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Mailbag: Has the Media Been Unfair to Tua Tagovailoa?

The Dolphins’ QB is finally back on the field, but fair questions remain. Plus, answering your mail about Carson Wentz possibly turning a corner, Cam Newton’s fit in Seattle, why Daniel Snyder seems unlikely to lose his team and more.

You’ve got questions. I’ve got answers. Let’s go …

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From Mark Coleman (@wahoomark): Why hasn’t the media been fair to Tua?

Mark, I don’t know what’s unfair. To me, there have been two criticisms of Tua, neither being that he’s some terrible player. One, there’s concern about his ceiling, and I’m not sure we’ve gotten much to quell that one—he’s fine, but the jury’s out on whether he’s got the tools to grow into the kind of quarterback who can carry an offense. Two, there are questions over his durability going back to his college days that continue to gain validation.

Look, I’m not a scout, but I loved Tagovailoa coming out, and would’ve bet on him over Justin Herbert at the time. Every bit of evidence we’ve gotten since has told I was wrong. I won’t hang on to a take I was wrong about. It turns out that some of the issues Herbert had at Oregon were more Oregon’s issues than his own. We knew the physical ability was there, and now it’s being unlocked. Meanwhile, the fast, instinctive game Tagovailoa played at Alabama hasn’t immediately transferred, and his physical shortcomings have shown up.

Does that mean he can’t play? It does not. We need to stop acting like questioning whether a quarterback can become, say, a top-five or even top-10 player at his position is some sort of horrible insult. Simple math will tell you that those sorts of quarterbacks can’t just come into the league every year. Herbert’s very clearly shown the ability to be one. Joe Burrow too. Things are iffier with Tagovailoa 22 games into his time there (and he's only played in 13).

I do think Tagovailoa’s going to play a lot of years in the NFL. That’s not the question to me. The question is going to be, 16 months from now, when Tagovailoa is eligible for a second contract, whether he’s worth handing $45 million per year to. Because fair or not, when a quarterback is drafted in the first round, that’s the bar. Which brings us to our next question from a very lively Dolphins fan base.

From Eric Lavine (@Ebl5680): When you mentioned that Miami may try to upgrade QB from good to great on Zo and Bertrand last week (like the Rams and 49ers), did you mean Deshaun Watson or something else?

Eric, I didn’t mean any one player in particular. The basic question is simpler than trying to find the right fit in a quarterback. It’s, basically, Will the Dolphins at some point make like the Rams and Niners, and dump a young quarterback they developed for one with potential to take the team further? Remember, both L.A. and San Francisco moved off quarterbacks in their 20s who took them to Super Bowls and were under contract for multiple years.

Add that to how the Cardinals dumped Josh Rosen a year after trading up to get him with the 10th pick, because Arizona figured Kyler Murray would be better for what Kliff Kingsbury was going to do, and you can see the climate at the position has changed.

What makes this one really interesting is how it relates to the future of coach Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier. Let’s say Miami needs to get to 9–8 to make the playoffs this year. At 1–5 now, that’d mean going 8–3 the rest of the way. Could they do that? Sure. But if they don’t, that’ll be three straight playoff-less years. I still think they’d get a fourth year without getting to playoffs, rare as that is (Jon Gruden’s the only recent example), but then they’d without question have to make it next year.

At that point, the question would become whether Grier and Flores are willing to bet their jobs on Tagovailoa’s being the guy to get them there, and they might have to decide on that bet at a time when Watson, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers are out there on the trade block.

Anyway, all that’s why I believe Tagovailoa has a lot on the line over the next 11 games.

From Bob Soccol (@ubobber): Cam Newton in Seattle, is he really an upgrade to Geno Smith?

Bob, I really don’t know. If you’re getting 2020 Newton, then probably not. Because if you bring him in, now you’ve got to devote resources to getting him ready to play. Doing that with a quarterback in the middle of a season can come at a heavy cost. And if the payoff is what we saw during Newton’s lone season as a Patriot, I’d say it’s probably not worth it, especially when Russell Wilson’s not that far away from coming back.

On the flip side, I would say it’s plausible to think he could be markedly better now than he was then. Going into New England, he had no spring, had to split reps during training camp, and then was playing in an offense that was being reconstructed to fit him on the fly. He did the best he could. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did, too. Making things more difficult was that Newton had played in just two games from Dec. 17, 2018, to Sept. 13, 2020, with major shoulder and foot surgeries in between.

