If there has ever been a NFL quarterback that has been under pressure to perform incredibly great during the second season of his career, Miami Dolphins quarterback, Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa would by far be under that pressure more than anyone else in 2021. Most of the early 2021 NFL offseason has been filled with sporting news about either how much pressure Tagovailoa is under to play well, or how much doubt he will be able to do it.
On two different occasions, ESPN’s Mike Greenberg has talked about how much pressure Tua is under. During Tua’s rookie season, Greenberg said that Tua was under more pressure than both Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert combined for the remainder of the 2020 season. In May of 2021, Greenberg said that Tua Tagovailoa is under more pressure than any NFL quarterback in 2021.
As much praise as Tua had in his young football career, whether it be in college or the NFL, the praise has equally come with criticism against him. Sports Commentator, Colin Cowherd, has been one of the most vocal naysayers about Tua, saying that he won’t be as good as the opposing quarterbacks the first 8 weeks of the 2021 season. He had earlier said on his show, The Herd With Colin Cowherd, that some Miami Dolphins players leaked to the Miami Herald that “Dude can’t play.” Cowherd’s criticism of Tua is a complete contradiction of his comments he made on his show a year earlier when he compared Tua to Drew Brees if healthy and said that Tua would be his number one pick in the draft over Joe Burrow.
On a program discussing Tua, sports analysts Mike Florio and Chris Simms both had critical comments about Tagovailoa. Florio said, “Chris Grier screwed up because he should’ve taken Justin Herbert.” Simms agreed with Florio, saying that “Justin Herbert is far more talented than Tua. The gap will never be closed.” Doubts continued early in the year when discussions in sports media began taken place that Miami should pursue Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers. Omar Kelley, a reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, in an article wrote that the “odds are far greater that Watson would lead Miami to its desired destination in the next three seasons than Tagovailoa can.”
Orlando Sentinels’ sports columnist, Mike Bianchi, wrote a column in May with the outlandish idea that the Dolphins should trade four first round picks for Aaron Rodgers. In recent weeks, Tua has received more criticism by sports media, who believed Tua added fuel to the fire when he said he didn’t know the Dolphins playbook that well.
But what is it that has drawn so much criticism and pressure being placed on Tua Tagovailoa other than any other NFL quarterback? Has it been because of high expectations placed on him as an early round draft pick, being the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft? Why is Tua treated differently than other quarterbacks in the sports world? Why has doubt came with those different and high expectations? To the Miami Dolphins fanbase, Tua’s treatment by sports media has definitely been unfair.
But why is that? There is certainly truth that some media have spoken out of turn about Tua simply because they don’t know all the facts nor details concerning Tua…. or that they may just be to lazy to do the research about Tua because they are being pushed to meet a deadline for a story. But the simple answer is that Tua Tagovailoa has become the victim of his own success, which has become his personal enemy within that he created years ago.
Rewind back to January 2018. Nothing significant was happening at Hard Rock Stadium because the Dolphins had finished their 6-10 2017 season a month earlier, ending with a David Fales interception against Buffalo. However, the Miami Dolphins, along with all other NFL teams would later that evening have their eyes tuned 664 miles (1069 kilometers) away from Hard Rock Stadium to Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on January 8.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia had just been built less than a year earlier and was hosting its first college football national championship on January 8, 2018. The forecast had called for light rain and fog in the Atlanta that night. The Alabama Crimson Tide was finishing their season in the same stadium they began their season when they became the first college football team to play and win in the stadium against FSU, opening the 2017 season. Alabama was the odds on favorite to defeat the local Athens, Georgia based Georgia Bulldogs.
Surprisingly, those odds were in jeopardy for Alabama going into the fourth quarter. Starting quarterback Jalen Hurts had been benched by coach Nick Saban because of underperforming in favor of backup freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The young Tagovailoa had brought a losing Crimson Tide back from a 13 point deficit against the Bulldogs to a 20-20 tie. The game had went into overtime when Alabama’s kicker had missed a makeable 36 yard field goal to win the game with only 3 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Georgia’s kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship, seemed to have won it for the Bulldogs when he made a 51 yard field goal in overtime putting the score 23-20 over Alabama. However, Alabama had one more chance to score before the game would be decided. On first down at the 25 yard line, Tua Tagovailoa was sacked back at the 41 yard line, losing 16 yards. Then on 2nd and 26, Tua did the unbelievable. Tua threw a beautiful pass to future Heisman Trophy winner, Devonta Smith for a touchdown to win the college football national championship.
TUA TAGOVAILOA’S MIRACLE MOMENT
Despite the celebration of the Alabama victory with Tua on that January 8th night in 2018, something was spawned from that 2nd and 26 play. It was a creation that Tua Tagovailoa accidentally created that would come back to haunt him for years. That creation was a three headed monster that became high expectations, different expectations, and doubt which was all birthed out of the success of one play. That creation has now become Tua’s own personal enemy within.
The unbelievable miracle play made Tua the most talked about sports figure the following week and the most popular college quarterback going into the 2018 season. And up until Mac Jones, Tua had the best college football season as any Alabama quarterback in Alabama history during 2018. Tua had even had the highest quarterback passing rating in college football history at 238.8 with no interceptions 8 games into the 2018 college football season.
After the miracle overtime play, Tua’s expectation to perform great was so high that anything less than similar 2nd and 26 performances was unacceptable to the sports world. And that expectation, that enemy within, has followed him all the way to the NFL. Certainly good quarterbacks always have high expectations, but the high expectation placed on Tua is different than other quarterbacks. Other quarterbacks have high expectations placed on them because they have performed well.
