When Tua Tagovailoa got to the huddle he was greeted by a slap on the back. Fiddling with his arm band, the Ewa Beach, Hawaii native looked up at his tight end, Durham Smythe, and smacked him back on the helmet. Tagovailoa then turned to the rest of his white, orange, and neon-aqua donned teammates and began reciting the play call. There was 2:27 left in a 24-0 week six rout of the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins' #1 was now QB1.
When Tagovailoa made his NFL debut, the past was on the sideline, or had been traded in the tear-down the year before, and the future was now. For the 4-3 Miami Dolphins — a team a year removed from 0-16 discussion and top five draft pick — discussion of tanking and morale victories is already over. The New England Patriots dynasty has ended, and while some look elsewhere, the Dolphins are positioning themselves to fill the void.
Miami Dolphins show signs of success:
Miami Dolphins started the 2020 season with losses to divisional opponents. (Buffalo and New England). Miami Dolphins fans found their team, once again, at the bottom of the AFC East and watched as Justin Herbert — picked immediately after Tagovailoa in the 2020 draft — throw for 311 yards and force the defending champions into overtime in his NFL debut.
Since then, the Fins have won four of five games, own the best point differential in the division (also the only positive one), and sit just a win out of a playoff spot. Despite a 5-11 2019, the second-youngest team in the league ranks near the top of NFL power rankings and have slashed their AFC East division odds.
While outsiders questioned how bad the Dolphins would again be in 2020, the team chose to add. Bringing in pricey free agents Byron Jones and Kyle Van Noy in the summer, Miami Dolphins transformed one of the league's worst defenses into one of the best. The 2020 Dolphins own the best scoring defense in the NFL — allowing just 18.6 points-per-game, down from the 30.9 they allowed in 2019.
They have let up over 21 points just twice all season (losses to Buffalo and Seattle), shut out the lowly Jets in week six, and roster one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
"They’ll have as good a secondary as there is in the division," former coach Jimmy Johnson said before the season. "Maybe in the league."
How the Miami Dolphins rebuilt:
While other professional sports teams have embraced the tank — a tasteful branding of being really, really bad on purpose — the Miami Dolphins did it right. Yes, they were bad, but they did not tear it all down.
General Manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores implemented a calculated mix of additions and subtractions. Miami held on to key players with time to age into their primes and the Miami Dolphins new timeline — players like Xavien Howard (now 27), Davante Parker (27), Jerome Baker (23), and Bobby McCain (27) all fit the bill. Flores, a Bill Belichick disciple, sold players who didn’t or wouldn't fit the mold, and kept players who bought in.
After a 300 receiving yard 2018, Parker's name appeared in trade rumors alongside many now-former Dolphins, but Miami didn't deal him. A season and a half later, Parker is PFF's 26th ranked WR in the league, coming off a 1,200 yard, 9 touchdown campaign, and inked to an extension through 2023 with just $21.5 million in guaranteed money.
On the other side of the ball, corner back Howard came off a league-leading seven interceptions in 2018 and could have fetched a haul on the trade market. But, at only 25, the Miami Dolphins decided to keep him and build around him. Howard is now PFF's sixth ranked cornerback and, alongside Jones, McCain and the rest of the Dolphins, has caused the most turnovers in the NFL.
Miami Dolphins did, however, choose to deal offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills to the Houston Texans for three draft picks, and flipped DB Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers for a 2020 first.
Tunsil, Stills, and Fitzpatrick all prominently feature for their new teams, and Noah Igbinoghene and Austin Jackson (the 2020 acquired first round picks) have faltered, but Miami acquired young controllable assets who fit their timeline and could still become starters if not stars.
The Dolphins traded (and lost) just enough to build an asset advantage without scorching earth.
But Miami Dolphins have manufactured an advantage beyond the depth chart, too. Under Flores, the Fins are one of the most disciplined teams in the league, committing the fourth fewest penalties per game (significantly trailing only Belichick and the Patriots).
Flores has “out-coached” some of the league’s best minds — including recent Super Bowl competitors Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan — and maximized the talent on a roster with modest expectations and COVID-19 opt-outs at its thinnest position groups.
Though Flores didn’t receive any votes for 2019 NFL Coach of the Year, he was in the discussion. With a 5-11 team. The 2019 Miami Dolphins and Flores perfectly toed the line between building and losing — productive tanking, if you will.
Miami Dolphins - Still to come:
And while other franchises commit to basement dwelling for years (sometimes decades), the Dolphins, a year later, are back in it. Starting the season 3-3, the Dolphins could have rode out the season on the back of veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. But, by turning to Tagovailoa, Miami indicated that they both expect to win, and do it the right way — they are building for more than just one playoff appearance.
Tua had it easy in his first start, assisted by defensive and special teams touchdowns, but the Miami Dolphins are his team. They still expect to win, and they expect the former Alabama Heisman winner to get better.
“He’ll start to get better in bigger jumps as we go forward because the more he sees, the more he understands,” said offensive coordinator Chain Gailey.
A single touchdown and 93 passing yards will not be enough for Tagovailoa to keep his job, let alone win games, but it was enough on Sunday.
The next challenge comes against another former Heisman winner in Kyler Murray and the Cardinals, but the true test comes in week 17. For two decades the New England Patriots were the gatekeepers of the AFC East, but for now, it appears that burden falls on the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills are good but flawed, with inconsistent quarterback play and one of the worst run defenses in the league. After Buffalo topped the now-Cam Newton led Patriots in week 8 they, at least for a brief moment, wear the AFC North crown — a crown they may well hold through week 17 and into the playoffs.
The Miami Dolphins, like all young teams, will have growing pains. There may be more 93 passing yard games in Tagovailoa's young career. But something is being built in south beach that the NFL should take note of. Maybe not today, and maybe not this season, but the East will be Miami’s division to win soon enough.
Published 05 Nov 2020, 16:58 IST