Tua Tagovailoa has had a dramatic year. While he was selected No. 5 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins, he was at the same time recovering from a major hip injury that had many wondering about his future as an NFL quarterback. Even after Tagovailoa was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 8 and won three straight games, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores opted to bench him in Week 11, and then again in Week 16 despite always maintaining the rookie was his starting quarterback. When the dust settled at the end of the regular season, Tagovailoa had gone 6-3 as a starter and had thrown for 1,814 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
There is plenty of reason to be excited about the future when it comes to the Dolphins' new quarterback, as Tagovailoa became the third rookie signal-caller in the Super Bowl era to not throw an interception in his first five-career starts, and became the first Dolphins rookie quarterback to win each of his first three starts. He also became the first Dolphins player to lead a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime within his first two NFL starts since Chad Henne. Unfortunately, with the offseason came new issues Tagovailoa couldn't control, as the Dolphins are currently rumored to be in the mix for Houston Texans star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is looking for a change of scenery. If Watson is traded to Miami this offseason, the deal would likely include Tagovailoa as well.
This week, CBS Sports sat down with Tagovailoa to discuss his rookie campaign and what he has been trying to accomplish this offseason. With uncertainty surrounding his current situation, Tagovailoa says he turns to what he can control -- and that's how he can improve as a player and a leader. The coming months will be about getting back to 100% health, and preparing for a breakout year.
Recently, Tagovailoa posted pictures of himself working out this offseason that generated quite a bit of attention. It looked as if he was building muscle, and Tagovailoa told us "getting his body" back was important for him this offseason.
"Really just trying to get my body back, it's the first time I've had a real offseason so just trying to get stronger, trying to get faster, trying to get back to how I used to look ... back at Alabama," Tagovailoa laughed. "Just trying to get better with those things as far as the offseason."
It took quite some time to fully recover from the hip injury he suffered while at Alabama, but Tagovailoa also dealt with foot and thumb injuries during his rookie campaign that forced him to miss a Week 12 matchup against the New York Jets.
Tagovailoa said that one of the biggest lessons he learned in his first NFL season was about in-game adjustments. Breaking down schemes and packages opposing defenses are throwing at you on a drive-by-drive basis, and truly taking control of an NFL offense full of veteran players, as opposed to your fellow collegiate athletes, was a challenge.
"I would say adjustments, you got to adjust on the fly," Tagovailoa said when asked about what he learned in his transition to the NFL. "If the defense gives you a different concept that you haven't seen, you got to know how to adjust with your guys and tell them how you want things done. You're a coach out there. With that being said, I think that's what I need to get better with, too. But I'm glad to get that first year under my belt."
Success under Saban
Getting that first NFL season under his belt is important, because if there's one thing Tagovailoa knows, it's how to handle pressure and make those kinds of adjustments to find success. His introduction to the sports world at large came via one of the most risky in-game adjustments ever made by legendary Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Tagovailoa, who was a true freshman at the time, replaced Jalen Hurts at halftime of the 2018 College Football National Championship game, and helped the Crimson Tide rally from a 13-0 deficit to win 26-23 in overtime against Georgia. That marked the beginning of a very successful college career, as Tagovailoa finished his junior season as Alabama's career touchdown responsibility leader with 96. His 87 touchdown passes moved him past AJ McCarron for the most thrown in program history, and he finished third in Alabama history with 7,442 passing yards.
Tagovailoa's entrance into the NFL wasn't as dramatic, but his stance on himself, his team and winning has never changed -- and that became clear when we asked him what the best "highs" he experienced were in his first professional season. It wasn't his first touchdown pass or his first-career start or first comeback victory. It was any Sunday his team came out on top.
"The highest moments I had were when we won," Tagovailoa said. "Anytime that we won, those were the highs. But on the other hand, the lows are when you lose and when you don't achieve what you set out to achieve before the season started."
So what does Tagovailoa need to improve to keep Miami in the win column in 2021? Among many things, he says it's about his preparation.
"For me, it's about the little things -- the little details about my game," Tagovailoa said. "More so how to prepare a lot of the time. What to look for, how to watch film, what to do when you're watching film."
Tagovailoa is also working on being a leader off of the field this offseason. Recently, he teamed up with USAA, the official NFL Salute to Service partner, to connect with military veteran Kerry Smith, who was selected as one of the five grand-prize winners of USAA's Salute to Service Sweepstakes. Smith got to engage in a virtual hangout with Tagovailoa and won several other prizes.
"You know I have a lot of family members that served in the military so I have a deep appreciation for those guys," Tagovailoa said.
The Dolphins should make big strides this offseason by way of the 2021 NFL Draft, as they have two first-round picks including the No. 3 overall pick thanks to a previous trade with the Texans. It's believed the Dolphins could target a wide receiver with that top pick, and many are projecting Miami will select Tagovailoa's former teammate in DeVonta Smith -- who caught the game-winning pass from Tagovailoa in overtime of the 2018 National Championship game.
Smith became the first receiver since 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy, after a season in which he caught 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. In the College Football Playoff National Championship against Ohio State, he caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns -- all in the first half! Smith said last month that he and Tagovailoa have discussed the possibility of "running it back" together with the Dolphins, and it would definitely be something that would help Tagovailoa in his development as a quarterback as well. When we asked Tagovailoa how he thinks Smith is going to fare in the NFL, he couldn't help but laugh.
"I think his transition to the next level will be kinda ... slim to none," Tagovailoa said. "In a way where it won't be much changing. I think the competition will be different for him obviously, but he will be more than fine. I know a lot of people say he's too small or too skinny, but his film speaks for itself. He goes out and takes care of his business, does what he needs to do. They don't call him the 'Slim Reaper' for no reason."
Not many rookie quarterbacks have had to face the kind of adversity and outside noise that Tagovailoa has had to over the past year, but that's not going to faze him. The possibilities, the trade rumors, the constant questioning can only take your focus away from your goal, which for Tagovailoa is winning games and ultimately winning a Super Bowl.
"Our goal has always been the same -- you wanna win as many games as you can and as many as you need to be able to get into the playoffs, win your division and get to the (Super Bowl) and try to win that," said Tagovailoa. "I think that's always going to be the goal."