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How Tua Tagovailoa Became the NFL’s Most Polarizing Player

Often unhinged and seemingly unending, the conversation around the Dolphins’ soft-spoken QB rages on as he enters a make-or-break season.

Most often, whenever Stephen A. Smith sparks up his signature burn, it is in reaction to cannabis-specific situations in the sports world: a positive test, an arrest, news of that nature. But the topic du jour on June 13 so inflated ESPN’s most prominent gasbag that he made an exception, puffing on First Take, “You gonna try to tell me a dude that you’ve never even played a preseason game with is more accurate than Patrick Mahomes? If you are really, really serious about that, I’m sorry, I’m gonna say this on national television: Stay off the weeeeeeeeeeed-uh.”

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In a scornful, singsong tone, Smith stretched out the last word for 4.78 seconds—or, about half a second longer than it takes the man who inspired the rant to run a 40-yard dash. Yet for all of Tyreek Hill’s supersonic speed, it’s possible that the Dolphins receiver known as Cheetah has never sprinted anywhere faster than the offseason’s mad scramble to defend his new quarterback. “Obviously, I’m gonna go with [Mahomes] as the strongest arm,” Hill declared on his nascent podcast, It Needed to Be Said. “But as far as accuracy-wise, I’m going with Tua all day.”

To no one’s surprise, talking heads starved for summer content swiftly spat out takes. In addition to spinning through the ESPN car wash, Hill’s comments received dedicated segments on NBC Sports Radio’s ProFootballTalk (14 minutes), FS1’s Skip and Shannon: Undisputed (12) and, in a rare moment of restraint for the punter turned perpetually tank-topped YouTuber, merely seven minutes on the Pat McAfee Show. The conclusions ranged from half-baked jokes about Hill being high to more charitable readings of the quote’s intentions.

“I think he knows that Tua and Mahomes are not on the same level,” retired signal-caller Robert Griffin III concluded on ESPN’s Get Up. “He’s just tired of people going in on his quarterback.”

Tua Tagovailoa looks back over his shoulder

Tua Tagovailoa has one ring, from the night he came off the bench as a true freshman to lead Alabama past Georgia in the January 2018 national title game. The circus of discourse regarding his play has added two more. This isn’t due to anything the soft-spoken Tagovailoa has said, his public comments typically as bland as the Muscle Milk he endorses. Rather it is born from a unique blend of what he has (or hasn’t) done, who he is (or isn’t), and how a year of relentless hype invigorated a Dolphins fan base desperate for him (or anyone, really) to take control of a franchise that has started 23 quarterbacks since Dan Marino retired 22 years ago. As Palm Beach Post beat writer and industry veteran Joe Schad tweeted last November, “Tua Tagovailoa is by far the most polarizing athlete I’ve ever covered.”

Staunch supporters point to a variety of factors—Tagovailoa’s winning pedigree, accuracy from a statistical standpoint (66.2% career completion rate, 0.1% better than Mahomes), staff and roster upheaval in Miami and the early-career struggles of one Josh Allen, whom Dolphins fans see up close twice a year—to explain their belief that the best is yet to come. The arrival of rookie coach Mike McDaniel, plucked fresh off the fruitful Shanahan tree, and a revamped supporting cast only boost that notion.

On the other side stand critics, depicting Tagovailoa as a one-trick pony proficient in few designs aside from quick run-pass option throws. They highlight his inability to beat out journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick as a rookie and his struggles in do-or-die games in each of his two seasons. And they point to the 6' 1" Tagovailoa’s lack of standout traits compared to those leading the modern arms race: Mahomes, Allen, Lamar Jackson and, yes, the man drafted a little more than seven minutes after Tua, Justin Herbert.

The clash has only crescendoed since Tagovailoa last played. There was Hill’s bold declaration, plus a clip of a mid-practice throw that became less a Rorschach test and more a test of who could roar the loudest, and the rise of a social media star sporting an unsettlingly realistic dolphin mask and digitally distorted voice. It’s an absurd soundtrack, the likes of which have never scored a young quarterback’s career. But all parties agree on this: In a league where there’s increasingly little patience with young QBs, 2022 is Tagovailoa’s make-or-break year.

