The Thread: All eyes on Tua Tagovailoa

No player faces more pressure in 2021 than the Dolphins QB. It's time for a huge Year 2 jump. Also, OC David Yost on all things Jordan Love and why the Titans should go all in on Julio Jones.

One year ago, the pressure was palpable in Western New York. The Buffalo Bills went all in on a quarterback who finished dead-last in completion percentage because they believed, because they saw something skeptics did not.

The calculated gamble was that star receiver Stefon Diggs would take Josh Allen to the next level and, of course, that gamble paid off.

Buffalo won its first division title since ‘95 and reached its first AFC Championship Game since ‘93. Allen was an MVP candidate and Allen just may deliver a Super Bowl title to this Super Bowl-starved city. Belief can backfire, as the Bills experienced the previous 20 years. But belief can also pay off in a big, big way. Such was the premise of our two-part story to launch Go Long back in late November. No QB in the NFL faced more pressure in 2020 than the swashbuckling Allen, especially considering the team’s owner himself loved Patrick Mahomes before anyone else.

Fast forward one year and you don’t need to look far for which quarterback is facing the most pressure in 2021.

It’s the quarterback piloting the Bills’ longtime nemesis in Miami: Tua Tagovailoa.

This offseason, the Dolphins took a page out of Brandon Beane’s playbook and quadrupled down on a polarizing QB. They didn’t do everything in their power to land Houston’s Deshaun Watson back in February, when a trade for all parties made so much sense. (Things have obviously changed since then.) Nor did the Dolphins stay at No. 3 overall to select their choice of Trey Lance, Justin Fields or Mac Jones. They instead let a superior quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick walk in favor of the non-threatening Jacoby Brissett and continued to load up on weaponry.

Now, Tagovailoa will be expected to lead a legitimate contender.

Now, Tagovailoa will be expected to win that 37-34 shootout vs. Allen in the AFC East. Can he? His game was numbingly simplistic as a rookie. Something straight out of N64. Whenever the rookie was on the field, it seemed as if the Dolphins retreated to an ultra-elementary playbook and, it turns out, that’s exactly what they did. While Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert asserted themselves as franchise quarterbacks who can process the game at a high level, Tagovailoa… underwhelmed.

Yet similar to the Bills, the Dolphins are doing everything in their power to put their young quarterback in a position to take a quantum leap forward. It’s the whole chicken vs. egg debate in pro football: Does the QB elevate everyone else? Or can everyone else elevate the QB? And, like Allen, can Tagovailoa substantially improve his own game or are his deficiencies permanent? It’s clear that GM Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores are all, all, all in on the quarterback they selected one year ago. The Bills concocted the perfect recipe and the Dolphins believe they have as well. By no means is this a declaration that Tagovailoa will set the league ablaze but even the most ardent Tua critics — guilty as charged here — have to think the 23-year-old has a legit shot to elevate in a huge way this season.

There sure seems to be more hope now than there was at any point last season.

Start with those weapons.

DeVante Parker has been one of the most underrated receivers in the NFL. His four-year, $40 million contract is worth every penny. Jaylen Waddle has true star potential and played with Tagovailoa at ‘Bama. Miami was able to trade down and still find a thoroughbred. Will Fuller is one of the league’s best deep threats. For one season, that’s $10.6 million well spent. Lynn Bowden Jr. shared his surreal side of the Raiders story last week at Go Long. He fully expects to bust out this fall. And then there’s Preston Williams and Jakeem Grant and Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson and, hey, Mike Gesicki is one of the best receiving tight ends in football.

It’s on the quarterback to now get these playmakers the ball. There’s zero excuse for Tagovailoa, especially after his unbelievably honest admission last week. You never hear starting quarterbacks speak with such vulnerability, so kudos to Tagovailoa for such candor.

The Dolphins QB admitted to local reporters that he was not comfortable calling plays as a rookie.

“I just didn’t have the comfortability of checking plays, alerting plays and doing that,” he said. “I just rode with the play, even if I knew it wasn’t going to work. I was going to try to make it work still.”

He then explained further.

“I didn’t actually know the playbook necessarily really, really good and that’s no one else’s fault but my fault,” Tagovailoa said. “Our play calls were simple when I was in. I didn’t have alerts and checks. Where now, I feel comfortable and I can maneuver my way through these things now.”

