Well, Tua Tagovailoa’s first NFL start was underwhelming.
The Miami Dolphins rookie was unable to get much help from his pass catchers, who had several key drops that hindered his rhythm. His offensive linemen, which include two rookies just like him, also allowed him to get body slammed by a defender on his first pass attempt of the game.
The Dolphins defense also hindered Tagovailoa — only in the sense they kept forcing turnovers that led to touchdowns, a double-digit lead, and a restricted playbook for Tagovailoa in his first full game since suffering his gruesome hip injury at Alabama last year.
Tagovailoa completed just 12 of 22 passes for 93 yards and his first career touchdown pass, which was to DeVante Parker, as the Dolphins took a 28-10 lead into halftime and beat the Los Angeles Rams, 28-17, Sunday.
“For his first time out, again, some good and some bad. Hopefully we see some improvement next week,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said this week.
It wasn’t pretty. Or quite the electric first start many anticipated from the smooth-throwing lefty quarterback. But a win is a win.
And Tagovailoa’s focus has now turned to his first career road start as he leads the Dolphins (4-3) against the Arizona Cardinals (5-2) this Sunday.
“I believe my job is to do whatever play-call we’re given,” said Tagovailoa, who was relegated to more handoffs than throws, and more intermediate passes than longer ones in his first start.
“If it’s a run 20 times and it’s a pass one time, I have to make it work that one time a pass is given and I’ve got to carry out my fakes those 20 times. I trust, and I think our offense trusts, what (offensive coordinator) Chan (Gailey) has planned for us offensively.”
Against the Rams, no Dolphins player had more than three catches, which running back Myles Gaksin had. No teammate had a reception longer than 15 yards, which receiver Jakeem Grant caught.
The Dolphins ran the ball 25 times, with Gaskin leading the way with 18 carries, trying their best to run out the clock. But Miami was 3 for 12 on third downs, and no Dolphins drive lasted longer than six plays or went for longer than 33 yards against the Rams.
“We knew how good their pass rush was. We were trying to get him protected and get the ball out. And because of the way the game went, we didn’t have to take a lot of chances with the football,” Gailey said of the Dolphins’ game plan against the vaunted Rams defense.
“We hope to be able to do things in the future that create more big plays for our offense. I think obviously Tua is very talented at throwing the football, so hopefully we’ll make those things happen.”
Gailey praised Tagovailoa for his poise, decision making, and ability to get the Dolphins situated in the run game, while Dolphins quarterback coach Robby Brown praised his communication and how he responded after taking his first sack by Rams star defender Aaron Donald, who stripped the ball from him before he was hit by Michael Brockers.
“I think the main thing there is not to overreact. … He’s been (in) big collegiate games obviously. This is a different atmosphere, but he didn’t overreact,” Brown said of the strip-sack sequence.
Gailey added the opportunity for Tagovailoa to play in live action was invaluable.
“I think he’ll start to get better in bigger jumps as we go forward, because the more he sees, the more he understands, the more feel he gets with the receivers and I think he’ll get better and better,” Gailey said. “He just needs to play. He’s got a lot of talent so I’m anxious to see what steps he’s going to take this week.”
Tagovailoa will need more help from his teammates to be successful in his second start, one that could see the Dolphins play without their two top running backs as Gaskin will be held out due to a knee sprain, while Matt Breida did not practice Wednesday due to a hamstring injury.
If the Dolphins are more reliant on Tagovailoa’s arm this week, they will need better play from the offensive line and the receivers, who both acknowledged they failed to help Tagovailoa get into a rhythm during his first start.
“We have to be perfect for him,” Dolphins guard Solomon Kindley said Wednesday. “That was his very first game. … The offensive line has got to do a little bit more to get him comfortable. All week, this week, that’s what we’re emphasizing so we can give him the amount of time that he needs even more.”
As for the drops, the Dolphins offense was hampered by key miscues by receiver Preston Williams, who had two drops in the game, tight end Mike Gesicki, who had a pass that touched his hands broken up by a defender, and Gaskin, who dropped a short pass that could have converted on third down.
The Dolphins’ play-calling and execution also hurt them in two instances to gain first downs with a yard to go were failed runs by Gaskin and rookie Malcolm Perry after direct snaps.
If the Dolphins were able to gain valuable first downs or hang onto the football, Tagovailoa’s debut would have had a little more luster.
Still, Tagovailoa believes his first opportunity to play since his hip injury served as the best educator for what life will be like as an NFL quarterback.
Tagovailoa is looking forward to being able to identify what he’s seeing from defenses, retaining information he learns from film study and game experience, and cannot wait to find his rhythm as a passer in the Dolphins offense.
Tagovailoa and the Dolphins hope improvements all around can benefit them on the road against the Cardinals as they pursue four consecutive wins.
“I think there’s room for improvement every day for me,” Tagovailoa said.
“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable in the huddle, talking to guys, getting plays out, and kind of seeing where everyone needs to go. I think the biggest thing for me is pocket presence, being able to step up into what feels like pressure. And then also just making the throws that I need to give receivers good run after the catch.”
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