Tua or not Tua? That is the question.

Hype has tailed Tagovailoa since he was a five-star recruit from Honolulu’s Saint Louis High, drawing offers from UCLA, USC and other FBS programs before his junior year. In late 2014, Sports Illustrated dubbed the 16-year-old “the next Mariota,” referring to the then-reigning Heisman winner Marcus Mariota—a fellow Samoan, Saint Louis product and Tagovailoa’s childhood idol. Four years later, an SI cover story recounted how Crimson Tide assistant coach Lane Kiffin had come away so impressed from seeing Tagovailoa throw at a prospect passing camp that he emailed back to his boss, Nick Saban, “This kid is Steve Young.”

But it reached astronomical heights when he replaced an underperforming Jalen Hurts at halftime of the College Football Playoff title game, leading the Crimson Tide out of a 13–0 hole against Georgia before hitting a streaking DeVonta Smith for the walk-off, 41-yard touchdown in overtime.

“He had all these expectations coming out of high school,” recalls Mike Locksley, then Tagovailoa’s co-offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa. “And it never seemed too big for him.”

Looking back, Locksley remembers less about the mythos that solidified around Tagovailoa and more about how his pupil responded to it. After beating Hurts for the starter’s spot as a sophomore going into 2018, Tagovailoa finished second behind Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray in a tight Heisman race and steered the Tide to another CFB championship appearance (this one a lopsided loss to Clemson). “I saw him get better,” says Locksley, now Maryland’s head coach. “When he won the job, that was where he had his coming-out party.”

Heading into the 2019 season, his last at Alabama, fan bases across the NFL were buying into brouhaha and latching on to the easy alliteration: Tank for Tua. Nowhere, though, were the calls louder than in South Florida, where fans and media alike were basking in sunshine mixed with a savior complex. “There’s been too much pain and suffering for this franchise and its fan base,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly wrote in an early-October ’19 column calling on the Dolphins to punt on that season. “One win won’t heal that. Only Tagovailoa . . . can.”

They were expectations few could have met, and indeed reality proved less starry-eyed. During his final season in Tuscaloosa, Tagovailoa fought back from ankle surgery only to go down for good with a dislocated and fractured right hip against Mississippi State in mid-November. Once considered the no-doubt No. 1 pick, he was now being tabbed as—at least according to a New York Post headline—“the most polarizing figure of NFL Draft 2020.” In the end, the Bengals took LSU’s Joe Burrow with the draft’s top pick. But the wait wasn’t long: After weeks of smokescreens indicating their interest in Herbert, the Dolphins took Tagovailoa at No. 5.

Tua Tagovailoa releases a pass against the Ravens during a 2021 game.

After missing time with a rib injury, Tagovailoa came off the bench for a Thursday night victory over Baltimore.

Not that anyone seemed to mind at the time. “The last 5th overall pick to Miami did some cool things,” NBA legend Dwyane Wade tweeted (referring to himself). “Congrts @Tuaamann, can’t wait to watch your journey.” The Herald followed suit in welcoming Tagovailoa to town, writing, “The Dolphins have their franchise quarterback,” the Herald wrote. “Buy those jerseys, Dolphins fans. The new face of Miami sports is a 6-foot Hawaiian football prodigy.”

The diehards did their part: As of May 2020, Tagovailoa’s No. 1 teal and white jerseys ranked first and second in sales leaguewide. His uneven fall and winter spent replacing (and then being replaced by) Fitzpatrick did little to dampen the enthusiasm, as Tagovailoa finished his rookie season ranked fourth in jersey sales, according to the NFLPA, sharing the top five with four MVPs: Tom Brady, Mahomes, Jackson and Aaron Rodgers.

As for the proclamation that Miami had a franchise QB? That remains the crux of the conversation encircling Tagovailoa. Just ask the dude in the dolphin mask.

