Tua Tagovailoa is the talk of the NFL after during Thursday night's Dolphins-Bengals game. Everyone from external doctors to the NFL Players Association is regarding the quarterback's health and, more specifically, the league and team's management (or mismanagement) of it. Tagovailoa is reportedly in " " after head and neck injuries left him all but motionless Thursday, and his well being transcends the game. But what's next for his team? Where does Miami go from here?
There's the legal aspect of that, of course, with both the Dolphins and the NFL under fire for permitting Tagovailoa to take the field just four days after a shot to the head left him dazed and hobbling in Week 3. On the field, however, it's also fair to wonder whether Miami's path to a potential AFC East title is now spoiled. After starting 3-0 under new coach Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins now have their first loss and, more importantly, are without their starting signal-caller.
It's often dire anytime a starting QB goes down, but in this case, Tagovailoa's absence is even more notable, considering how much McDaniel tailored his 2022 strategy around the former first-rounder. For crying out loud, one of McDaniel's chief priorities taking over the job was, restoring his confidence and crafting an offense that fit his strengths. Now, not only is Tua sidelined indefinitely, but his scary departure is -- fairly or not -- a reflection of McDaniel's oversight.
Regardless of how strongly McDaniel is convinced the Dolphins and NFL followed proper protocols to protect Tagovailoa, the fact is his quarterback was badly battered in a four-day span, and now he has to lead the locker room as if it didn't happen. That kind of thing won't show up on the box score or the depth chart, but it most certainly matters in projecting where the Dolphins go from here. Can McDaniel and the rest of the club move closer together, in transparency, during this time? Or will they grow apart, in suspicion and distrust? The answer to that question probably means more than what happens under center in the interim.
Not that the QB spot is unimportant. It's Teddy Bridgewater's time for the immediate future. Miami committed $6.5 million guaranteed to Bridgewater for precisely this kind of situation; Tua had a relatively extensive injury history even before this year, and Teddy has become one of the league's best-traveled veterans in recent years. It's unclear how long Tagovailoa might be out with his latest injuries, but considering he was hospitalized with signs of brain trauma while already battling a back issue (and now is the subject of league-wide medical controversy), it's probably safe to assume he'll be back later rather than sooner.
The real question then, if you're a Dolphins fan: How big is the drop-off from Tagovailoa to Bridgewater? Unfortunately, the answer is muddled by the fact we only saw just over three games of the McDaniel version of Tagovailoa, a marked improvement from the 2020-2021 version. Tua's calling card has always been pinpoint short-area throws, but this year, he certainly appeared more willing to pull the trigger on deep shots with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at his disposal, even if he made his money with precision passes. Not only was he slinging it accurately, completing almost 70 percent of his throws, but he was as efficient as he's ever been in the NFL, averaging nine yards per attempt while at one point leading the league in aerial yards.
For reference, Tagovailoa last: an ascending, productive starter whose ability to sustain success over a full year remained unclear.
Bridgewater, like Tagovailoa, has leaned conservative in his approach as a quarterback. Compared to the three-game sample size of 2022 Tagovailoa, however, he might be even more conservative. One of countless vets with serviceable, not special, talents at the position, Teddy is a prototypical backup: more than capable of making all the short- and mid-range throws, but troublesome as a full-timer. He'll keep you in games, but he'll rarely win them for you, as evidenced by every one of his career stops -- in Minnesota (17-11), in New Orleans (5-1), in Carolina (4-11) and in Denver (7-7).
Fortunately, McDaniel's offense is still geared for that style. The coach, remember, hails from San Francisco, where the 49ers deployed Jimmy Garoppolo not as a weapon so much as a system figurehead: do your job, and mostly stay out of the way, keeping the ball flowing to the running backs and yards-after-catch targets like Deebo Samuel. In somewhat of an ironic twist, the Dolphins offense we see moving forward, with Bridgewater at the helm, might look more like the McDaniel offense we expected to see out of the gate, with lots of screens, motions and other short stuff to the shifty guys out wide. The biggest beneficiaries may well be in the backfield, where Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds carry more importance.
The best-case scenario, from a football perspective, is for Tagovailoa to return as quickly as possible, ensuring Miami gets both the proven accuracy and the upside of the improving downfield attack. But we've already seen that strategy, of hurrying Tua back under center, produce horrific results. In the meantime, the Dolphins can at least rest easy knowing their schedule is actually quite favorable. They rank 26th in terms of remaining strength of schedule, meaning their scheduled opponents are the seventh easiest in terms of 2022 performance, which could bode well for at least a wild-card run alongside the high-powered Bills.
Here's what's next for the Dolphins: at the Jets after a long week, home against the Vikings and Steelers, at the Lions, Bears and Browns, home against the Texans after the bye, at the 49ers, Chargers and Bills, home against the Packers, at the Patriots and home against the Jets. Only four of those teams currently have winning records.
|Dolphins' remaining schedule||Opponent|
at Jets (1-2)
vs. Vikings (2-1)
vs. Steelers (1-2)
at Lions (1-2)
at Bears (2-1)
vs. Browns (2-1)
vs. Texans (0-2-1)
at 49ers (1-2)
at Chargers (1-2)
at Bills (2-1)
vs. Packers (2-1)
at Patriots (1-2)
vs. Jets (1-2)
The longer Josh Allen headlines the Bills and Bridgewater fills in for the Dolphins, the more likely Buffalo is to claim the AFC East lead and recrown itself a conference favorite. But the games left suggest Miami should remain in the mix. And McDaniel is smart enough to adapt. When it's all said and done, the Dolphins should survive as part of the playoff picture. Their ceiling certainly lowers with the change at QB, however, and that's not even beginning to address the bigger-picture concern: Tua's long-term prospects.