Dolphins defense makes quarterback Tua Tagovailoa debut quiet but successful l Hurt

Cecil Hurt

Tua Tagovailoa, game manager?

That isn’t the future destiny of the former Alabama star, but it was what was needed in his debut as the Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Sunday. The Dolphins' defense and special teams did the road-grading against the Los Angeles Rams. Tua just had to keep the Miami offense out of a ditch, He did that and Miami prevailed, 28-17, and kept itself alive as a playoff contender.

Tagavailoa didn’t have eye-catching statistics. He was 12 for 22 passing, his 93 total yards barely equaling a good quarter for him at Alabama. But he’s not at Alabama anymore. Aaron Donald of the Rams gave him a non-verbal reminder of that on the game’s very first series when he pressured Tagovailoa and forced a fumble.

That was the only Tua turnover, though, as he was placed in few high-risk situations, either by his coaches or, as would occasionally happen in college, by himself. He did throw for his first NFL touchdown. It came a pinpoint-accurate short pass to Devante Parker, who made a pro catch, hanging on despite heavy (and early) contact. Not all of the Dolphin receivers gave Tua similar help at times, but this wasn’t a game to be complaining about non-support.

"We won the game,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “It's a team football game. It's not a one-man show. he made enough plays for us to win the ballgame. Collectively, if we don't play well in one phase we need to play well in other phases.”

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For Alabama fans who tuned in hoping to see Tua be an instant Patrick Mahomes, the day was a bit of a mixed bag. The highlight-reel plays were absent for the most part. On the other hand, reflection brought back memories from almost a year ago when Tua was in a helicopter being medivacked from Starkville to Birmingham, and there was a great deal of concern about whether he would ever play football again. 

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) gestures during the first half Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams in Miami Gardens.

That was one of the two major parts in Miami management’s decision to switch from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Tagovailoa this week. Could Miami have won the game with Fitzpatrick under center? Certainly, but that also meant it was a less-pressurized spot for Tagovailoa. That’s the short game in Miami’s decision. There’s also a long view, that was readily apparent as you watched the Rams offense. Quarterback Jared Goff was terrible, but the Rams are shackled to him, hoping he recovers his form from two years ago instead of playing out a long decline.

The Dolphins don’t expect Tua to be a bust, of course. But Miami has a wealth of 2021 draft picks in its pocket, including one from Houston that could end up being Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields if necessary. That’s an unlikely path, but the more Miami coaches see of Tua in game action, the more certain they can be about safely using the pick to strengthen another position (or more likely, in trade). 

It never seemed fair to Taulia Tagovailoa to compare him constantly to his older brother. The same thing is true in reverse. Taulia did it all for Maryland last Friday night because he had to. Tua didn’t do the same thing in his NFL debut (which wasn’t against the Minnesota Golden Gophers) because he didn’t have to.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Cecil Hurt