A reporter joins his Zoom room to find his interview subject already logged in and waiting. The camera reveals an ordinary condo, light fixtures dangling over the kitchen peninsula near a slightly cluttered dining room table. Seconds later, though, the video shuts off, giving way to a modulated man’s voice speaking over a black screen bearing only his account’s name: TuAnon.

“I don’t want to give too much revealing information,” he explains, providing his location (Coronado, Calif.), his general age (30s), and the fact that he is married to a woman who says he has spent “far too much money” on Dolphins gear. He also provided his first name but requested to go by a set of initials, “T.T.” The reason for the secrecy, explains the man whose public identity is built around donning a rubber dolphin mask, “People on the internet today are crazy.”

Reached via Twitter direct message, T.T. also confirms that he is both the brains and the creepily altered voice behind @TheGaluminati, a viral Twitter account—a combination of “illuminati” and the first name of Tagovailoa’s father, Galu. He periodically publishes cryptic videos for its 13,000-plus followers in which T.T., playing a teal-pilled character in a dolphin mask that he bought at a Halloween store, rallies support for TuAnon, a satirical conspiracy movement theorizing, basically, that Tagovailoa has been sabotaged by his own franchise. As the account’s bio states: “Time is coming soon. You will soon see what the Miami Dolphins have done to Tua Tagovailoa.”

As T.T. says now, “I think most people understand it’s a joke, that it is genuinely, generally, a Tua support account.”

T.T. launched TuAnon last fall, as a promising win over the Patriots in the season opener turned into a seven-game losing streak and Miami fans’ social media timelines became dominated by Tagovailoa vitriol (even though the quarterback had missed three and three-quarters of those games with broken ribs). “From media, from fans, from other fan bases—everywhere there was a slight for Tua, and it felt unfair,” T.T. says.

That is the Tao of TuAnon: The quarterback’s first two seasons have been a master class in mismanagement at all levels of the organization. “The Dolphins have become at times a national punching bag,” says one decidedly unanonymous Fins fan, actor Josh Gad. “The fact that [Tagovailoa] has to deal with feels like a lot of bulls--- is unfortunate.” The tanking approach to the 2019 season stripped the roster of starting-caliber talent. Coach Brian Flores tabbed 68-year-old Chan Gailey to be Tagovailoa’s first coordinator, while the front office added Fitzpatrick, who had played the best football of his career under Gailey in Buffalo, inviting a quarterback controversy as Tua rehabbed his hip. Flores yo-yoed Tagovailoa in and out of the lineup during a late 2020 run toward the postseason. Fitzpatrick shone but was ruled out for a must-win season finale in Buffalo due to COVID-19 protocols. Tagovailoa imploded in a 30-point loss.

Gailey resigned after the season and was replaced by a combo platter—co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville, and QB coach Charlie Frye. Despite spending three top-50 picks over two drafts on the front five, the offensive line regressed; Tagovailoa suffered a rib injury absorbing a hit early in a September loss to Buffalo.

Rumors of Flores’s distaste for his young quarterback’s play persisted. Word leaked of the Dolphins’ pursuit of Houston’s Deshaun Watson, the subject of then two dozen accounts of sexual misconduct, with talks falling apart when Watson failed to settle the entirety of the civil lawsuits filed against him. Miami was 1–7 at the time. Earlier this August, in punishing the team for tampering with Tom Brady and then-Saints coach Sean Payton, the NFL revealed that in December a Miami executive spoke to Brady about a front-office role, ownership stake, and potential playing opportunity with the Dolphins.

The Miami Herald headline on Oct. 25, 2021: “As dysfunction surrounds him, here are top 10 ways Dolphins’ Tua is unluckiest man on Earth.” Tweeted the actor Gad: “I love this Franchise through and through. BUT . . . the organization’s handling of @Tua is wrong, insane & unfair.”

Tua Tagovailoa sits on the field after taking a sack.

