Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins’ rookie quarterback, did not have a great day statistically in his much-anticipated NFL debut.
Yet the Dolphins won – to which Tagovailoa and his coach Brian Flores maintain that’s all which matters.
“It’s like what we talk about on a daily basis. It takes a team effort. There’s 11 guys on the field, there’s 53 guys on the roster, 16 guys on the practice squad. All these guys work hard. Everybody’s role is important. But total team effort, offence, defence, special teams,” said Flores about the hype surrounding the debut of Tagovailoa, whom the Dolphins took with the fifth overall pick in this year’s college draft.
Flores elevated Tagovailloa to the starting quarterback position, replacing journeyman veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, on October 20, two days after the Dolphins beat the New York Jets 24-0, in a game where Tagovailoa played the final series in a mop-up role, completing both of his passes on that drive for nine yards.
Tagovailoa’s output against the Los Angeles Rams, following a bye week for Miami, was quite modest by anyone’s estimations, completing 12 of 22 passes for 93 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, in a 28-17 win over one of the NFL’s better defensive teams.
In addition to Tagovailoa completing a first-quarter touchdown pass to DeVante Parker, the Dolphins also scored touchdowns in virtually every other conceivable manner – all second-quarter scores, as Myles Gaskin scored via the ground on a one-yard run, Andrew Van Ginkel scored on defense after returning a fumble 78 yards, and on special teams as Jakeem Grant returned a punt 88 yards.
So the overused cliched claim of this being a “team effort” was very much validated, even by Tagovailoa.
“I’ve heard it many times from the guys in the locker room; it’s good that we still came out with the win,” said Tagovailoa.
One oddity which came out of this game was that it was the first time in five years that a left-handed quarterback had started an NFL game.
Kellen Moore, starting for the Dallas Cowboys in a handful of games in 2015 when Tony Romo broke his collarbone and the team had a revolving door of quarterbacks in Romo’s extended absence, was the NFL’s last southpaw signal-caller to start a game.
Reasons behind this bottomed-out downward trend in left-handed quarterbacks – of which only 23, counting Tagovailoa, have played in the NFL since Frankie Albert took snaps for the San Francisco 49ers in their debut season of 1946, and with Steve Young and Ken Stabler (posthumously) the only southpaw quarterbacks in the NFL Hall Of Fame – point to football’s practicalities rather than society’s inherent bias against left-handed people.
The spin of the ball from a lefthander’s toss downfield allegedly being more difficult for a receiver to catch, and an emphasis on making the right offensive tackle responsible for protecting a quarterback’s blind side represent a couple of commonly-cited reasons as probable justifications.
But as he showed in college at Alabama under coach Nick Saban in leading the Crimson Tide to the 2017 NCAA championship and a runners-up finish the following year, Tagovailoa possesses a special level of talent.
And by Tagovailoa’s own admission, it will take time for him to get up to speed to conquering NFL defences the same way his talents tore up the college ranks – and completely undeterred from a hip injury among other injuries which derailed his 2019 junior season, a state of mind which saw him declare early for the NFL Draft.
“I don’t think I played to the standard of what this offence is capable of. There were certain plays where I could have stepped up and made the right throw, made the right decision,” Tagovailoa said after leading the Dolphins to the win over the Rams.
Tagovailoa experienced an auspicious start on the Dolphins’ first drive when Rams defensive end Aaron Donald, a former NFL defensive player of the year, went for a potential strip-sack on the rookie, causing a fumble recovered by teammate Leonard Floyd which led to an early Rams touchdown.
“That was a good hit. That was a good hit. It’s football,” said Tagovailoa about the play, which was the only sack he suffered during the game.
“I tried to step up, make a throw, Aaron Donald swiped at the ball behind me, and I don’t know who the guy was that took me off my feet and pretty much body slammed me, but hey, that’s football.
“I’m not going to lie, I did enjoy getting hit that first time. That was definitely a welcome,” added Tagovailoa.
But by the end of the game, Tagovailoa was thrilled to get the nuance of his NFL debut out of the way, and ultimately celebrate the win with his teammates, before the Dolphins – now in a solid second-place position in the AFC East behind the Buffalo Bills – travel west to face Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals next week.
“That was really fun. It always feels good throwing a touchdown and being able to celebrate with your team and your teammates on the sideline are celebrating, as well,” Tagovailoa said of his touchdown toss to Parker.
“It’s not easy, especially like I said, scoring against a defence like that, but just enjoying the moment every time, just enjoying the moment. And I’m keeping the ball,” he added.
The Dolphins have had 21 previous starting quarterbacks in the last 20-plus seasons since Dan Marino pulled the pin on his legendary career in 1999. And while a state of awkwardness surrounded Flores’ announcement over Fitzpatrick’s demotion, the Dolphins made it clear in this year’s draft that Tagovailoa remains their franchise quarterback of the future.
And after the first start, a win represents a great beginning, and even he says he has room for improvement.
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