Maybe a few months ago, many of us weren’t looking at a lukewarm, early-November 4:25 p.m. ET matchup between the Cardinals and Dolphins as anything but a tabulation necessary to complete a full season. But that was before something beautiful and transcendent took hold: a pair of arms central to the future of the NFL trading pinpoint throws and theatrical escapes en route to nearly 700 yards and five touchdowns’ worth of total offense between them, with Miami pulling out a 34–31 win that launches them into a playoff position at the midpoint of their season.
We often fail to recognize eras of football in their infancy. But how could someone not feel spoiled after watching what took place between Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa on Sunday afternoon? How could someone not feel like this was the start of something special, especially when considering these two players are just a slice of the brilliant quarterback population under the age of 25 ripping through NFL defenses with regularity?
It’s sacrilegious to some, I’m sure, to say that this is the next golden age of NFL quarterbacking, especially as we bid adieu to Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Especially when Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers are still hobbling along, both leading teams with winning records, and Aaron Rodgers is enjoying a third career renaissance in Green Bay. But there was once a time when their slow trickle out of the NFL was met with bone-chilling fear from people whose livelihoods depend on professional football’s offensive fireworks show. There was once a time when the pipeline was being repopulated with a smattering of middling players who were lost in the massive black hole that surrounded the league’s ability to evaluate the position, coach the position and design offenses amenable to someone immediately graduating from the college game.
That ideological dark period could not have seemed further away on Sunday, as Tagovailoa dodged a free Cardinals blitzer with his heels near the 20-yard line, rolling upfield and juking defenders with the relative ease of a seasoned kick returner, following that up a few plays later with a perfectly-arced touchdown pass to his tight end toe-touching just inside the end zone boundary.
It could not have seemed more distant when, in the second quarter, Murray launched a football 56 yards in the air, having it drop perfectly into the arms of a mid-stride Christian Kirk with room to run for a touchdown.
Between the two quarterbacks on Sunday there were just 12 incomplete passes on 54 total throws. Both quarterbacks effectively worked the most difficult parts of the field—deep and to the boundary—like seasoned professionals. Both were facing defenses that shut down their respective running games and cornerbacks that, according to NextGenStats, kept a majority of their top targets under tight windows of three yards or fewer. There is no dismissing this as a mobility-driven gimmick. There is no minimizing this as the product of a scheme, Air-Raid or otherwise. Murray, Tagovailoa, Deshaun Watson, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen have all graduated beyond what they were asked to do in college.
Tagovailoa’s sample size is admittedly small, especially after an underwhelming debut the week prior, but having him keep pace with Murray was yet another sign that we could be sliding headfirst into something that may be even more entertaining and creative than the version of the NFL they’re helping us leave behind.
People cling tightly to their inherent biases. Flip on a talk radio station and listen to dusty callers who assume with no statistical evidence that some replacement-level star of their era would have throttled today’s generation; it’s a tired inevitability that those who truly love the sport should learn to ignore. What you shouldn’t dismiss is how you might have felt on Sunday during Cardinals–Dolphins—surprisingly moved, excited and curious. Football can be better and more entertaining than we’ve ever imagined it, and this game could be filed away as evidence.