Before the end of the trade deadline, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sought permission to speak with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, likely in search of insight about the quarterback and the dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
It was a noteworthy attempt to circumnavigate the investigation process that one might view as unfeeling toward the women suing him, who have watched as their jarring complaints have been treated like little more than popsicle-stick fences standing in the way of a sports transaction many people would like to see.
Of far less consequence, but relevant to what we’re talking about at the moment from an on-field perspective, was the effect the maneuver must have had on Tua Tagovailoa, who may hold the distinction of being routinely and publicly failed by his organization more than any young quarterback in recent memory. Despite not having a full season’s worth of starts under his belt yet, Tagovailoa is already on his second set of coordinators and third wave of transactional rumors that directly involve his future employment.
While we tend to have less sympathy for someone pulling down seven figures a year, it’s almost impossible to consider how Tagovailoa is expected to learn and grow in an environment which clearly does not appreciate his budding skill set or the time that it takes certain prospects to develop and become comfortable at the NFL level. It’s easy for us to say that we wouldn’t worry about it—that we’d be happy just to play in the NFL—but imagine how you would feel if your boss routinely took phone calls in plain view of the entire company, talking to a person who does your job better than you about when he might be able to start working.
That is especially true when the person on the other line is under criminal investigation for some egregious behavior. How might you interpret your workplace’s set of values and the platitudes about leading men and doing the right thing? Could you interpret any future vote of confidence as anything but a half-hearted attempt to quiet the noise around an inevitable transaction?
Seemingly from the moment Tagovailoa and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, who were drafted back-to-back in 2020, began on their divergent paths, Tagovailoa was treated as a depreciating or defective asset. He was benched multiple times during his rookie year which, while deserved, was during a time when he was operating behind a middling offensive line and a dangerously low-wattage set of skill-position players. His coordinator at the time, Chan Gailey, had a tenured relationship with Tagovailoa’s veteran mentor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and has logged just one top-10 season in either total points or yards over the last decade.
This year, the offensive line is still disastrous. Tagovailoa’s top weapon outside of DeVante Parker is a rookie navigating one of the most difficult-to-translate positions from college to the NFL. The Dolphins knew everything they needed to know about Tagovailoa. They knew about his injury history. Brian Flores’s mentor, Bill Belichick, is closer to Tagovailoa’s college coach than any other person in the NFL. Flores’s former coworker, Brian Daboll, was, for a short time, Tagovailoa’s offensive coordinator. What couldn’t they have anticipated?
Our role here as impartial observers is difficult because we need to note that the Cardinals behaved in a similar way, setting up a first-round pick to fail and blaming most of it on the poor kid in his early twenties (Josh Rosen) instead of the organizational mismanagement that led them to that point. And, the Cardinals ended up with Kyler Murray. Everyone is happy. The end, right?
This is exactly why I’ve advocated for more rookie quarterbacks to explore their trade value during their first season if they get a whiff that something might be off. Tagovailoa’s stock, barring a tremendous back end of the 2021 season, is permanently shot, and it seems like his next destination may end up being the Texans, a club that will toss him into the sauté pan of rebuilding, end-of-career veterans they’ve been saddled with and force him to thrive with even less talent and a more tenuous head coaching situation.
Players’ awareness is the only protection they have, but unfortunately, it takes time in the NFL washing machine to develop those eyes in the back of your head.
Not every workplace is going to be Chobani or Gravity Payments, where some rock star of a CEO builds a foundation of tremendous vibes through generosity, executive pay cuts and employee raises or stock allocation. The only NFL facilities that are fun to arrive at for work every day are typically those that are winning.
Which is why it’s so confusing that a workplace would make itself so continuously, outwardly desperate to vet someone like Watson instead of placing that effort into common-sense repairs of the developing player it already has.
Miami has already failed Tagovailoa, and maybe, as has happened in Arizona, few people will remember it when there’s another star quarterback in town carving up turf—whether that’s Watson next year or some other player some other time soon. But maybe the organization’s recklessness with its own players’ sense of belonging and replaceability will linger. Because in an era of growing player empowerment, who would want to commit long-term to an environment where their boss is already looking for a reason to move on?
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