NFL Offseason – Tua Tagovailoa Truthers raise some very valid points.
Take this finny fella. He’s clearly onto something. Or at least on something:
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Perhaps those arguments are a teensy bit pleading. But Tagovailoa finished 18th in both DVOA and DYAR last season: not bad at all for a second-year quarterback. The Miami Dolphins passing game earned a DVOA rating over 20.0% in four of the seven games after Tua returned from his midseason kinda-sorta-quasi-injury-benching, a sign that Tua may be turning the developmental corner.
Sure, Tua appeared to be propped up by an RPO-intensive, dink-and-dunk-heavy system in 2021. He also had a knack for crushing interceptions. But his extenuating circumstances were really extenuating. The Dolphins offensive line finished 30th in adjusted line yards and needed all of that quick passing to rank 19th in adjusted sack rate. The Dolphins offense ranked 29th in rushing DVOA, leaving them playing behind the sticks while forcing their quick game to supplement their rushing game. And while the details of Brian Flores’ allegations against the Dolphins and the NFL are beyond the scope of this article (and therefore, preferably, won’t dominate the comment threads), his dueling offensive coordinators and quick hooks hardly made him a quarterback whisperer.
Flores has been replaced by The Adorkable Mike McDaniel, a Kyle Shanahan disciple with a quarterback-friendly personality and scheme. Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead headline a productive Dolphins offseason, particularly on offense. So are the Tua Truthers right? Or are they just engaging in typical local-fan wish-casting about a prospect whose career is listing sideways?
Let’s see if there’s an answer lurking somewhere in the numbers.
Tua Tagovailoa: The RPO Man
Any discussion of Tua Tagovailoa’s performance or the 2021 Dolphins offense in general must begin with the run-pass option. The Dolphins used an RPO concept on 13.0% of their passing plays last season, easily the highest rate in the league. (All data in this article is from Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.) Tagovailoa himself attempted 77 RPO passes, the third-highest total in the NFL, completing 53 for 559 yards.
As Walkthrough discussed in our Matt Corral feature a few weeks ago, the RPO is often used as a crutch for a quarterback who has little idea what he is doing. But it can also be a tactic for mitigating a horrible offensive line or as a jab for an offense that’s perfectly capable of throwing some haymakers. As a result, the top five teams in RPOs as a percentage of pass plays in 2021 was a diverse bunch. We’ll use adjusted net yards/attempt to get a sense of how successful each team was at executing the RPO:
|Top Five Teams in RPO Usage, 2021|
The Steelers used the RPO to conceal the fact that their offensive line was embarrassing, and that Ben Roethlisberger was held together with duct tape and rubber bands. As the ANY/A figure above illustrates, no one was fooled.
The Packers, Chiefs, and Bills, on the other hand, had pretty good quarterbacks and offenses. They used the RPO as a counterpunch when teams played a lot of two-deep shells against them (all three ranked in the top 10 of rushing attempts from an RPO concept, a sign they were facing reduced boxes) and as a red zone tactic.
So what were the Dolphins doing? Protecting Tagovailoa from his awful offensive line, no doubt. Covering for his relative inexperience at times. But they were also enjoying relative success with the tactic, with a higher ANY/A rate than the Packers, Chiefs, and many other teams that used the RPO frequently, such as the Chargers, Eagles, and Colts.
The numbers suggest that we should not write Tagovailoa off simply because he threw a few more RPO passes than Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Being skilled at making easy reads and delivering accurate quick passes is, after all, a good thing. But those cannot be the only things a young quarterback is good at.
What we need to do is take a closer look at what Tua was doing when he wasn’t just faking a handoff and flicking a short slant to Jaylen Waddle or Mike Gesicki.
Tua Tagovailoa: Beyond the Valley of the RPOs
Let’s filter all those RPOs out of Tagovailoa’s passing stats and take a look at where he ranked among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts in 2021:
|Tua Tagovailoa, Non-RPO Passes|
|Average Throw Depth||7.1||40th|
Ew. This is red meat for the Tagovailoa skeptics. Tua tied Roethlisberger and Daniel Jones with that 7.1-yard average throw depth on non-RPOs. He’s wedged between Taylor Heinicke and Mike White in ANY/A, with Taysom Hill just behind him. This is some bad company.
The numbers above suggest that even when the Dolphins weren’t executing RPOs, their passing game was loaded with RPO-like substances: short, quick, non-nourishing tosses. There’s also lots of evidence to support the fact that Tagovailoa wasn’t getting much support from his receivers. Per Pro Football Reference, for example, the Dolphins averaged just 4.3 yards after catch per reception, the third-lowest figure in the NFL, ahead of only the Ravens and Bills. The Dolphins’ dropped pass rate of 5.7%, per Pro Football Reference, ranked fourth in the NFL.