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There were signs he was going to be better this year. As a passer, in preseason games, he looked more comfortable moving in the pocket, and more fluid throwing the ball. He was up and down still, for sure, but this was all without the Patriots’ incorporating the QB run game, which would’ve opened things up in the passing game.

How willing would he be as a runner? I don’t know, and I think that’d be key, because if he’s not willing, that fundamentally changes how he’s defended. I think we’d all have to watch the sorts of hits he’d take too, because some scouts have noticed signs of what happens to old running backs was starting to happen to him—where losing a step, or some elusiveness, leads to a guy getting hit, rather than just tackled—and that would likely test his durability further.

But I do want to see it. I hope we get to. To me, he really did change pro football, in helping to usher in an era where more and more concepts are flowing up from the college game, and opening the door for teams to open their minds in evaluating the quarterback position. Plus, I’m just curious to see what’s left in the tank.

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From 1-5 (@F_LuJags): What do you think of Trevor Lawrence’s play so far?

1-5, I think Trent Dilfer—who’s known Lawrence since he was a high schooler—explained it best, on our video show, the Hurry Up, earlier in the season. Dilfer said that, as he saw it, the Jags were taking a Peyton Manning–style, drink-from-a-fire-hose approach, and just letting him play through his successes and failures to accelerate his development. You’ll remember Manning threw a rookie-record 28 interceptions in 1998. In his second year, as a result of all that learning, he made the Pro Bowl and the Colts went from 3–13 to 13–3.

I can’t say the Jaguars are going to make that kind of jump in 2022. But I think you’re already seeing the merits of Lawrence’s learning on the fly. You can see it in the snapshot of his game logs—his passer rating was under 75 in each of his first three starts and over 90 in his last three. You can also see it in how he handled the late-game situation against the Dolphins, getting the Jags into field-goal range to win it.

And when I talked to Urban Meyer postgame after both coach and quarterback got NFL win No. 1, the confidence Meyer had in Lawrence’s growth was obvious.

“Yeah, there’s going to be many more wins for that guy, if you just watch his maturation and his grasp of the offense,” Meyer told me. “And you have to credit Bev [offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell] and Schotty [pass-game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer]. That’s why I hired them. They’ve done that with Russell Wilson, and they’ve done that with Andrew Luck, and they’ve done this with our guy that’s a college quarterback becoming a pro quarterback right before our eyes.

“And [Lawrence] is … he’s just one of those guys, you can’t wait to see him every day.”

I’ll just say this: Of the five rookie quarterbacks, I have the least concern about Lawrence.

From J. Mills (@JamesKMillsIII): Are the Texans’ issues more roster construction or coaching?

J., I think it’s just the state of the roster in general right now. They’re largely devoid of young building blocks. Laremy Tunsil is clearly one. Fellow linemen Max Scharping and Tytus Howard could be two more. Justin Reid and Zach Cunningham are solid on defense. And all of those guys are 27 or younger. Davis Mills has shown some promise at quarterback. Outside of that, though, you have jury’s-out rookies and some old reliable vets who have helped the new coaching staff try and build culture.

For those reasons, I think it’s a fool’s errand to judge this year’s team on wins and losses.

Nick Caserio deserves time to build the roster, and David Culley should get the time to bring young guys along. And I think a fair thing to look at as we get to November and December is how guys like Mills, Nico Collins, Roy Lopez and Garret Wallow are coming along, because that’ll give us a little window into talent evaluation and development, which ultimately will determine where Caserio and Culley take the Texans.

Bottom line, this was always going to be a year of transition, and the way the Deshaun Watson situation has unfolded has made it a strange one. What happens with Watson, what the Texans get for him and what they do with the return, of course, will be huge parts of how the next five years or so (at least) play out in Houston. But what happens this year is relevant, too. Even if the win/loss record is less so.

From Jay (@RedskinsCult): What is the early talk from scouts/GMs on this year’s QB class?

Not great, Jay. Here’s an assessment from one exec that I quoted in my GamePlan column last Friday: “It’s a very thin class. It’s far off from where it was last year.”

It’s also easy to see why. First, there was no quarterback who entered the season the way Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance did last year, or Justin Herbert and Tagovailoa did the year before—as sure-fire first-rounders. Second, a number of the guys that were sort of marked as “promising” haven’t delivered. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler has been benched. North Carolina’s Sam Howell looks just O.K. Georgia’s J.T. Daniels is hurt.

And sure, there have been guys who’ve performed. Liberty’s Malik Willis, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Ole Miss’s Matt Corral have all helped themselves. But they haven’t done it in a Joe Burrow–in-2019 kind of way. They’re good players. Are they franchise-changers? Right now, I think most teams would say no.

