The story is ahead of the player. That’s the public issue with Tua Tagovailoa needing change. It’s like on Page 1 of the book the clouds clear, the village sings, the boy got the girl and it’s happily ever after.
Then you turned to Page 2: Tua’s first start.
The cart always has come before the horse with him and the Miami Dolphins. Before his senior year at Alabama, fans were praying the Dolphins would draft him.
Before he showed up for his first Dolphins practice, there was an hour-long TV special about his life. When he ran a few plays in mop-up duty, he broke the internet by later walking on the field, sitting on the 15-yard line where his hip gave way a year earlier and calling his parents.
Then his first touchdown pass was a good, strong and accurate three-yard throw — the kind most NFL quarterbacks can make. You’d thought it won the Super Bowl.
“That’s why you draft him in the first round!” the NFL Network’s Red Zone announcer, Scott Hansen, said.
Too much. Too loud. Really, the best part of Tua’s first start was the aftermath. He said he didn’t play like this offense allows. He said it’s a good thing the Dolphins defense was strong. There was no pretense from him of what 93 yards passing or eight offensive first downs means. He was grounded that way.
Whether this Sunday in Arizona or one coming up soon, Tua’s game needs to start to inch a little closer to this loud storyline. You want to see some flashes of what he can do, of the talent that causes fireworks when his name is mentioned — of simply why the Dolphins drafted with the fifth pick.
Coach Brian Flores tried to slow the runaway narrative by shooting down a report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the Dolphins were starting Tua with an eye toward weighing quarterback options in the next draft. But the report makes sense. Why wouldn’t the organization want to know what they have in him against what they might draft?
Here’s another narrative that’s looming if nothing changes before the Dolphins play the Los Angeles Chargers in two weeks: The Dolphins made a mistake with Tua. The point here isn’t whether he develops into a great quarterback. He might. There’s no reason he shouldn’t.
It’s that Justin Herbert, the sixth pick, already looks the part.
"I really think they picked the wrong guy,'' former NFL general manager Mike Lombardi said on his podcast this week. "Just based on one game, I really do. That might be a rush to judgment. It could be.
“But to me when Herbert was told he was starting 10 minutes before a game against the Chiefs, he went out and dazzled them. I didn’t see dazzle out of Tua. I saw good, functional.”
Give it some more space. Let it breathe. But understand this about Lombardi’s comment, too: If Tua was playing like Herbert, if he had 15 touchdowns against five interceptions, if he lost some of his supporting cast and still scored at least 27 points in his past four starts, there would be celebrations in Dolphinsland.
Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said this week Tagovailoa will, “start to get better in bigger jumps as we go forward.” That should come simply from seeing more defenses and getting to know his receivers better, he said.
Tua said his pocket presence has to be better. He looked uncomfortable in his first start. Was it the Los Angeles Rams' defense? Not having played in a year? The early lead and the coaches not wanting to take the training wheels off his game?
Again, everyone will say one start doesn’t mean much — unless it’s a great one. Everyone will say there are no conclusions after start No. 2 — unless, again, it was a successive great one. Coming up, you need to see enough flashes of good from a top-five pick to support the decision.
This isn’t some second-round pick. Tua arrived as close to NFL ready as a quarterback can out of college given Alabama’s coaching and surrounding talent. This is a different era where more quarterbacks play well early in careers, too.
Rookie Joe Burrow is making chicken salad in Cincinnati. Herbert is raising eyes this year. In recent years, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, DeShaun Watson and Dak Prescott have succeeded early on (and, yes, Mahomes sat his first year).
The question is what happens if they don’t play well early. Well, Buffalo’s Josh Allen entered as a known project and looks pretty good in Year 3. Do you think Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky or Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield will graduate into Super Bowl quarterbacks?
The story of Tagovailoa — a fun personality, a college hero, a son of Hawaii — is something to appreciate. But there are no happily-ever-after endings on Page 1. Turn the page to the second start. Let’s see if his game moves closer to his good story.
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