When you hear something like this, there’s certainly an urge to write Tagovailoa off for good. My mind first raced back to (the immortal) Billy Joe Hobert getting cut by the Bills in ’97 after he admitted he didn’t know the playbook. Yet the more you think about it, the more a comment like this should actually give Miami hope into 2021.

This all suggests there is another gear to Tagovailoa’s game. I kind of love the fact that Tagovailoa is so tough on himself. We all saw how dinky and dunky he played as a rookie. The fact that he’s owning this all instead of trying to put some PR spin on it to make people feel warm and fuzzy inside is a great sign. With all of these weapons, Tagovailoa should now theoretically cut it loose. As Bowden said, the QB played a little “scared” at times. But when he grips it and rips it? Bowden believes Miami can win “every game.”

Miami did everything in its power to recreate what Tagovailoa had at Alabama.

The catastrophic hip injury is further in his rearview.

The training wheels must be removed and trashed for good to reveal exactly what Tua Tagovailoa is.

What should rightfully concern anyone drawing Allen-Tua parallels is style of play. Allen’s numbers weren’t pretty in Year 1 and Year 2 — no starter was more inaccurate — but he was at least going down swinging. He was unafraid. He tried knifing passes through slivers of windows. That’s not exactly what the Bills saw the previous three years with Tyrod Taylor. The difference between “good” and “great” is a willingness to hit that deep comeback and that improvisational, on-the-run fastball across your body with one linebacker hanging from your leg.

This raw brand of quarterbacking is rare and undoubtedly one major reason the Green Bay Packers drafted Jordan Love 26th overall in 2020. If you see glimpses of Allen, of Mahomes in a QB, you roll the dice on that QB.

Tagovailoa? He didn’t resemble anything close to this in completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards with 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and an 87.1 rating last season. He looked and played small. Now, we can all agree that there’s at least hope that was not him. If he truly didn’t know the playbook — if he truly wasn’t audibling to that game-changing bomb deep on third and 3 — we could see a totally different Tagovailoa this season.

And… he has all of those weapons.

And… the man who’s been around Tagovailoa every day for the last four months — trainer Nick Hicks of PER4ORM — truly believes a new body will lead to a new quarterback in ‘21. Hicks says Tagovailoa got down to 10 percent body fat this offseason while adding muscle. Possibly, that wrecked hip affected Tagovailoa more than anyone knew.

“You have to understand what he went through,” Hicks says. “He had one of the worst injuries we’ve seen. Then, he got surgery. Then, he rehabbed. Then, as soon as he got medical clearance — and it doesn’t mean you’re that healthy — he had to do the Pro Day. He did OK at the Pro Day. Then, he went to the draft. There’s no rookie camp, no minicamp, no preseason. He’s not training and not lifting. The kid never really worked out or had any kind of program that he’s been on ever. So, it’s all brand new to him — training. The results are going to speak for themselves come September.”

This is true, too: To have confidence to change those plays and drive the ball downfield, a quarterback needs confidence in his body. It doesn’t sound like Tagovailoa had that as a rookie.

At all.

Hicks estimates Tagovailoa was “60 percent healthy” as a rookie.

“If your lower body is weak,” he says, “and it’s not explosive and you feel asymmetry, throwing a football is not going to be pretty because throwing a football starts from the ground up. From the feet to the hip to the trunk to the shoulder to the hand. It’s a kinetic chain.

“It’s going to be stressful. It’s going to be nerve-racking. You’re going to be very indecisive with each play called because you’re worried about your body. Our goal was to eliminate that this offseason and build him into this strong, bulletproof athlete that can withstand the 17-game season.”

Admit to Hicks that you wrote Tua off last season — that this looked like a passive quarterback who simply is what he is — and Hicks is quick to fire back. He cites Tagovailoa’s numbers and the fact that he went 6-3 with two game-winning drives. Hicks believes there were signs of “Tuscaloosa Tua.”

Yet then he adds that Tagovailoa himself would actually be the first person to agreewith such harsh criticism.

