Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa thrown into spotlight as Chargers visit Dolphins

Jeff Miller
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws against the Arizona Cardinals.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa kept the Arizona Cardinals defense on alert with his scrambling and passing abilities. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

The list numbers 21 in all, from Fiedler to Feeley, Griese to Green, Rosenfels to Rosen.

There were two Chads (Pennington and Henne) and two Ryans (Tannehill and Fitzpatrick).

There was a Joey (Harrington) and a Jay (Cutler), a Daunte (Culpepper) and a Damon (Huard).

The roster reads like a who’s who with a few "Who is that?" Or maybe Cleo Lemon, John Beck or Tyler Thigpen could be considered memorable.

The Miami Dolphins have started 21 players at quarterback since Dan Marino’s final game in January 2000.

Then, on the first day of this month, they started Tua Tagovailoa.

“I never got too high on any of those guys,” former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said. “Even Tannehill. I’m personal friends with him. We go to church together. But I never told anybody Tannehill was the answer because I watch the games every Sunday.

“But Tua? He blew my mind last week. I’m not going to lie. We’ve had a saying down here for a while, ‘Same old Dolphins.’ That saying might be ready to die. We’re all jacked up. We’re all on board.”

All onboard the Tua Train, which is set for its next departure Sunday against the Chargers in a game that matches two teams but features a marquee with only two names — Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. On display like a pair of shining rays of hope.

The Nos. 5 and 6 picks in the 2020 draft. And, potentially, franchise quarterbacks who still could be facing one another in, say, 2035.

“It’s Chargers versus Dolphins,” coach Anthony Lynn tried to remind everyone during the week. “It’s a team sport.”

A team sport that, when broken down to what matters most, becomes so much more by focusing on so much less.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) stands on the sideline.
Justin Herbert (10) was selected by the Chargers one pick after the Miami Dolphins took Tua Tagovailoa in the 2020 NFL draft. (Justin Edmonds / Associated Press)

“This league is all about one thing: the quarterback,” said O.J. McDuffie, a Dolphins receiver from 1993-2000. “If you don’t have a guy who can spin it, who can run, who’s smart … The Chargers got one now. And we’ve got one too.”

The paths these two have taken to becoming starters are as different as their respective throwing motions, one of them is left-handed, the other right.

Tagovailoa debuted last month at the end of a 24-0 rout of the winless New York Jets. He played five snaps and threw two passes. Early in Miami’s off week that followed, he was named the starter, giving him 12 days to prepare.

Herbert had roughly 12 seconds to ready himself to start in Week 2 against Kansas City, the defending Super Bowl champs. A pregame medical accident resulted in Tyrod Taylor suffering a punctured lung, necessitating the late switch.

Herbert starred from the beginning, leading the Chargers on a 79-yard scoring drive and running in for the touchdown on his opening series.

Tagovailoa’s first start came against the Rams and, on his second snap, he was sacked by Aaron Donald and fumbled. Three plays later, the Rams were the ones scoring the early touchdown.

"There’s an excitement now, a buzz again.”

O.J. McDuffie, former Dolphins receiver, on new Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

The Dolphins ended up winning anyway, thanks mostly to their defense and special teams.

Tagovailoa’s second start, last weekend at Arizona, read quite differently. He went 20 for 28 for 248 yards and two touchdowns. He threw and he ran and he won. The performance led to Tagovailoa “kind of blowing up,” Miami center Ted Karras said.

A year removed from a hip injury that clouded his future, Tagovailoa converted a crucial third down by juking around Cardinals star safety Budda Baker. “He looks the part on film as far as running,” Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins said.

Tagovailoa outdueled Kyler Murray in leading a fourth-quarter comeback that seemed to confirm the lofty status he had been granted six months earlier: franchise savior.

That was the expectation when Tagovailoa became Miami’s highest-drafted quarterback since 1967, the year the team took Bob Griese at No. 4.

“We talk about this being a team game every day,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “He knows that … There’s 11 guys on the field. This isn’t golf. This isn’t wrestling. This is football.”

Sure it is, coach, but this also is Dolphins football and, more specifically, these are Dolfans, a group of blind-faith supporters who have endured long enough to see the anguish dissolve into apathy.

Miami hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2000 season, which was six head coaches ago. The Dolphins have made only two postseason appearances over the past 18 years. That’s one fewer than the Detroit Lions.

“You’re talking to their No. 1 fan right here,” said McDuffie, who bought front-row season tickets after he retired. “It’s been so frustrating. We’re still not over the hump, but there’s an excitement now, a buzz again.”

When Marino arrived in 1983, all Miami had for big-time professional sports were the Dolphins, their historical prominence such that the Don Shula Expressway exists.

The Heat were born in 1988 and, five years later, the Florida Marlins and Florida Panthers followed. The Heat have won three championships and the Marlins two since the Dolphins last won more than one playoff game in a season.

Buried in the sort of mediocre that saw even Nick Saban be shockingly average here — he was 15-17 in his two seasons — Miami’s once-beloved NFL franchise lost so much that it even lost its city.

South Florida went from Dade County to “Wade County,” Dwyane Wade emerging as the area’s most prominent sports face by quarterbacking the local basketball team.

“This is an event town,” Crowder said. “It’s a lot like L.A. They like a winner there too. It wasn’t cool going 8-8 or 1-15 or whatever. Miami fans are just waiting for the Dolphins to be good again. The Dolphins could steal that shine away from the Heat in two seconds with some success. People are that hungry.”

And now, those people are being fed. With a victory over the Chargers, the Dolphins would improve to 6-3, their best record after nine games since 2001.

They finally feel as if they have a quarterback in Miami and not a Lemon, a Beck or a Thigpen, but a real quarterback, a QB1 to make everyone forget about the 21 who came before him.

Etc.

The Chargers placed Justin Jackson on the injured reserve list Saturday, meaning the running back will miss at least three games. He hurt his knee last weekend against Las Vegas. Veteran running back Kalen Ballage was signed to the active roster. The Chargers also activated defensive back Quenton Meeks from the practice squad.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.