It’s Tua Time.
The Dolphins did what they needed to do at home against a New York Jets team that is one of the worst teams in recent memory. They got the win, and their first shutout since 2014, but that was not the story of the night. With 2:27 remaining in their blowout win against the Jets, Tua Tagovailoa came onto the field for his first football snap since the career-threatening injury last year with Alabama.
While running what was obviously a simple clock-burning closeout drive, with a few handoffs and a pair of passes (one on an naked rollout in the endzone that had many holding their breath), it was enough to inject energy into a fanbase that’s already gaining enthusiasm. Tua had arrived.
And Brian Flores made it official on Tuesday morning, announcing that after the week seven bye, Tua would be the starter against the LA Rams. It’s impossible to overstate what this means to the franchise and the fanbase, so it won’t even be attempted in this article. If you’re reading, you know.
So, let’s take a step into the intent of this week’s article, a deep dive into where this franchise stands entering into their bye week.
Miami Dolphins: a culture shift
“Culture change” is a buzzword in the NFL. Almost every incoming head coach preaches their intent to “change the culture” of their locker room. It’s one of those intangible things that most people understand can have an impact on a team, but can never quite identify and evaluate. Brian Flores, with the organization he has built in South Florida, has unequivocally accomplished that change. In a million little ways, the team, energy, and attitude that the Miami Dolphins are bringing to their profession is different from anything seen there in years.
This is most easily illustrated with the way players talk about one another. It’s impossible to ignore the impact that veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick has had on the locker room. Since the day Tua was drafted, Fitz has done nothing but demonstrate enthusiasm and excitement about the prospects of the young player. Where many older QBs might be stand-offish, or even combative, towards a player obviously brought in to take their place, Fitzpatrick has been the opposite. He has constantly demonstrated nigh-paternal love and affection towards the rookie. Sideline shots constantly show him mentoring Tua. Interviews are full of glowing optimism and compliments.
This same energy has extended to the rest of the team. Mike Gesicki sprints down the sideline to celebrate Durham Smythe‘s first career touchdown. Christian Wilkins takes the ball after a strip-sack recovery, and runs to Coach Flores to excitedly present the ball. Byron Jones speaks to the press about the talent and work-ethic of Noah Igbinoghene. The examples overflow. This team is not here to play for themselves. They play for each other, in every game, on every down.
Review the Miami Dolphins rookie class here
Through six games in the 2020 season, the Miami Dolphins offense has lived and died at the hand of Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Fitzmagic strikes, this has been offensive overdrive. When Fitztragic rears his head, scoring dies in the crib.
While the defense (we’ll get to that in a moment) has consistently improved week to week, the offense has been a weekly proposition. That week to week performance almost directly correlates to the win/loss record, the lone exception being a lackluster showing against an abysmal Jets team.
The greatest takeaway after six weeks is that, when the offense puts it together, the Dolphins are a dangerous team. This is what makes the introduction of Tua so exciting. If he is what so many think he can be, and the offense gets humming on a weekly basis, there are few teams in the league that they cannot play a competitive game against.
Myles Gaskin has been a plug-in option as a running back. Is he special? Most likely not. But he gets the job done, and the changeup, big play potential of Matt Breida is a lethal strike capability that cannot be ignored. The offensive line has coalesced into a solid, reliable unit, much better than anything on offer for nearly a decade. The receivers, between Gesicki, Williams, and Parker have shown that they can be lethal with a quarterback putting the ball where it needs to be.
Everything moving forward rests on Tua’s shoulders. If he can get it done, this offensive unit will be able to compete against any but the best defenses in the league.
The defensive side of the ball is the most promising aspect of the Dolphins. As weeks go by, they continue to improve their chemistry and capabilities. The exceptional youth of the entire unit showed in the first few weeks of the season, exacerbated by the loss of veteran Byron Jones. As weeks went by, and Jones found his way back onto the field, things changed. The defense began to gel. Turnovers came, sacks came, and points allowed dropped.
The line has been shockingly good, tied for 13th in the league on a pass rush grade per PFF. Emmanual Ogbah is tied for fourth in the league for sacks, and 19th for tackles-for-loss. Zach Seiler has consistently generated pressure up the middle and has been a decent run-stopper, with above average grades in most of PFF’s metrics. It’s not stellar, but it’s more than enough to back up the rest of the defense.
The secondary is where Miami shines. The re-introduction of Byron Jones has clearly illustrated the defensive plan. Jones and Xavien Howard serve as a tremendous one-two punch at cornerback. They stifle receivers and consistently create turnovers, with X coming back into pro-bowl form (tied in first for interceptions in the league). Eric Rowe is capable of erasing tight ends and acts as a tremendous strong safety. In week five, George Kittle was held to four receptions for 44 yards. Bobby McCain, though somewhat less impressive on the stat-sheet, has received continuous praise from the coaching staff for his role as a leader and organizer on the defensive side of the ball.
The weakest unit of the entire defense is the linebacker group, though that’s hardly a disparagement. Kyle Van Noy continues to be a leader and plays well, though he’s struggled with injury in October. The entire linebacker corps has flashed moments of good to great play, but still struggles with consistency. Against a weak offensive line, they can feast. When playing against skilled protection or receivers, the weaknesses begin to show.
The future of the Miami Dolphins
Looking towards the rest of the season, Phins fans have a lot to feel good about. The promised rebuild is going along exactly as hoped. These Dolphins have a real, genuine chance of making their way into the playoffs.
With the Bills loss on Monday, they’re only one game behind, and have a real opportunity to take the division title. As mentioned above, everything rest on the shoulders of Tua Tagovailoa. If he is what everyone hoped he might be, before the dramatic injury last year, the Dolphins could be building the dynasty they had planned on.