By midseason, the Dolphins seemed ready to move on from Tua.

Then, a twist: The Dolphins got good. Tagovailoa came off the bench in a Thursday-night upset over Baltimore in early November, the second of what became a seven-game winning streak—no doubt aided by a soft schedule and stout defense—that moved Miami back into playoff contention.

Needing a January win in Nashville to keep those postseason hopes alive, Tagovailoa again collapsed in an ugly, 31-point road loss. Michael Lombardi, the former Browns general manager, claimed on his GM Shuffle podcast: “We’ve seen all the conversations that Flores basically had with Tua, where Flores told Tua at halftime of the Tennessee game . . . [H]ey, I should have picked Mac Jones. I don’t think he was shy about telling him that.”

But it was the coach, not the quarterback, who paid the price. In a stunning move, Flores was fired soon after a season-ending victory over the Patriots. (A few weeks later, Flores filed an explosive lawsuit against the Dolphins and the entirety of the NFL alleging racial discrimination in their hiring and firing practices.) To replace him Miami tabbed McDaniel, the savant often credited as the architect of the 49ers’ innovative rushing attack. McDaniel pledged to Tagovailoa, via FaceTime while en route to his introductory press conference, that he’d “get all that greatness out of you.”

The Dolphins spent five draft picks and $120 million to acquire Hill and sign him to an extension. He joins second-year speedster Jaylen Waddle to form the fastest receiving tandem in the NFL. In an effort to solidify the front five Miami gave $75 million to former Saints left tackle Terron Armstead, the top O-lineman on the free-agent market who joins former Cowboys interior lineman Connor Williams. It was easy to get swept up in the renewed Tuamania. Especially, say, if you’re working in the franchise’s social media department.

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The 14-second clip SBNation dubbed “the saddest Dolphins hype video possible” was posted to the team’s Twitter account on May 10. Toggling in and out of slow motion, it reveals Tagovailoa, wearing a teal Dolphins bucket hat and a red practice jersey, carrying out a play-action fake with no defense on the field and taking aim deep. The ball wobbles toward its apex then flutters back to earth, where Hill, feet completely stopped in waiting, reaches backward to cradle it waist-high. True to the polarizing nature of Tua, a single throw from a spring practice session stoked both extremes.

Some Tua apologists, perhaps overcome by the power of the tweet’s accompanying rocket-ship emoji, celebrated the “highlight.” Others, tongue-in-cheek (or not), pointed to it as another attempt by the organization to undercut its would-be franchise quarterback. Wondered writer Vic Tafur of The Athletic on Twitter, “Dolphins trolling their QB?” Hill, on his podcast, suggested it might have been shared to tamp down the growing hype. Tagovailoa’s critics—and most of the football-watching world—universally derided the throw as an almost-certain turnover against a live defense.

These doubters question whether he has the capability to let it fly on a consistent basis, a must considering the team’s embarrassment of speed, expensive offensive line, and new scheme fully catered toward confusing opposing defenses with enough pre-snap bells and whistles so that Tagovailoa will have the time to take calculated deep shots. While he thrives on RPOs, throws to the flat and other quick-game staples (propping up his completion percentage for supporters to cite), his ability to drive the ball downfield remains unproven.

“I like Tua as a player—a good player for his skill set,” says Benjamin Solak, an NFL writer for The Ringer. “But when you pick a QB, you’re deciding the world you want to live and die in. When you draft Josh Allen, you say we want to live and die in a deep-ball, long-drop-backs, breaking-tackles-in the-pocket, [risk-taking] world.

“When you pick Tua, you live and die by that level of precision, accuracy, post-snap processing, because he’ll never be in that Mahomes-Allen family of arm strength. If everything works, sick. But you’re still behind the curve in terms of the play style you’re getting out of your quarterback.”

