thursday, nearly three weeks later.

Despite his Gen Z status, Tagovailoa is Extremely Not Online. His Instagram is essentially a hub for sponsored content that he surely isn’t posting himself. His Twitter collects dust, and he hasn’t even liked a tweet since Shania Twain sent him kissy faces two years ago.

Sometimes players will tell you they don’t hear what we in the media say or see what we write, and a lot of times you know those players are lying. Minutes after you posted it, they saw it from their burner account. Their buddy sent it to them. With Tua, every fiber of me believes he doesn’t actually see or hear any of this stuff.

Anne Noland, the Dolphins’ senior director of football communications, has the unenviable task of letting Tagovailoa know what folks are saying. Not everything, of course. But it’s her job to prepare Tagovailoa for what may be coming from the press and he heads to the microphone.

And so whether it was Noland, or his teammates, or his new head coach Mike McDaniel or whomever, Tagovailoa has been made extremely aware of the perception that he doesn’t have a strong arm and there’s external concern that the lack of arm strength will doom a Dolphins offense with speed for days with Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

“You’re going to have things that you don’t execute to perfection,” McDaniel said Thursday as he began his public defense of Tagovailoa. “You’re going to have people talking about how you’re performing. And guess what? No one cares. It’s about leading and he had a ton of energy and I was very, very happy with his effort today because it was one of the million reps you need at that position to handle the scrutiny, the pressure, all that stuff.

“His teammates have really noticed a difference. He’s opening up. He’s kind of coming into his own in that regard. He’s been unbelievably coachable. He’s let his guard down and he’s been able to keep his confidence high, which it should be right now, while correcting and getting his game better.”

To this journalist parachuting into town for a day and having interacted with Tagovailoa in a handful of previous press conferences, he certainly appeared to be more affable and relatable with the media. He cracked jokes while defending himself against the critics.

The stats, though, do speak loudly. In 2021, Tagovailoa had the fewest pass attempts of 20 or more air yards of any quarterback who attempted at least 250 passes. According to TruMedia, the average QB last year attempted passes of 20 or more air yards on 10.3% of their throws. Tagovailoa attempted just 7.2% of such passes, lowest among all qualified quarterbacks not named Daniel Jones.

Then there’s the scheme. In a fairly pointed barb to the previous regime here in Miami, Tagovailoa told a health magazine recently that the 2021 Miami offense didn’t allow him to even try to get more of those attempts.

“I wasn’t really able to push the ball down the field last year because we didn’t have plays specifically to push the ball down the field,” Tagovailoa told Muscle and Fitness. “A lot of plays that were called last year were meant for one person. Either this person is open, or the play might be dead. It’s a little different now. My second year was different than my rookie year and this year will be different than last year with how we go about doing things. I definitely feel a lot more confident being able to push the ball down the field. It’s going to be exciting.”

Indeed, the Dolphins’ offense was limited in its downfield attack. The offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL and couldn’t give the quarterback — no matter his arm strength — time to throw. Jacoby Brissett had 224 pass attempts last season for the Dolphins and 8.9% of them were attempts of 20-plus air yards, slightly more than Tagovailoa’s clip but still below league average.

Brian Flores shuffled through offensive coordinators here rather quickly during his short tenure as head coach. Whether Tagovailoa was taking a direct shot at his different offensive coordinators in the past is unclear. He sidestepped a question Thursday asking for elaboration.

But it’s clear he’s happy in Year 3 with McDaniel, and Thursday’s minicamp was a great stepping stone for Tagovailoa.

“Mike’s a little different,” Tagovailoa said. “Mike is always trying to encourage you and keep you going. For me it’s a little backwards. I’m used to getting hard on myself and the coach getting hard on me too, whereas I’m getting hard on myself and he’s trying to tell me, ‘hey it’s going to be OK. We’re only in June. There’s a lot more time to grow.’

“It’s been different. I’ve never been around a coach like this who’s just extremely positive. Growing up my dad’s always been hard on me. My high school coach has been hard on me. Coach Saban’s been hard on me. And all the coaches that I’ve had prior have all been hard on me. He’s hard but he takes another alleyway, if you will, on teaching and helping.”

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