So that’s where we are now. Things could still change over the next couple of months. But the class doesn’t look very good right now.

From Max Kogod (@MaxKogod): What needs to happen in Washington for Danny to get the farewell boot he deserves? I’m serious, what has to happen?

Max, I think if it was going to happen, it would have already. Daniel Snyder is now in his 23rd season of ownership. Washington has had more head-coaching changes (seven) than playoff seasons (six) over that time. He may be the owner with the least local support of any in the NFL, and his reputation nationally is somehow even worse. People who’ve worked there and left don’t like him, and all of this is before we even get to what’s going on there now.

When this question gets asked, I think back to the Clippers’ being forcibly removed from Donald Sterling—the NBA banned him for life and then essentially forced the sale of the team less than a month later—in the wake of Sterling’s racist comments’ coming to light.

The NFL, to my knowledge, has never taken such action against an owner. Some have raised Jerry Richardson’s situation from a couple of years back, but even that one’s not analogous. Richardson quickly put in motion the sale of the team after a Sports Illustrated report detailed the Panthers’ workplace-conduct scandal.

Richardson, for all his faults, took pride in being an NFL owner and part of the league in general. That was reflected in Bank of America’s being the only stadium to use the shield, rather than the team logo, at the 50-yard line. So in the case of his own transgressions, he was at least self-aware enough to recognize the mess he’d created, and decided to do what was best for the league.

It’s hard for me to imagine Snyder doing that. In fact, if he was going to do it, it’d almost certainly have already happened, given everything that’s gone down over the last two years. And again, if the NFL was going to take the team away from him, that also probably would’ve already happened.

That it hasn’t confirms something I think we’ve all known for a while—the owners, as a whole, don’t want to be in the business of taking teams away from each other. Especially when so many of them have skeletons in their own closets.

From Ser Bobby the Knight (@KingGilldo): True or False: Carson Wentz, after two straight solid performances, is returning to that franchise QB form he had in Philly before he hurt his knee??

Bobby, I’ll give you a cautious true. Colts people concede now that the start was a little rough around the edges, but there was reason for that. Wentz missed most of the summer after foot surgery, got back for the opener, then sprained both his ankles in Week 2. Through all of it, he didn’t miss a game—but he lost considerable practice time to get the offense down, and to build timing and chemistry with his teammates.

Add the offensive line’s injury woes to that, and the first three weeks weren’t very good for Wentz or for the Colts. But the Week 4 trip to Miami brought progress. Indianapolis won, and that helps. More than just that, Wentz was taking to what Frank Reich and his staff have tried to make him believe, that the Colts had players, their offense had answers and all Indy really needed him to do was go play quarterback.

In that game, you’ll notice that Wentz didn’t throw for a million yards. In fact, through three quarters, he was 19-of-25 for just 129 yards and a touchdown (he went 5-of-7 for 99 yards and another touchdown in the fourth quarter). But what he was doing was taking what was there and keeping the train on the tracks, and eventually it’d open things up for him down the stretch, when the Colts had to hold off a late surge from the Dolphins.

“I think every quarterback wants to go out and make all sorts of plays and do all this stuff,” Wentz told me after that game. “And for me, I’ve played that game. I’ve played that game, and it doesn’t always work out well. So I just keep reminding myself, ‘Hey, just do my job. Do my job, trust the guys around me.’ I’m gonna make mistakes. Guys around me are gonna make mistakes, but hopefully we’re gonna make more plays than we don’t.

“And so I think coaches have done a good job of a) calling the plays accordingly to help me continue to stay within myself, and then b) just having us as a team, continuing to remind each other, ‘Hey, I got your back. You got mine, and we’re gonna make some plays.’ ”

So that’s where it started. And since, Wentz threw for 400 yards on the Ravens, and the Colts were a blocked field goal away from winning that game; and then absolutely lit up the Texans on Sunday. Which is why I’m cautiously optimistic that he’s actually turned a corner here. There’s always the chance he reverts. But he’s been outstanding of late, and it’s really encouraging when you couple that with the plan the Colts put together to get him on track.

From Dom Bouloux (@pelicandowns): If the Titans start to run away with division, at what stage do Colts ponder giving other QBs snaps in order to prevent 70/75% cap being breached and giving first-rounder to Philly for Carson Wentz? Or do they write off that first-rounder and justify it as a confidence boosting year for CW?

Dom, this is a fascinating question, considering all of the above.

