It seems that every day there’s at least one post on a major media outlet with the basic narrative that ‘Tua sucks’. But is that fair? Has his play really been that bad that he’s genuinely at risk of being a bust, or has his play been brilliant as his stans would have you believe?
Arguably the most polarising Dolphins player that I can remember, far exceeding the division that raged over Ryan Tannehill, Tua has definitely not lived up to the pre-draft hype. But does he actually suck? Let’s take a deep dive on his first two seasons in Miami.
TUA SUCKS? THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The hardest part of any evaluation of Tua Tagovailoa’s NFL game is not knowing the extent to which his devastating hip injury has continued to affect his throws. Year 1 it was perfectly understandable that his hip, motion, and throwing power were considerably affected.
The issue with that evaluation is that possibly his best game as a Dolphin came in week 9 of the 2020 season at Arizona where Tua showcased all the reasons Dolphins fans had been so excited to draft him, and tank for him.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that the ‘injury-prone’ tag is one that Tua still carries into year three having once again missed games to injury in 2021. And while that isn’t really in his control, injuries can happen to anyone, not being on the field is a definite negative mark on a franchise QB.
We’ve all by now seen the videos of Tua training in the off-season and the claims that his movement is so much better than last year, and his throw power has increased. But we saw those same posts last off-season and now we need to see results.
The same goes for the viral-videos of deep throws, whether under-thrown or perfect. The same happened last year, and reports from camp were rife of so much more deep passing than in year one. But on the field, the only place any of this matters, it did not materialise.
THE OTHER ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
There is also no getting away from the fact that the Dolphins offensive line has done Tua no favours whatsoever. PFF ranked the Dolphins pass protection 21st in 2020, and dead last in 2021. However, the Bengals were graded as the 29th-worst OL in 2021 and they went to the Super Bowl under the leadership of Joe Burrow.
In fact the Bengals (27th in 2020, 29th in 2021) and Chargers (30th in 2020, 16th in 2021) both gave their QB’s issues during their early development. But both those teams have been far more vertical in their passing games than the Dolphins have, for whatever reason. While the OL is an issue it is not entirely prohibitive for a good QB to perform.
TUA SUCKS? TAGOVAILOA PROGRESS: YEAR 1 TO YEAR 2
So what progress have we seen from Tua on the field from year 1 to year 2 to combat the ‘Tua sucks’ narrative?
What we see is actually very consistent performance from year 1 to year 2. In 2021 the receiving options for Tua were better with the addition of Jaylen Waddle. While the Dolphins also added Will Fuller as WR1, Fuller and Tua never saw the field together, so there was literally no consideration of Fuller’s bump in these stats.
We see that Tua’s ADOT actually declined in year 2, thanks in large part to the increased use of the RPO in the Dolphins offence, which also saw a nice bump in his completion percentage.
The concern for me as I have stated in previous articles, notably here, is the lack of big time throws from Tua. This is clearly a subjective category so bear with me. I see BTT’s as throws that make you go WOW. When you see them, you know you have a dude.
An example of one of those throws would be Trevor Lawrence in the Jags win over the Dolphins in London. Igbinoghene has a blanket over Marvin Jones Jr but Lawrence puts the ball in the perfect spot on a rope from 28 yards out. It’s an amazing throw.
Throws I think we have seen too few of from Tua thus far in his career. More on this later when we compare recent rookies.
So there is nothing in these stats, at least for me, that screams bust or franchise QB. They are OK. There’s no great leap from year one to year two, but there were stretches and games, notably the Giants, where there were signs that Tua could be the guy.
But then there were also games, Titans, Saints, the second Jets game, where you still wonder what he is thinking sometimes. This is shown in the jump in turnover worthy play % which is probably the only worrying thing about these stats.
I get that he made all the throws and threw deep in college at Alabama. But NFL football is not college football. The history books are littered with great college QB’s who were spit out rapidly by the NFL.
College is where you learn and showcase yourself, but there is still a lot of development to do and performance has to come in the NFL.
TUA SUCKS? HOW DOES HE COMPARE TO HIS FELLOW QB’S
It is always tough to compare QB’s as every situation is different. QB’s have differing systems, coaches, support, players, protection, etc. etc. However, at the end of the day teams go out and compete against each other and those differences are always there. So comparing is what we do, and what we will do now.
As we are comparing the QB’s in this list to each other we will show only their rank within the group for everything other than Attempts. Attempts is shown as the actual attempts thrown so you can see an idea of the sample size for each QB.
To make this a bit broader than some have in the past we will look at the 2021 season for all the QB’s drafted since 2019 who threw more than 200 passes. I will not be going back to Drew Brees, Dan Marino, or Terry Bradshaw as some have because the rules were very different then and those comps really make little sense to me. Tua is at the top of the list for ease and the remaining QB’s are in alphabetical order by surname.
|*players ranked from 1-11 where 1= highest 11=lowest|
So what does all this show us? Well it shows us some things we already knew: Tua had the least amount of time in the pocket to throw; He was among the most accurate in the league ranking 3rd in this group; Most of his passes were short, ranking second shortest in this group.
Something else that we see is that Tua is generally middle of the pack in the majority of the categories. Whether the hip injury, the supporting cast, the coaching, arm strength, all of the above, or some combination has thus far made Tua look a very vanilla NFL QB.
However, a couple of things do jump out a little, he had the second lowest big time throw % and the worst turnover worthy play %. So decision making may be an area of concern with Tua, particularly down the field when he starts to press. In the intermediate passing range 10-19 yards his completion percentage drops to just 51% and his BTT% is a mere 1.9% compared to a TWP% of 8.5%.
Clearly you would expect the TWP to be higher on longer throws as that’s where the defence gets longest to play on the ball. Especially with a QB with a weaker arm. In fact if we look at a comparison with big arms on longer throws only we see this:
|INTERMEDIATE 10-19 YARDS|
|DEEP 20+ YARDS|
Tua ranks as the worst BTT% and the worst TWP% in both intermediate and deep throws among these four QB’s. Does that mean Tua sucks? No it doesn’t. What it means is that Tua doesn’t have the cannon arm that some still claim he has. He can make the long throws, but not the ones that require the power.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s about putting a system around him, and a supporting cast, that accentuate his strengths. Mike McDaniel is ideal for this as in 2021 he had Jimmy Garoppolo as his starting QB, and throwing the deep ball isn’t JimmyG’s strength.
So what did McDaniel do? He had Garoppolo throw the third fewest deep balls in the league even though the 49ers had one of the best offensive lines in the land, ranking 8th for pass blocking (per PFF). Only two QB’s went deep less than Garoppolo’s 7.6%. Daniel Jones at 6.6% and Tua Tagovailoa at 7.5%.
So the narrative that Tua sucks isn’t really fair. All of the stats we have seen show that through two seasons of NFL play he is very much average. He’s consistent, and largely dependable in most situations, very accurate, but may not have elite arm strength.
The reason the Tua sucks narrative persists, however, is also rather clear. Thus far he hasn’t really done anything brilliantly. It’s hard to silence your critics when your main strength is throwing a 6-yard slant. But the RPO is becoming an increasingly popular system in the NFL, and the skills in that system are what Tua Tagovailoa excels at.
There are many videos on YouTube of the RPO, but my favourite by far is this one examining Tua in the system in 2021 by former NFL QB JT O’Sullivan at the QB School
Year 3 is massive for Tua Tagovailoa. Surrounded with splashy, fast, receivers, a bolstered offensive line, and a restocked running back room there will be no room for excuses. The question of whether you can win long-term with the RPO will also be answered, and in my opinion the Tua sucks narrative will finally be laid to rest.