In other words, Tua may have been forced to throw short passes to protect his offensive line, only for his receivers to either drop those passes (lowering his completion rate) or get tackled immediately after the catch (lowering his yards per attempt).
If that’s indeed what happened, Tagovailoa could indeed enjoy a breakout year now that Tyreek Hill and some running backs who can generate YAC have joined his arsenal and Terron Armstead is anchoring his protection.
But is that really what happened? Let’s torture the numbers some more!
Tua Tagovailoa: Pressure Principles and Stick Figures
Tua Tagovailoa only attempted 96 non-RPO passes when pressured in 2021. On the one hand, that’s a surprisingly low number (28th in the NFL) for a young quarterback behind an objectively woeful offensive line. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be surprising, because the Dolphins offense twisted itself in knots to avoid pressure, as most of the splits we have cited so far illustrate.
Tagovailoa was horrible under pressure. His ANY/A of 1.0 ranked 32nd in the NFL. He threw seven interceptions under pressure, tied for second in the NFL. All quarterbacks are worse under pressure than from a clean pocket, but Tua’s issues were pronounced in a way that’s not surprising for a young quarterback, but not encouraging either.
Take the pressure AND the crutch of the RPO away and we start to see a slightly different quarterback, though still not a particularly effective one:
|Tua Tagovailoa, Not Pressured, Non-RPO|
|Average Throw Depth||6.8||32nd|
Tagovailoa threw 220 passes in the sample above, so we have not driven off the sample size cliff. Tua still looks like Dinky McDunkenstein, but he’s at least an efficient Dinky McDunkenstein who completes three-fourths of his passes and avoids turnovers. If Myles Gaskin eluded a few more tackles, if three defenders didn’t immediately convene on Jaylen Waddle after every quick screen, if holding onto the ball for more than a nanosecond was an option … you get the idea.
Let’s get all of those dinks and dunks out of the data by focusing on passes beyond the sticks. Let’s also focus on passes where Tagovailoa is not pressured. Finally, let’s mix the RPOs back in so we don’t granulate the data too finely: throwing past the sticks naturally filters out some of the RPO flings to the flat anyway. Here’s what we get:
|Tua Tagovailoa, Not Pressured, Past the Sticks|
|Average Throw Depth||13.0||31st|
Sorry that this is not better news, Tagovailoa truthers. That 20th-overall finish in ANY/A isn’t terrible: it’s just below Josh Allen and ahead of Mac Jones and Jalen Hurts, though it’s also below Carson Wentz, Daniel Jones, and Davis Mills. Only Jimmy Garoppolo ranked below Tua in average throw depth among quarterbacks with 50-plus attempts in this split. Also, Tua’s high completion rate evaporates when he’s forcing the ball a little further downfield.
Overall, the figures above suggest that Tagovailoa was probably a fourth-quartile NFL starter in situations where the Dolphins offensive line was doing its job and his success wasn’t dependent on a teammate doing something after the catch.
On the bright side, the predictive value of non-pressured, past-the-sticks passes is sketchy at best: we should probably not trust any split that rates Carson Wentz ahead of Josh Allen. Also, no matter how we sift through the data, Tagovailoa always ranks near the bottom of the NFL in throw depth. Even if Tua had a noodle arm and his offensive line were historically bad, the Dolphins’ reluctance to let ‘er rip once in a while would be a little extreme.
Tagovailoa only threw 14 passes of 25-plus air yards last season, a reasonable minimum benchmark for what we would consider a “bomb.” Garoppolo threw 18 bombs. Drew Lock threw 19 in six appearances. Tyler Huntley threw 14 in four appearances. Justin Fields, a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line, threw 23.
Tagovailoa completed eight of those 14 passes for 328 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Those are excellent rate stats for this tiny sample. We shouldn’t hang our hats on 14 pass attempts, but it looks like he could have been a semi-capable deep passer if given a few more opportunities.
With Tyreek Hill around, he’ll get those opportunities.
The Garoppolo-ization of Tua Tagovailoa
- The 2021 Dolphins offense relied heavily on dink-and-dunk tactics, even when they weren’t using RPOs at a league-high frequency;
- Their reliance on short passing was abnormally high, even for a team with a bad offensive line and inexperienced quarterback;
- An inability to generate YAC limited the effectiveness of the Dolphins short passing game and made Tua Tagovailoa’s stats and performance look worse than they really were;
- Whether despite of or because of all of these factors, Tua produced a nearly league-average DVOA;
- But when we try to isolate Tua from his environmental factors, we get a mixed message about his capabilities as a downfield passer.