Under your scenario, the Colts miss the playoffs, which means the second-rounder the Colts sent the Eagles would become a first-rounder if he plays 75% of their snaps. Seventy-five percent of a 17-game season is 12.75 games. So, to be safe, I think we’d be talking about shelving Wentz for five games here. What’s interesting then is that the Colts’ bye doesn’t come until Week 14, which puts the fifth-to-last game right in front of the week off.

I’d think, at that point, the Colts would have to be around 4–8 to consider it. That’d mean going 2–4 over the next five weeks. They play the Niners, Titans, Jets, Jags, Bills and Buccaneers between now and their Week 13 game in Houston, on Dec. 5. So being 2–4, given the team’s injury issues, is plausible, with the wins coming over the Jets and Jags. Would 5–7 do it, if Wentz isn’t playing well? I’m not sure.

And really, to me, much of this should come down to how Wentz is playing. To me, if he keeps going the way he’s going, regardless of record, getting him all those reps going into 2022 would have great value. If he’s struggling, or banged up, we’re talking about something else. Which is to say it’s a complex situation, and this isn’t just a yes-or-no question.

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From Big Blue All Year Podcast (@BigBlueAllYear): You’re in charge of the Giants. How do you turn it around?

Honestly, Big Blue, right now, if I’m John Mara, I’m opening up to a couple of people who I can trust who’ve built winning organizations and asking for an honest, blunt assessment of my team, top to bottom, through scouting and coaching and the administration. Since winning Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants have made the playoffs once. They’ve been under .500 in seven of the last eight years and posted double-digit losses in six of the last seven seasons. It’ll take a 7–4 finish this year to avoid another double-digit loss season.

So clearly, this isn’t about a single coach or a single scout. The Giants have had two GMs and four head coaches over that period. That, to me, makes it incumbent on the owner to look for larger problems organizationally. It might simply be that too many people have been in their jobs for too long, which is the other side of stability and something that has been ID’d as a systemic issue in other organizations in the past. It might be a series of things that are more granular than that.

But if you were to move from Joe Judge after this year, he’d be the third straight head coach you’ve hired to only make it two years. In the 85 seasons previous to Tom Coughlin’s January 2016 departure, only one Giants coach—Ray Handley, who was only hired because of the timing of Bill Parcells’s 1991 departure (Bill Belichick likely would’ve been promoted otherwise)—had a run that short. Which means whatever was right about the Giants for all those years probably isn’t so right anymore.

If you’re Mara, that means it’s time to look inward and see what you personally are doing wrong.

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From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Is Jared Goff about to get benched? Pretty strong words from his HC this weekend.

Matt, here’s Dan Campbell’s full quote from the weekend on Jared Goff:

“I still don’t feel like we can accurately judge him one way or another. I don’t feel that way yet. Now, I will say this—I feel like he needs to step up more than he has. And I think he needs to help us just like everybody else. I think he’s going to need to put a little bit of weight on his shoulders here and it’s time to step up, make some throws and do some things. But he needs help. He needs help.

“And look, I told him out there, he knows this, but some of that stuff—we’re getting these holding calls, well it’s because he’s drifting back in the pocket 10 yards deep. That’s not fair to those guys either. If you hang on to the ball—it’s like I told you, this is a collective effort now. Everything goes hand-in-hand. But I want to see him step up, I do. I do because I think he can do it.”

To me, the totality of what Campbell said computes a little differently than what’s been clipped and shared all over social media. And here’s my rough translation of Campbell’s answer: It’s not fair yet to judge Goff, because he does need more help. But at the same time, he needs to do more to help the guys around him, because if he doesn’t, it’s harder to judge those guys too.

I think one of Campbell’s great strengths is understanding the dynamics of a 53-man team. Everyone in there wants to put their best performance on tape. Everyone wants to win games. Everyone wants to get rich. And in saying what he did, Campbell is telling the locker room that the quarterback’s accountable just like everyone else, and he’s also telling individual guys that he sees spots where Goff could do more to help them make plays.

Therein, by the way, lies where a decision would be made on who to play. If the Lions think David Blough can do a better job of facilitating for Kalif Raymond or T.J. Hockenson or Penei Sewell, and as a result give Campbell, his coaches, GM Brad Holmes and his scouts a better shot at evaluating all 11 guys, then it’s time to think about a switch. I don’t think the Lions are approaching that point yet.

But what Campbell said does put Goff on notice that they could get there, drives home where they need him to be better and sends a message to the other guys in that huddle too.

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