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Dolphins Mailbag Spotlight: How Tua Can Make Believers

Diving into the question of what quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can do to win over skeptics

From time to time, we'll pull out a question from our weekly mailbags that deserves more space than normal.

This question comes from fellow Dolphins writer and friend Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on an ever-popular topic: What does Tua need to do to make you a believer?

Tua clearly is a polarizing figure and it's not only among fans but reporters as well.

To attack this question, let's start by defining what "believer" might mean, and the feeling is it's a "believer" that Tua can become an elite or franchise-type quarterback.

Not even his most ardent supporters would argue that Tua was that in his first two seasons in the NFL, though there have been a lot of reasons/excuses provided for that, from his college injury, the Dolphins offensive coaches, the scheme, the lack of talent around him in the passing game, the offensive line, etc.

There also are many Tua supporters (we can start with Tuanon) who believe it's a foregone conclusion he'll blow up in 2022 after the offseason additions of Tyreek Hill, Terron Armstead and the arrival of Mike McDaniel as head coach.

From this vantage point, regardless of circumstances, Tua showed little in his first two seasons to suggest he'll become a franchise quarterback, though let's be clear here: I have never said or written that there's no chance it could happen.

Also to be clear, in a recent column I wrote that there's every reason to believe that Tua's stats will substantially improve in 2022 with McDaniel bringing with him the 49ers offense.

As written before, Tua's passer rating likely will see a big jump from the 90.1 he posted last season and, based on precedent, could come close or even top 100.

That precedent involves Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo, who each reached triple digits in similar schemes, but there's a clear issue there. That issue is that both the Rams and 49ers eventually decided that, despite the lofty passer ratings, Goff and Garoppolo weren't good enough to get them where they wanted to get — the Rams by trading Goff for Matthew Stafford, the 49ers by trading two future first-round picks for the chance to draft Trey Lance.

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The point here is that Tagovailoa could post a 100-plus passer rating in 2022 and still not prove he's an elite QB or on track to become one.

WHAT IT WILL TAKE FROM TUA

So what's it going to take?

Well, we could fall back on the ever-popular "we'll know it when we see it," but that's probably not specific enough as an answer.

So let's say instead that we need to see Tua come up big in a big game — because that's what franchise quarterbacks do.

A lot of Tua supporters point to his 13-8 record as a starter, but if we're being honest about it, quarterback play wasn't significant in many of those wins, including the one at Las Vegas in 2020 when Ryan Fitzpatrick came off the bench to pull off the miraculous comeback.

Tua had a 6-1 record in his final seven starts of 2021, but the defense allowed 17 points or less in four of the wins (10 or less against the Panthers, Giants and Saints) and in the season finale against New England, the Dolphins rushed for 195 yards and had two defensive touchdowns.

The one loss was at Tennessee, where Tua struggled with wet conditions. He also struggled in the 2020 finale at Buffalo when the Dolphins could have gotten into the playoffs with a win.

While neither loss was completely on him, Tagovailoa didn't perform up to par in either game. Since some will be quick to point to Justin Herbert having not made the playoffs in his time with the Chargers, we'd refer anyone to the Sunday night finale against the Raiders when Herbert completed five fourth-down passes in a row, including four on fourth-and-10 or longer to give his team a chance to win only to lose on the final play of overtime.

Not that there was any doubt before that, but Herbert showed right then and there what a franchise quarterback looks like. That was more impressive quarterbacking in a loss than we often see in a win.

And while it didn't do the Chargers any good that night, it left that team absolutely, positively certain they have their franchise quarterback.

For all the hope that Tua can become that kind of guy, we just haven't seen that kind of evidence yet.

And that kind of performance is what will make Tua skeptics, including myself, become believers.