The Miami Dolphins are a win away from a postseason berth. A 5-11 team from a year ago quickly turned into, at worst, a 10-6 team in 2020. Much of that stemmed from a defense that went from a league-worst defense by a wide margin in 2019 according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA to a unit that ranks 11th in 2020, sixth against the pass.
Miami’s offense has been a rollercoaster throughout the season, starting with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback before Tua Tagovailoa replaced him early in the season. Rarely has the offense propelled the Dolphins to victory and there were multiple instances when Tagovailoa was pulled late in the game for Fitzpatrick to give the passing game a spark.
Before Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday morning, there was a debate about which quarterback should start for Miami in the regular season finale against the Buffalo Bills. Due to a potential top-5 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft from last year’s Laremy Tunsil trade with the Houston Texans, there has also been a debate about whether the Dolphins should again target a quarterback early in the draft if there is not a high confidence level in Tagovailoa being the long-term answer at the position.
While the question about who should be the current starter is tabled for now, the question about the future is still on the table. For the Dolphins to feel comfortable in what they have in Tagovailoa in 2021 and beyond, they’ll have to assess what he brought to the table in 2020.
As promising as Tagovaolia was as a prospect, he has yet to be a reason why the Dolphins have won games. It looks like different offenses whether he or Fitzpatrick is in the game at quarterback. As a veteran and a risk-taker, Fitzpatrick has no issue pushing the ball down the field into tight coverage in the hope of a big play. It doesn’t always feel as if that’s available for Tagovailoa, even though most of his underlying metrics are quite similar to those of Fitzpatrick.
Ryan Fitzpatrick vs Tua Tagovailoa, Next Gen Stats, 2020
|Player||Time to Throw||Avg. Depth Target||Avg. Depth Completion||Tight Window %||Expected Comp%||CPOE|
The biggest difference comes from how quickly Fitzpatrick has gotten rid of the ball and the average depth of completion. Fitzpatrick’s average completion has come over a yard further down the field than Tagovailoa’s despite a similar depth of target. Those are certainly issues, but it should also be noted that Tagovailoa’s depth of target is the same as Justin Herbert’s and his average completion is 0.2 yards higher.
Miami’s offense is structured to create and take advantage of space in the short game. Take this two-play stretch against the Kansas City Chiefs from Week 14 — a whip route from a bunch to Lynn Bowden on a third-and-3 for 11 yards followed by a quick curl off an RPO for another 11 yards on first down.
Among 36 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts between 1-10 air yards this season, Tagovailoa ranks 14th in EPA per attempt, according to SIS. Fitzpatrick ranks 30th. The Dolphins have reworked some of the offense to include more short game and RPO’s with Tagovailoa but that hasn’t exactly been the reason why the rookie has been successful in the short game.
Tagovailoa could be even more productive with a little more help. Among seven quarterbacks with at least 20 RPO pass attempts, Tagovailoa has the lowest percentage of yards that have come after the catch, per SIS. He does have the second-highest air yards per completion, but a similar depth of completion hasn’t stopped the Chiefs from running after the catch.
RPO Yards After The Catch, 2020 (min 20 att)
|Player||Att||Yards||Air Yards||Air Yard/Comp||YAC||YAC%|
Still, even with the short efficiency, there’s a big disconnect between how Fitzpatrick has been able to get yards down the field and how Tagovailoa hasn’t been able to do the same.
A lot of this has come from deep ball success this season. Fitzpatrick has been one of the league’s most productive deep ball throws this season. Among 40 quarterbacks with at least 15 attempts of 20 or more air yards, Fitzpatrick is second in on-target rate and first in completion percentage, according to Sports Info Solutions. Tagovailoa ranks 35th in on-target rate and 30th in completion percentage. The Miami offense isn’t really designed for deep shots, no matter the quarterback. It’s not as if Tagovailoa is trigger shy. In fact, he’s thrown deep at a higher rate (12.2% of his attempts) than Fitzpatrick in 2020 (7.5%).
Fitzpatrick’s completion percentage is the significant difference, but it’s also a huge outlier for the veteran. Among 196 quarterbacks with at least 15 20+ air yard attempts in a season since 2016, Fitzpatrick’s 60% completion percentage ranks second, behind only Jimmy Garrropolo’s last season (63.3%), per SIS. No other quarterback on that list is above 56%. Fitzpatrick’s on-target rate ranks 11th. Tagovaolia’s on-target rate ranks 169th, just below Fitzpatrick’s 2019 season at 168th.
Given Tagovailoa’s college success throwing deep, it’s not hard to imagine an uptick in deep production with receivers who can easily create more separation down the field. Miami just doesn’t have that option right now.
Tagovailoa isn’t the sole player at fault for a lack of explosive plays in the Miami offense and there have been a number of instances when a big play should have happened.
What is perhaps more concerning is how little Tagovailoa has been able to take advantage of the most valuable spot on the field — the intermediate middle. There’s a clear difference between production there with Fitzpatrick under center…
…than with Tagovailoa at quarterback.
Tagovailoa has found some success outside, whether it be in structure…
…or just outside of it.
But he does have the habit of trailing off to the outside rather than hoping something opens in the middle when the play breaks down. There are also few options in the middle of the field for the Dolphins inside of the structure of the offense. Tagovailoa has been successful throwing to that area of the field, especially to tight ends, it just isn’t an area that has been targeted all that often.
All of this has described what Tagovailoa has been but the question the Dolphins need to figure out is what he can become. While there is still some development needed in areas, Miami should feel good about what they have at quarterback. Play from a clean pocket is one of the most stable metrics from year-to-year and this season Tagovailoa ranks 14th in EPA per attempt among 36 quarterbacks with at least 100 straight dropbacks from a clean pocket. His EPA per attempt is tied with Drew Brees and higher than the likes of Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.
That should be seen as a wildly positive development considering a potential knock on Tagovailoa was how play-action-dependent he was at Alabama. In 2019, 43.6% of his dropbacks used play-action and on those throws he averaged 12.1 yards per attempt with 17 touchdowns and no interceptions. Surprisingly, Tagovailoa has struggled this season with play-action, completing just 64.5% of his passes for 5.4 yards per attempt. No quarterback with at least 75 play-action passes in 2020 has a lower yards per attempt figure.
Again, given Tagovailoa’s history as an effective play-action passer and how well-designed play-action can open up many opportunities for quarterbacks in the NFL, it’s hard to imagine these struggles continuing into a second season with a full offseason of prep.
The key for Miami is that there are relatively easy answers for upping the efficiency elsewhere in the offense. More designed throws over the middle, a better play-action game, and an addition of receivers who can separate on their own can immediately make an impact in Year 2. It’s not as if these are Tagovailoa-specific improvements, these would need to be made regardless of the quarterback.
Those additions wouldn’t be much different than what the divisional rival Buffalo Bills have done around Josh Allen and the Dolphins already have a better base to build off with Tagovailoa than what the Bills had with Allen during his first two seasons.
The Dolphins are on the brink of a playoff berth and they’re not far away from a much brighter future. The quarterback should be a reason they believe that.