Tua has high expectations placed on him because on January 8, 2018 he did the impossible. What he did was not supposed to happen. What Tua did was like a Major League Baseball player hitting a grand slam to win the seventh game of the World Series in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and two strikes with the team down 3-0. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen.
Going into the 2018 season, Tua was the odds on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy but he didn’t. Being drafted as the fifth overall pick for the Miami Dolphins, some had picked Tua to be the best rookie quarterback in the league, but statistically he wasn’t. When Tua didn’t do what some thought he should to win the Heisman and according to some, underperformed as a rookie in Miami, another part of the enemy within, doubt, began to rear its ugly head among sports personalities.
Because Justin Herbert won Rookie of the Year, passing over 4,000 yards many have said that Tua Tagovailoa was not as good as Herbert. However, the media saying those things are doing so without giving all of the details and facts. Herbert started 15 of the 16 games while Tua only played in 10 games and started only 9. That means that Justin Herbert was able to throw the ball 305 more times than Tua to get over 2500 more passing yards than Tua had.
In fact, when Justin Herbert and the Chargers played Tua and the Dolphins head to head in 2020, Justin Herbert lost against Tua. And with Tua’s 106.9 rating versus Herbert’s 86.3 rating, Tua was the better quarterback in that game, not Herbert. Tua had thrown as many touchdowns (2) as Herbert when they played each other and Herbert only had 18 more passing yards than Tua.
TUA TAGOVAILOA NOT NUMBER ONE, BUT STILL UNDER PRESSURE
Even though Joe Burrow was the number one draft pick in 2020, neither Burrow nor Herbert was ever under the same kind of pressure to perform as was the way Tua has been under pressure. Even though Kyler Murray won the Heisman and was the number one overall pick in 2019, Murray has never beat Tagovailoa head to head, in college nor the NFL. Yet, the thing different about Tua was that neither Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, or Kyler Murray went into the NFL after going through a grueling three years of college, suffering a broken finger, sprained knee, two ankle sprains, dislocated hip, fractured posterior wall, and a broken nose.
Obviously, the naysayers will be quick to point out that Tua is injury prone. But the thing about Tua is that he has played through those injuries and came back to play after those injuries. Tua’s former college coach and former Miami Dolphins coach, Nick Saban, is one to preach toughness to his players (If you are a Dolphins fan, you won’t forget the day Saban made Manuel Wright cry. And that Saban trained toughness carried over into Miami’s 2021 first round pick Jaylen Waddle, who chose to hobble around in the National Championship game after suffering a broken ankle a few months earlier).
Tua had actually lost the Heisman trophy because of all the facts not being known. Many people thought that Tua underperformed in the 2018 SEC championship game against Georgia because he didn’t get injured until the fourth quarter. We see this evident among a Sports Illustrated article in 2020 that listed Tua’s injury history. The article only lists Tua’s right ankle being stepped on that caused Tua to leave the game. However, to only think that is the reason Tua left the game is simply not true.
In an ESPN piece done in December of 2018, Tua Tagovailoa suffered a high left ankle sprain only four offensive plays in the game during the first quarter. If perseverance is one of the foundations that the Heisman Trophy is based on, then Heisman voters certainly missed it for the SEC championship game Tua was injured in. Despite being injured with a high ankle sprain, Tua played with it and well enough to bring his team back to within 7 points before being taken out of the game in the fourth quarter.
As far as the doubt that has been overshadowing Tua from sports media because of his rookie season, it is unfair considering Tua was coming to the NFL less than a year away from hip surgery. The unfairness also lies in the fact that Tua’s rookie season was basically not that much different than Dan Marino’s. If you haven’t read my article, Tua Tagovailoa’s Rooke Season Was Very Similar To Dan Marino’s Rookie Season, you need to do so to read how similar their rookie seasons were.
When Tua was criticized for saying he didn’t know the playbook, he was misquoted. If you watch the interview when this was said, you can tell how misquoted Tua actually was. Tua Tagovailoa never said that he didn’t know the Miami Dolphins playbook. He said, “I didn’t know the playbook…really really good.” In fact, Tua said he wasn’t comfortable with the plays and was going to try to make it work if he knew it wouldn’t work. Basically Tua was being honest about being a rookie, whereas most rookies won’t admit, even though true with rookies.
In defense to Tua, if a NFL rookie quarterback comes out of college and into the NFL his first year and says that they know the team’s playbook, which they’ve never seen before, really really good, then they are lying. The thing that sets Tua apart from many other quarterbacks is that he is an honest person and he has the integrity to admit it, not having that arrogance that some quarterbacks have had about themselves. Tua’s honesty about his comfort level of knowing the Dolphins’ playbook is not a lack of confidence but more of Tua being modest.
As far as the pressure being on Tua entering 2021, that part of the enemy within won’t go away. The pressure to perform big will remain. The fact that he has different expectations than other quarterbacks is partly because of his past great performances in college and the fact that the sports media are speaking out of turn, not giving all of the facts nor details. The doubt comes from just a half a season played in the NFL and how other quarterbacks in Tua’s draft class have performed.
It is easy to talk about Tua when you are the sports media looking in from the outside. But when you are on the Miami Dolphins staff and team, looking out from the inside, those are the ones that know. And those around Tua, his teammates and coaches are the ones now saying Tua is better than ever and he is going to have a great year. Teammate Lynn Bowden Jr. said “people don’t know it yet but Tua is one of the best quarterbacks around when he is doing his thing.” Dolphins coach, Brian Flores said, “Tua is more comfortable.” Tua himself even said that his hip feels 10 times better than last year. And that is all said, despite the ongoing struggle with Tua’s enemy within.