So much for the five straight wins, the feel-good start of Tua Tagovailoa, the idea the Dolphins might not just win the AFC East but — did you hear it on talk radio last week? — be one of the NFL’s top-five teams.
And you know what?
Big deal. It was one game. One bad game. One. The loneliest number. And no one had to feel lonelier on the sideline in his mask and with a clipboard than Tagovaila at the end of Sunday’s 20-13 loss in Denver.
Ryan Fitzpatrick came in relief in the eighth inning, provided a good spark to a moribund offense but couldn’t pull out the win. That will be good enough for some to say Fitzpatrick should be back or start the quarterback-controversy.
But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with Tua sitting for a fourth quarter if he has some rookie growing paints like Sunday. His offense had 105 yards through three quarters. He was being buried with six sacks. He had no answers for what Denver’s defense was doing.
“I felt like I was holding the ball a little too long,” said Tagovailoa, who completed 11-of-20 passes for 83 yards and one touchdown. “You’ve got to get completions and get the ball in the hands of guys who can make players.”
For the previous two games, Tagovailoa has looked the part of an NFL starter, giving good energy and good decisions. Sunday was a step back. He was benched, but perspective didn’t die. He’s still the future — and the present this season, as coach Bryan Flores confirmed after the game.
Here’s the larger point: Why is there this unwritten rule in the NFL that quarterbacks can’t be replaced if they’re struggling? Why not, especially in Tua’s case where he was confused, have a veteran arm like Fitzpatrick replace him?
It doesn’t mean you have a bigger decision ahead — not off one Sunday. It just means the rookie wasn’t looking like he’d help the Dolphins (6-4) win this game.
“Flo came up and said we needed a little bit of spark and do the up-tempo thing,” Fitzpatrick said.
In the final minutes, Fitzpatrick got the ball at the 1-yard line thanks to a hit by Dolphins linebacker Alex Van Ginkel that caused a fumble. Both Dolphins lines got shoved around all day, but the defense came up with some big plays. That was one.
Fitzpatrick then did what Tagovailoa struggled to do. He moved the offense. After 12 plays and 84 yards, he was within striking distance of tying the game at the Denver 15-yard line.
“I wish I could’ve hit that throw,” Fitzpatrick said.
He threw it into double coverage and it was intercepted by Denver’s Justin Simmons. End of game. End of win streak. Beginning of questions about what this means for the quarterback position.
And you know what it means? Nothing. Not from one game. Tua will be afforded every chance to show he’s The Man. There’s going to be growing pains. Did you see how poorly Los Angeles rookie Justin Herbert played last Sunday against the Dolphins? He threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns this Sunday against the Jets.
Tua said all the good and proper things after the game about not being upset about the benching, that it was “all about winning,” and, “I wanted Fitz to win it.” He also said learned things watching Fitzpatrick do what he struggled to do.
“It’s one thing hearing from Fitz when I come from the sideline about making completions,” he said. “It’s another to seeing him go out there and doing it. For me, a lot of times, I see guys covered, but they’re not necessarily covered, if that makes sense.
“Seeing a lot of what Fitz was doing when he got in, a lot of that was a learning lesson for me. Even when he came to the sideline, I got to ask him questions. So It was really good.”
OK, some of that’s making chicken salad out of Sunday. But that’s what you do in sports if you’re young, smart and don’t have the world figured out. Denver had Tua figured out.
Flores did what a lot of football coaches never do. He went to the bullpen. It doesn’t mean the starting job changes — not off one game. Not when you’re counting on the rookie. If one bad game becomes three bad games? Then we’ll talk. But not after this Sunday.
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