So we’re stuck in the sort of circular argument that breeds fan theories and encourages sports talk debate, informed and otherwise.
What’s certain is that the circumstances around Tagovailoa have improved in every way: the line is better, the playmaking corps better and deeper, and the coaching staff better pedigreed from an offensive standpoint. Tua should get more mileage out of short passes to Tyreek Hill, Chase Edmonds, and others with Mike McDaniel designing 49ers-flavored game plans. He should have more time to throw deep to Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and others with Terron Armstead anchoring an upgraded offensive line. At the very least, Tua should benefit from the advantages Jimmy Garoppolo has enjoyed when he and his supporting cast have been healthy over the past three seasons. Garoppolo may be sitting by the curb with a “Take Me” sign on his back right now, but the Dolphins would not mind a ball-control offense capable of some deep playoff runs led by a still-young-and-affordable quarterback with room to grow.
I was a Tagovailoa skeptic in 2021, and I remain one, because a “skeptic” is someone who challenges the evidence, not some hater or naysayer. Despite some of the discouraging splits cited in this article, I’m sanguine about his future, in part because he doesn’t fit the profile of a fading prospect with a stat profile full of fluff.
If Tua ranked third in YAC instead of third from last, it would be a sign that his league-average DVOA was the result of his supporting cast. If his RPO data looked like the Steelers RPO data, it might be a sign that the Dolphins coaches were desperately throwing tactics at the wall. But the Dolphins were better at the RPO than the Chiefs or Packers, despite the fact that defenses had no reason to fear their deep game or their running game. The numbers suggest that Tua could be very efficient in a timing-based offense with better game plans and better playmakers. Both of which he now has.
So Tua Truthers have a point, as do Tua skeptics, as it almost always the case when we slog through the statistical splits. And the Dolphins have done everything imaginable to help Tagovailoa succeed in 2022. If he fails, it will be Teddy Bridgewater time. And if he does something in between success and failure, the Dolphins possess two first-round picks in 2023. Even a hardcore truther will be able to figure out what happens next.
Meanwhile, in Ashburn, Virginia…
VLAD THE EVIL ACCOUNTANT: Greetings! You must be the new accounting intern. Follow me.
CARSON WENTZ: There must be some mistake. I’m not an accounting intern.
VLAD: Of course you are. You dress like you’ve never seen a mirror and walk around with a vaguely lost expression on your face. Now sit at this workstation and let me coach you on our system.
CARSON WENTZ: Well, I’m out to prove how receptive I am to coaching, so let’s give this a whirl. (Reading screen.) Hmm, it seems that some of our NFL revenues are being funneled into accounts labeled “soccer revenues,” “concert revenues,” and “monster truck rally revenues.” That cannot be right.
VLAD: Don’t worry about that! It’s called The Juice. That’s a macroeconomics term.
CARSON WENTZ: OK, well what about this item here: money that’s earmarked for “orphan charities” is being spent on something labeled “rare vintage wines for D.S. to bathe in.”
VLAD: Ignore that too. That’s just … The Zest.
CARSON WENTZ: Wow. There’s sure a lot about accounting that I don’t understand. What about this part of the spreadsheet: cutting down Amazon rainforest for wood paneling for the wet bar on a superyacht, displacing the indigenous residents to serve as sweatshop labor in a knockoff NFL jersey factory, then re-labelling the jersey revenues as something called “capital gains losses from regrettable quarterback decisions?”
VLAD: That’s called The Nom-Nom Yummy-Yums. Ignore it.
CARSON WENTZ: Gee, this all sounds slightly unethical.
VLAD: Listen kid, this is an easy job. All you have to do to hide those files is check the boxes, all the way down.
CARSON WENTZ: Check … down?
VLAD: Yes! This information is very, um, private! We cannot let anyone intercept it.
CARSON WENTZ: Check down to avoid an interception?
VLAD: Easy, right? Just work within the system. The accounting system, that is.
CARSON WENTZ: (Sweating profusely.) Oh no, the pressure is getting to me. Must … attempt … something heroic! (Pressing keys frantically.) SEND! SEND! SEND TO WASHINGTON POST. SEND TO THE ATHLETIC. SEND TO THE FBI. SEND TO THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS DEFENSE. SENNNNNNNDDDDDDDD!
(Chasm opens up in earth, swallows the Washington Commanders organization without a trace. Don’t worry though, folks: Ron Rivera, Terry McLaurin, and the other likeable employees were out getting bagels.)
CHRIS BALLARD: And that’s how I toppled the most evil owner in the NFL. And you folks thought I was a bad general manager!