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The Miami Dolphins’ starting offense didn’t get in the end zone in their preseason-opener Saturday despite having the football inside the Chicago Bears 10 yard line on one occasion and inside the 20 on another.
And quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, playing his first-ever NFL preseason game because there were no such exercises last season, threw an interception on his last throw and finished with a cringe-worthy 62.3 quarterback rating.
So, yes, the Dolphins have a problem on offense.
But it’s not what you think.
At least it’s not what seems obvious.
The obvious thing for this column to say is that Tagovailoa is the problem because the interception he threw in the second quarter changed the theme of his entire performance from hopeful and improving to ultimately not good enough.
And, it should be said, the interception was not good. Tagovailoa was late on the entire play. He was late seeing a wide open Adam Shaheen and late throwing the ball -- to the extent when he eventually decided to try the pass, the tight end was already double covered by defenders who weren’t even in the picture moments earlier.
“To me, Adam looked wide open,” Tagovailoa said. “I was late. In this league you can never be late over the middle in the red area. Those are recipes for disaster. That’s what happened.”
That is what happened. But Tagovailoa’s reading of the defense and not processing the game action quickly enough is not the root cause of why it happened.
The root cause is Tagovailoa still doesn’t have a set or receivers he is so bonded with as to allow him to play instinctively with them.
So he was thinking on that play. Going through a progression to see if his first read (to a backup receiver) was open, instead of knowing his starting receiver would be open or not. And by the time he saw Shaheen and fired the pass, it was too late.
Football is definitely a thinking-man’s game, especially at quarterback. But it’s also a game of instinct and chemistry.
And there’s no way Tagovailoa and all his receivers have the kind of chemistry required to play so fast that the quarterback’s pass would have been out to his first progression faster. The chemistry is not there as to allow Tagovailoa to move on to Shaheen standing wide open early in the play.
That is not Tagovailoa’s fault. It is not anyone’s fault, really.
But it is a thing to think about because the Dolphins receiver corps simply hasn’t been on the practice field often enough to find that chemistry with Tagovailoa. Or he with them.
And so we all look at Tagovailoa like it’s somehow his fault. And he accepts it.
“I think the better question for that is what didn’t I do wrong?” he said to start his press conference. “ I thought I did alright. There are a lot of things we need to clean up offensively -- with our communication, more so our execution with our plays that we were given.
“But that first time coming out with a real game-like situation and environment, I thought it was real good. Obviously, there’s a lot of things we need to clean up, but that’s what we got film for. When we get on the plane we’ll look at those plays that didn’t go the way we wanted and we’ll get those fixed.”
Yeah, forget that self flagellation. It’s not warranted. It’s not all his fault.
Maybe if he was throwing to receivers he threw to last season, and then threw to this offseason, and then threw to the last three weeks during training camp, none of this would have happened.
But he wasn’t.
So I ask coach Brian Flores how long he thinks it might take for Tagovailoa and his top receivers to find some chemistry.
“I mean, DeVante’s gotten some work,” Flores said. “Albert’s gotten some work. I mean, who we’re talking about is Will Fuller. That’s the one guy, right?”
No, not right.
DeVante Parker missed the first week of camp while on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Then he practiced about every other day for a week. Then he missed all of last week and this game.
Albert Wilson, who opted out in 2020 because of Covid, was very impressive the first week but tweaked something during the second week of camp and didn’t practice at all last week and missed the game.
And, yes, Fuller practiced the first day and not since.
The point is three players who are expected to be significant contributors to the Dolphins’ passing game have not been stacking practices and work with the starting quarterback.
And stacking and playing and spending time is how a quarterback and his receivers become like-minded. That’s how they learn each other and bond and their abilities and likes become ingrained with one another.
Flores doesn’t quite see it that way, as is his right.
“I mean, DeVante’s been in there,” he said. “Albert’s definitely been in there quite a bit. So as far as timing and working with the quarterbacks you’re really talking about one guy. We’re going to get those guys back as soon as we can. They’re all working to get back.
“It’s still early, we have two preseason games left. There’s basically two weeks after that last (preseason game). We’ve got quite a bit of time. I think once we get them back we’ll hopefully have enough time to get the time and the QB-receiver chemistry you alluded to.”
This is something to watch. Because if Parker and Fuller and Wilson, all with injury histories, don’t somehow string some weeks of practice and games together, it will be difficult for all of them to be on the same page with Tagovailoa when the real season begins.
And even then, the process has to continue.
“I think it’s an on-going process, year in and year out, game in and game out,” backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. “Every game is so different and you get put in different situations, you hope that within those situations you get to learn more about each other and then get to watch the film and then you get on the same.
“It’s a never-ending process.”