By: Chip Turner
Tua Tagovailoa will take the field Sunday to an enormous amount of anticipation, which is appropriate, because that’s a word you’ll likely hear a lot about him. “Anticipation.” It’s one of Tua’s best traits, and it’s described in a quote about him, “He can see things before they happen. That’s why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It’s a Jedi trait.”
Okay, so that quote was actually from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” but has anyone actually proven that Tua ISN’T a Jedi? Much like the master whose time has come, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s magical time has come to an end, and Tua’s gifts will be allowed to blossom.
This isn’t a criticism of Fitzpatrick; the things he did for the Dolphins over the past year are a testament to his grit and leadership, and show just how important intangibles are to being a successful NFL quarterback. So what is it that Tua does that Fitzpatrick doesn’t? Here are specific things that Tua has shown that separate him not only from Fitzpatrick, but also many current starting QBs in the league:
Mechanics: Are Tua’s mechanics perfect? No. But they’re pretty darn good. He throws off a level base, rarely off his back foot and uses his legs to drive the ball well. His throwing motion, while not picture-perfect, is natural (interesting for someone who was forced to learn to throw lefty,) and Tua has a high point of release.
Pocket Awareness: This was one of the more accurate critiques of Ryan Tannehill – he had very poor pocket awareness. Despite Adam Gase attempting to correct this by chasing him around with a broom (yes, this actually happened), this didn’t improve much. Fitzpatrick reminded Dolphins fans what good awareness looked like by climbing the pocket to escape pressure. When things completely broke down, he’d take what yards were there on a scramble. Tua will do much of the same…hopefully with fewer chances for physical harm. His instinctive ability to move away from pressure and avoid rushers is as good as anyone since Dan the Man did it 20 years ago.
Progressions: You know that thing where a QB locks on to a covered receiver with his eyes for a couple seconds, and misses a wide-open receiver because of it? Tua doesn’t do that. He scans through his receivers quickly to find the open target, probably as quickly as any college QB I’ve ever seen.
Anticipation: This is where the Jedi stuff comes in. A lot of QBs, even in the NFL, throw to receivers when they’re open…which is fine. Tua throws to receivers, leading them away from coverage, as they’re about to be open. He’ll see a receiver about to come out of his break into an area of the field that he can throw to; he’s able to see defenders leaving that area, or he’ll manipulate them…more on that momentarily.
One of the best examples of Tua’s ability to see receivers coming open was in the 2017-2018 National Championship against Georgia. You know the play you’ve seen a million times where Tua threw to DeVonta Smith to win the game in overtime? That’s not it. The one I’m referring to is the TD pass before that. Less than four minutes to go, 4th and 4 from about the 9 yard line, Tua is forced to his left, and throws a bullet that didn’t look like it had a prayer. What Tua saw was that Calvin Ridley had started to clear his coverage AND Georgia DB J.R. Reed was following his assignment out of the area he was throwing to. Tie game. Without this throw, there’s no overtime, no highlight game-winning championship moment. It’s one of the best throws I’ve ever seen a college QB make.
Accuracy/Touch: These are separate but related traits. Tua is extremely accurate and throws a very “catch-able” ball. He hits receivers in stride, and this should be a huge upgrade for Dolphins receivers. All the speed in the world doesn’t matter if a receiver has to slow down and wait for a pass to get to him. Tua also throws the ball so that it seems to almost “settle” into the hands of a receiver, because of the ability he has to place it with the proper arc and velocity.
Reading defenses/moving safeties: This is one of the things that makes Tua special. He reads defenses well pre-snap, and his ability to move safeties with his eyes and his shoulders is off the charts. Using your eyes to make a safety think you’re going somewhere you’re not is one thing; Tua does it with his entire body. He lines up his shoulders, legs and eyes to the point where it genuinely looks like he’s targeting one receiver, even as he’s starting to move forward into his throw. Then he simply throws the ball somewhere else. It’s a beautiful deception that’s going to drive NFL safeties crazy for years to come.
Summary: Can you find things that aren’t perfect in Tua’s game If you work hard enough? Of course. There is no such thing as a perfect prospect. Tua’s arm strength isn’t off the charts, but it shouldn’t be a hindrance in the NFL. Does he hold on to the ball too long sometimes, trying to make a play? Yes. Did he have several injuries in college? Yes. Is that hip injury something that’s going to lurk around in the mind of every Dolphins fan until he proves he can take the hits a QB needs to? Of course.
But this should be the beginning of something beautiful, Dolphins fans, and word out of Miami’s locker room seems to indicate that Tua can be every bit of the leader Fitzpatrick was as well. Just like you and I, they’re waiting for something special during Tua Time on Sunday.
Please welcome Chip Turner to PhinManiacs and please check him out on Twitter @ChipTurnerPA