Forced benching by design? According to head coach Vic Fangio, the Denver Broncos had a sneaking suspicion that if the defense executed in Week 11, the Miami Dolphins would quickly sit rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa down and replace him with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
That's exactly how it shook out as Tagovailoa struggled immensely against Fangio's defensive front and coverages. Although he didn't turn the ball over, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft simply could not sustain a drive and was sacked six times by the Broncos.
After Tagovailoa was sacked by Bradley Chubb early in the fourth quarter, Dolphins' head coach Brian Flores benched the rookie and inserted Fitzpatrick — just as Fangio anticipated. Protecting a 10-point lead in the final frame, it played into Fangio's hands as most of the film the Broncos had studied in preparation for the Dolphins was with Fitzpatrick under center.
“I kind of thought that way all week," Fangio admitted post-game. "If we played well, they would put him in. Tua had only played three games so Fitzpatrick was on a lot of the cut-ups we watched and the film we watched. I watched them myself on the side. I just kind of had a feeling we would see him if we played good.”
The Dolphins framed Tua's benching as a decision based on injury as he had a nicked-up foot entering Week 11. While it's possible Chubb's sack of Tua, which contorted his foot oddly, led to Miami's decision, the optics of the rookie QB standing on the sideline for the final quarter (instead of sitting on the bench) belied the truth. Fangio knew the score.
Tua entered Week 11 with all the hype of a top-5 pick who'd gone undefeated in the first three games to open his career. He notched impressive wins over the likes of Jared Goff and the L.A. Rams, Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals, and Justin Herbert and the L.A. Chargers.
If he'd managed to beat the Broncos, Tagovailoa would have joined Ben Roethlisberger as the only NFL rookie QBs to win their first four career starts.
It didn't shake out that way, thanks to Fangio's Xs and Os and an inspired performance by the Broncos' defense. Tagovailoa would finish the game 11-of-20 passing for just 83 yards. But he did throw a touchdown pass to DeVante Parker, capitalizing on Drew Lock's first-quarter interception.
Denver held Miami to 7-of-16 on third down and 1-of-3 in the red zone. The Dolphins finished with just 223 total yards, 167 of which came through the air. 117 of those passing yards came on Miami's final two possessions in the fourth quarter with Fitzpatrick.
Credit Fangio for designing a great game-plan and for the Broncos' offense for sustaining some big-time drives that kept Tua cold and unable to find a rhythm. Still, 3-1 as a starter to open one's career ain't bad.
But just ask the Lock haters, such a sample size is simply too small to draw any overarching conclusions over. The jury is still out on Tua but based on what he did at the University of Alabama, I like his chances at building a successful NFL career.