Where do the Miami Dolphins go from here?

The Miami Dolphins finished 2020 with their best record since 2016. Despite the good record, 2020 had a bittersweet feeling for Dolphins fans. For all the positive performances they fell one game shy of making the playoffs. Brian Flores, in his second season as head coach, has so far built the foundation of a contending team. The Dolphins finished with a league-best 18 interceptions and ranked fourth in quarterback pressures. With such a strong performance from their defence, the spotlight of blame landed on their offence. And that spotlight glared brightest on rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Critics claim he is unable to consistently move the ball, has trouble locating deep targets and is just not the right man for the Dolphins. Let us look under the hood and examine his performance in 2020. Post-examination I’ll offer some advice on what the Dolphins should do going forward.

Tua was criticized for his ability to keep the chains moving in 2020. To see if there is any validity to this claim I analyzed his success rate per down and his yards per attempt. I also compared these numbers against his counterpart Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa and Fitzpatrick split time as the starting quarterback in 2020 and finished the year with roughly the same amount of throwing attempts so it is comparing apples with apples.

Looking at the charts above we see that with regards to success rate both quarterbacks were similar and around league average on 1st and 2nd down. Looking at 3rd down however we notice a problem. Tagovailoa’s success rate drops to 23%. His critics might be correct in their assessment. League average for 3rd down success rate was 36%, the same as Fitzpatrick’s. Tagovailoa converted less than 1 in 4 third-down attempts. Poor performance on 3rd down is a recipe for disaster. Not being able to keep the offence on the field will quickly see any team’s playoff hopes disappear.

The next slight against Tagovailoa was his inability to throw the ball deep. Critics claimed he checked down too often and threw under coverages. Looking at his yards per attempt the slight seems to be accurate. Tua threw for a yard less per attempt than Fitzpatrick on each down. He also averaged 3.41 yards per attempt on third down. Such a low number per attempt is alarming. It appears Tua struggled in situations where passing was the obvious play call, like third down.

Let’s dive deeper into both quarterback’s stats to see if any other trends emerge.

Above are heat maps for both quarterbacks. The first chart shows their targets for each zone on the field. Passes with over 15 air yards are classified as deep balls. The other two charts show the respective quarterback’s completion percentage for each zone. For both charts, orange colours represent higher targeted or completed zones. While teal zones are less targeted or completed.

To say Tua did not throw any deep balls would be erroneous, as he attempted as many deep throws as Fitzpatrick. One may make the claim it was the Dolphins’ offensive strategy to minimize deep attempts and not the quarterbacks. A negative trend that comes out of examining the charts is Tua’s targeting pattern. Commonly seen with inexperienced quarterbacks, he heavily favoured one side of the field. Such a target pattern may be due to his inability to read coverages, locking in on a pre-snap read, or just overall comfort. Going forward this is an aspect of his game that both he and the Dolphins must address. Hopefully, with more experience, he gains confidence in his ability to scan the field.

The other two charts show the difference in how both quarterbacks threw deep balls. It is evident Tua struggled with putting deep passes in his receivers’ hands. On both sides of the field, he had abysmal completion percentages. This poor performance may have lowered self-confidence or made him trigger shy as the year went on. This is another aspect where he and the Dolphins must work to improve.

Last, I examine how both quarterbacks performed in the red zone. Red zone efficiency is crucial in the NFL. Each team only gets so many drives. So, coming away with touchdowns when close to the goal line is vital. Below are tables showing how each quarterback finished drives that entered the red zone.

Looking at the numbers the conclusion can be made that both quarterbacks performed equally in terms of red-zone efficiency. Tua had 9 touchdowns while Fitzpatrick had 10. Tua managed the ball better with only 2 interceptions, opposed to Fitzpatrick’s 3. But regardless of which quarterback was in the Dolphins came away with points at the same rate. Showing the ability to come away with points and taking care of the ball is a good sign for Tagovailoa and the Dolphins. Tagovailoa also adds another dimension to the Dolphins red-zone offence with his youth and athleticism. His ability to use his feet is a major asset in the red zone and defences must account for this added layer. Tagovailoa finished 2020 with 3 rushing touchdowns.

So that leads us to the question, should Miami stay committed to Tua? Quarterback movement seems to be the flavour of this off-season. Should Miamijoin the current carousel? Some of Tua’s critics have reasons for their doubts. His inability to spread the ball, both left and right as well as deep might hinder his production going forward. But should Miami part ways with him so soon into his career? The smart answer is definitely not.

Expectations for rookie quarterbacks seem to get higher every year. With the rise in expectations, there seems to be an equal rise in how harshly we criticize rookie quarterbacks. Playing quarterback in the NFL is the hardest job in sports. Rookie quarterbacks should be expected to hit a few speed bumps. Tua did not give awe-inspiring performances in 2020, but he also did give performances that made people hide their eyes.

Tua’s problems are fixable with coaching and playing experience. Both problems require time as the treatment. Miami would be smart to keep their draft picks this off-season and continue to build a solid team around Tagovailoa. Great teams win super bowls, not just great quarterbacks. Having already invested a capital-intensive draft pick in Tua the Dolphins should give him the necessary time to develop. Miami should also take advantage of the added benefit of having a quarterback on his rookie contracts. A rookie quarterback can be worth his weight in gold if a team takes advantage of the situation.

Miami has the potential to become the envy of the NFL. Should they fix Tua's current performance problems, the Dolphins have the roster and draft capital to build a powerhouse in the NFL.

-Shane Hughes