In ways ceremonial and real, Monday began the Tua Tagovailoa Era in Miami. Let’s capitalize era for added gravitas — such are the expectations, pent up around here for 20 years, ever since we said goodbye to to Dan Marino and waited (and waited) for another like him.
We will know by degrees over time whether Tua possesses that potential. We have had but a two-minute blink. The first real hint comes with his first start this coming Sunday against the visiting Los Angeles Rams.
This week would have been one of great anticipation maybe tinged with trepidation under any circumstances. Is the kid ready? After two NFL minutes and two short passes?
Dial back to 1983 and remember that Marino, before his first start, had seen extensive action in two games, completing 23 of 39 passes for 240 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. That after the full preseason that Tagovailoa was denied by the COVID pandemic. (And Marino did not bear the shadow of injury history, of hip surgery).
But to all of that already entailed in Tua Week, we added something expected.
We add elements of drama, pressure, even controversy.
All of that is courtesy the man benched to make way for Tagovailoa, the veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
He has caused this not with malice or ill intent, but with plain, raw honesty.
It was rather extraordinary to watch Fitzpatrick reveal his hurt quite eloquently. He referred to himself as being “fired.” He said the decision surprised and disappointed him. He called himself “heartbroken.”
The emotion that lay between the lines was pretty evident. This was a man who did not believe he deserved to lose his job. Not now. This was a man who felt staggered a punch he didn’t expect.
A week ago I wrote in favor of the quarterback change. I have not changed my mind. Fitzpatrick had thrown two interceptions last Sunday to make it seven for the year, third most in the league. There was room for improvement at the position. It is why Miami drafted Tagovailoa fifth overall out of Alabama.
I get Fitzpatrick’s surprise and hurt, though. Coach Brian Flores consistently said Tagovailoa would play when he gave the Fins the best chance to win.
But the switch was made after Fitzpatrick had led the team to two wins in a row and three of the past four — a rare solid month of football that left Miami 3-3 and thinking playoffs.
This was never about should Tagovailoa play.
It was always about when.
That is why Fitzpatrick voicing that aloud, in every way but directly, adds the drama, pressure and controversy.
The pressure is now on whether Flores made the decision too soon.
The pressure is on Tagaovailoa to show right away that he didn’t.
This is twin pressure that wouldn’t have been here, or at least not to this degree, had Fitzpatrick taken the news with perfunctory banality (“I certainly expected this day the minute they drafted him”) rather than with raw honesty.
“Tua time!” was never a question.
Only when was, and now we see that play out as Flores (and Dolfans) weigh and balance turning the ignition on the future now and a playoff chase, and how those two imperatives will coexist.
I appreciated Fitzpatrick’s honesty and thought there was validity to its underlying point. In it there was also the idea his career clock is ticking, and that he might have started his last game ever.
That is worth exploring as Fitzpatrick turns 38 next month.
I do think his time as anything but a stopgap starter is past but believe he has several football years left, and I hope they are in Miami as a mentor and reliable insurance policy.
There are parallels in the long journeyman careers of Fitzpatrick and of Vinny Testaverde, the former Miami Hurricane.
Testaverde played 21 years, made two Pro Bowls. Fitzpatrick is in his 16th year, has a better career passer rating. Both have piloted mostly losing teams, Testaverde 90-123-1 as a starter, Fitzpatrick 58-86-1.
Testaverde had 46,233 passing yards (18th all time and Fitzpatrick has 34,421 31st). The ex-Cane had 275 TD passes (16th); the current Fin has 220 (34th).
Testaverde was 44 when his career finally expired, in 2007. There is no cause to think there won’t be chances for Fitzpatrick to play into his 40s if he chooses. His time with Miami has only enhanced that likelihood.
It is also worth noting that Fitzpatrick’s raw honesty on being benched only underlines his passion for the game, and does nothing to diminish his reputation as a terrific teammates and mentor.
Tagovailoa’s first career NFL touchdown pass is coming, and when it does, watch Fitzpatrick on the sideline.
His emotion upon being benched was real, but so is what you’ll see as he rushes to congratulate the man who replaced him.