It's not often a team one game out of first place and enjoying a two-game win streak changes quarterbacks, but that's exactly what the Miami Dolphins did on Tuesday, reportedly replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick with rookie first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa. Anyone who remembers the Dolphins spent this year's fifth overall draft pick on Tagovailoa knows Tua was eventually going to take over, but the most pressing question to surface from Miami's big move has been this: Did Fitzpatrick deserve to be benched? The answer is simple: No, not necessarily. But it doesn't matter whatsoever. Because the Dolphins' turn to Tua is absolutely the right move at this time.
Fitzpatrick had been serviceable, if not better, as the Dolphins' top QB for the second straight year. Even as his trademark penchant for interceptions kept him among the league's boom-or-bust passers, the 37-year-old vet was completing passes at a career-high rate while remaining a deep-ball threat, posting a 95.0 QB rating -- good enough to best "safer" or more talented starters like Matthew Stafford, Teddy Bridgewater, Gardner Minshew and even Kyler Murray. He was darn near perfect in a surprise rout of the 49ers in Week 5, and his ageless moxie is certainly part of the reason Miami is 3-3 and just behind the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.
We also don't know what Tagovailoa will be. He was a hotshot college football star, sure, but we've yet to see him start in the NFL, and remember, the concerns with him aren't just whether he can adjust to the NFL but whether he can hold up in it, having finished his time with Alabama on the sidelines.
Why, then, are the Dolphins justified in handing him the keys to the car, right as Miami pushes to make just its second playoff appearance in 12 years?
No. 1, it's incredibly unlikely that Tagovailoa's floor will be as low as that of Fitzpatrick. The latter has been playing well, yes, but we often shrug off rashes of turnovers in his "good games" because that's just what you get with Fitzpatrick. For example, in Miami's 24-0 shutout of the Jets on Sunday, Fitz threw three scores, but he also passed for under 200 yards and threw two picks. Fitzpatrick's gung-ho style can be fun, but it also makes him prone to multiple-INT games, like, every other week. And the Dolphins aren't going to be able to afford their QB turning the ball over two or three times when it's December or January and the opponent is not the Jets.
That's certainly not to say Tua won't have bad games. He's a rookie! But when you're talking about the ceiling and floor of all starting QBs around the league, few people would deny that Fitzpatrick is as unpredictable as they come; and not only that, but that when he does bottom out, he sinks the whole ship with him. Tagovailoa, on the other hand, has a ceiling that also makes him a more intriguing option for a team at a crucial crossroads -- a club finally within striking distance of the division lead. Fitz, at 37, is no slouch on the ground, but Tua's 22-year-old legs are an obvious upgrade. Throw in the fact Tagovailoa has been hailed for his smarts, his instincts, his pocket presence and his ability to limit turnovers, and you're talking about a potentially perfect point guard for Miami's offense.
There's a reasonable chance the Dolphins make this switch and then fail to catch the Bills. But does anyone actually believe Ryan Fitzpatrick was going to sustain his early play all the way up to and into the playoffs? Worst-case scenario, the move to Tua doesn't ignite a .500 team, and Miami looks a lot like the Los Angeles Chargers: Exciting because of the young gun running the offense, but no better in the standings as a result. Wouldn't that still be a fine outcome, if the Dolphins can confirm Tagovailoa really does have "it?" Brian Flores is building for beyond 2020 as much as this season, and identifying a franchise QB is always an elusive achievement.
Looking at it more short-term, there isn't a better time for Miami to usher Tagovailoa under center, considering the Dolphins are entering their Week 7 bye. Fitzpatrick has long proven to be a capable and willing mentor at the backup QB spot, and his literal applause for Tua upon the rookie's Week 6 debut suggests he's all about helping the Tua Train get out of the station.
So will this monumental decision be the one that puts the Dolphins over the edge and into contention? We know that's far from a guarantee, but the risk sure seems worth the potential reward.