The Miami Dolphins released 10 minutes of Tua Tagovailoa “mic’d up” from the team’s Sunday victory over the Cleveland Browns, and what can be seen is pure joy from the third-year quarterback playing his best stretch of professional football.
As Tagovailoa made some of his best throws from his 25-of-32 performance for 285 yards and a third consecutive 3-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he’s shown bouncing around doing his go-to Smeeze dance.
“You look like a young me,” backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tells him of the way he’s having fun on the football field.
“You in Miami, boy,” Bridgewater, the Miami native, adds. “You make a play, you got to have swag.”
Tagovailoa’s heightened level of quarterback play in the last three games — nine touchdowns to zero interceptions and the three highest-rated games of his career, all with a passer rating of 135 or better — is a byproduct of many things.
He himself is locked in. He finally has the tools necessary with the league’s top receiving tandem of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, an offensive line that is finally offering consistent protection and a burgeoning run game since the Dolphins traded with the San Francisco 49ers for running back Jeff Wilson Jr.
But Tagovailoa is also playing as free and as comfortable as he appears because of the confidence instilled in him through coach Mike McDaniel’s approach of empowering him from the moment he arrived in Miami to begin working with the left-handed passer the franchise selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2020 draft. It was another moment captured through their sideline interaction once Tagovailoa’s day was complete.
“You’re playing at a very, very high level,” McDaniel told his quarterback. “Facts are facts. … Not turning the ball over, getting the ball out, making smart decisions.”
But McDaniel doesn’t allow Tagovailoa to venture into the realm of overconfidence because of it. Not when, after the bye week and a home game against the Houston Texans, comes the gauntlet of a final regular-season stretch that hits the road to San Francisco, Los Angeles to face the Chargers, Buffalo and New England — the latter two in potentially frigid environments — and involves home games against the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets.
“That doesn’t mean anything for the next time we’re on the field,” McDaniel interjects amid the deserved praise.
A notion which Tagovailoa is on board with: “Just got to keep chopping the wood.”
Tagovailoa’s run is all the more impressive when taking a deeper look at how he reached the numbers through eight games for him and 10 for the Dolphins: completing 71 percent of passes for 2,265 yards, 18 touchdowns and three interceptions.
His league-leading 118.4 passer rating is amplified by his success passing on third downs (149.8). He gets it done in the fourth quarter and in the red zone, also leading the NFL with ratings of 123.2 and 118.8 in those categories, respectively.
And here’s the kicker: Tagovailoa leads the league in yards per attempt (9.1), an area where he has been much maligned with an inability to drive the ball down the field.
Now, that doesn’t mean he’s taking the top off a defense all the time. A lot of those yards are being created by the deep threat that Hill and Waddle possess while allowing them to sit in the middle of the field or clear coverage for other targets.
It’s not all wide-open receivers Tagovailoa is connecting with, however — as much as the combination of McDaniel’s offense and Hill and Waddle creating space allows for it. Late in the first half Sunday, Tagovailoa had to make back-to-back contested throws. One was a short out to Waddle to convert a third down that has to be on the money with zip or it’s a pick-six the other way. The other was the perfectly placed ball to the back of the end zone for Trent Sherfield to make a toe-tapping touchdown grab.
If there’s one area to critique, there were instances in both the Lions and Bears games where he has a long touchdown if he hits Hill or Waddle in stride deep. The one to Hill in Detroit was still good for a completion as Hill came back to catch the ball over a defender, and a key late third down that could’ve ended the game in Chicago was missed when he underthrew Waddle.
Then, of course, there is the difference in competition that is coming up. Doing it against the Lions, Bears and Browns is one thing. A bigger test awaits next month if he can produce comparable play at the 49ers, Chargers and Bills, possibly in the elements.