Last December, as the Dolphins were busy salvaging their season, Solak wrote an article headlined, “Tua Tagovailoa Is the Best RPO Passer in the League—and That’s All.” In it he laid out the double-edged sword that is Tagovailoa’s greatest strength. “It’s good to be the best at something,” Solak says now. “But that’s not what you’d choose to be the best at if you were choosing quarterback traits.” Solak says the response from Dolphins fans wasn’t anything more outlandish than what he normally receives in his line of work. Then again, Solak admits, “Certainly a few people were like, ‘It’s crazy how you’ve always hated Tua forever.’ But listen, man, being a dumb, irrational, insane fan on the internet is a good time.”

And where does the signal-caller at the center of this maelstrom stand? Tagovailoa offered a hint during OTAs in early June, scoffing at “Twitter warriors, keyboard warriors, whatever you want to call them” for their takes on his arm while revisiting several deep-ball hookups with Hill from that day’s practice. “I don’t know if you guys recorded that last one to Tyreek,” he told reporters at one point, reaching out and watching an invisible (no doubt tightly spiraled) pass fall into his hands. “[B]ut that looked like money.”

The clapback received laughs from beat writers in the moment and plenty more fodder for hungry talking heads over the ensuing days. But many missed the most revelatory part of Tagovailoa’s response, the same reason he had felt comfortable carping to Muscle & Fitness in an interview released earlier that week about how Miami’s offense under Flores “didn’t have plays specifically to push the ball down the field”: Confidence comes with having help.

As teammate Jaylen Waddle celebrates, Tua Tagovailoa points for a first down during a season-ending win over the Patriots.

The addition of Hill to pair with Waddle (No. 17) have things pointing in the right direction for Tua and the Dolphins.

Gone are the excuses. Along with Hill and the O-line upgrades, Miami retained tight end Mike Gesicki with the franchise tag and went west to grab underrated ex-Cardinal Chase Edmonds and former McDaniel pupil Raheem Mostert for the backfield. (Speaking of speed, Mostert and Hill together hold the four fastest on-field speeds clocked by an NFL ballcarrier since 2016, with Hill ranked first and third and Mostert second and fourth) “The Dolphins fan base is very reactive, and rightfully so,” Gad says. “We’ve been searching for so long [for a franchise quarterback] that everybody's impatient.”

Even Tagovailoa’s fiercest defenders cannot help but admit the stakes ahead are high. As Hill put it on his podcast, “In the NFL they only give you like two or three years to be a successful quarterback, especially if you’re a first-round draft pick. And if you don’t succeed after those years, then it’s ‘Kick rocks, man.’ So this is basically his last year, man, just to show people what he’s got.”

Lest Tagovailoa need any more support he can also lean on Marino, a special advisor in Miami’s front office and a frequent visitor to the team quarterback meeting room in-season. One of the legend’s favorite messages to impart upon Tagovailoa, as the latter later recounted in his own appearance on Hill’s podcast: “Pick a guy and let it fly.”

The underthrow at OTAs was the first time most fans had a chance to see Tagovailoa let it fly with Hill being his guy. And the aftermath was the most recent marquee moment for T.T. Switching into character for an 85-second “emergency video” that has since drawn more than 350,000 views.

To him, it was more evidence of social media’s obsession with conspiracy theories, and of the football world’s obsession with Tagovailoa. “He’s a click machine,” T.T. says.

T.T. is well aware that TuAnon is capitalizing on that machine. It’s why he’s attempting to use his creepy, cryptic alter ego for good. A native of South Florida who now lives in Southern California, he recalls attending about one game each NFL season with his dad—often in the nosebleeds, against the Jets, as “money was always tight” in the family, he says. Asked for his memories from that time, T.T. replies, “Always being bad, but [also] always taking solace in the fact that we were bad but at least we were faithful.”

What would he say to Tagovailoa as the quarterback hurtles toward the biggest fall of his football life? “I’d just tell him that he is a good person, keep doing what you’re doing, ignore the naysayers, and the city of Miami stands behind him. Well, I’m all the way in California. So, I guess, the city of Coronado stands behind him.”

And yes, for that conversation, he’d set the dolphin mask aside.

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