“He’s going to say he did not play well,” Hicks says. “That’s reality of the situation. I can sit here and say Josh Allen had a worse year and Peyton Manning had a worse rookie year. Nobody’s talking about that. All of those guys bounced back. Tua understands that but Tua also knows that he’s going to have a better year this year because he’s going to be more prepared.

“I think he’s going to have a Pro Bowl-caliber season.”

Behind Door No. 1 could be a quarterback who improves exactly as Allen did, a quarterback who lights it up with all of his new toys on offense. Or this could be a quarterback who’s forever average, a quarterback who clearly benefitted from 5-star talents all around him in college that can never shake that passive wiring.

The Dolphins are betting they’ve got the former. In three months, the truth will be told.

If they’re right? The AFC East will be a lot of fun.

OC David Yost on Jordan Love: “He’ll be ready to go”

The great unknown in Green Bay remains 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love. If he’s the real deal — if you’re confident the Utah State QB is everything you wanted — then the decision is fairly easy for GM Brian Gutekunst.

You let Aaron Rodgers walk. You take your picks and players and refuse to be held hostage.

After our piece on why the Packers should let the Love era begin ran, one coach who knows Love incredibly well called back: Former Utah State offensive coordinator David Yost. He sure has a unique perspective as someone who also coached Justin Herbert at Oregon. Here’s Yost on the similarities between the two QBs and why he believes Love will excel in the NFL.

Whenever we turn on the TV right now, the consensus seems to be that Jordan Love is a bust who couldn’t beat out a second-team quarterback.

Yost: For Jordan and how the offseason was, it kind of gave him a redshirt year to learn. I text him every now and then to see how he’s doing. He said he learned a ton. It’s been a great experience. He’s been able to ask a lot of questions, take a lot of notes, learn it, see how it’s supposed to look, see how it’s possible. I know at Utah State, he took full advantage of when he wasn’t the guy. As far as not just sitting there and losing attention in the meeting room. When I showed up in January that first year, he knew the offense as well as anybody in the quarterback room. And he had just been there the previous spring when he graduated early, and he had been on scout team. He knew exactly what they did on offense that year. So, he didn’t just drift around. I’ve been in those meetings before where you waste that year on a guy if he’s not playing, if he’s not a guy you’re game-planning for. I’ve seen a lot of those guys on scout team. It’s like they get nothing out of that year. What I imagine he did when he got to Green Bay was, “This is my role. This is where I’m at. I’m going to learn everything I can and go forward.”

Similar to Rodgers through ’05, ’06, ’07, up until that Cowboys game on Thursday night, we just haven’t seen it yet. And until you see it, he is this mystery. There are going to be doubts. Seeing him up close, where is your confidence level that Jordan Love can be a really good NFL quarterback?

Yost: “He’s extremely talented. And he has all the stuff you need to be successful. The big question I got last year because I worked with both of them was ‘Herbert or Love?’ They’d say, ‘Who would you pick?’ And I said, ‘Either one. They’re both high-, high-level guys. They’re great people. They’re students of the game. Their work ethics are right. And their physical talents are what you need to be able to work with. They can both throw the football. They’re both athletic and can move. So, I didn’t think Jordan was far off of what Herbert was — if at all. Justin went early and got thrown into the fire by total accident, and then played his tail off. Now, they’re ready to build statues for him.

I think if Jordan had to go into a game last year or he had to play this year — understanding their coaching staff is going to put him in a position to be successful and they’ve got a lot of other players — he could have. I find it funny… I listen to sports talk radio quite a bit. The national radio. I thought the Packers ‘hadn’t done enough to get to the next step.’ I guess the front office had a better evaluation of what they had than the sports talk people. They had good players. And then Aaron Rodgers played at an unbelievable level. Well, all those guys around him helped him play at that level. They were good up front. They were good at the receiving corps. They were good on defense.

How are Justin Herbert and Jordan Love different? How are they similar?

Yost: There’s a lot. They’re both really, really athletic. They’re more athletic than they get credit for. They’re not Lamar Jackson-type of guys but they both can move and get themselves out of trouble. They’re big, athletic guys who have great arm talent. Everything about Jordan was how well he could throw the football. The different ways he could throw the ball. That’s what Herbert was able to show last year, even more so than when I was with him at Oregon. Everything was how strong his arm was and then you could see how accurate he was with it down the field. That’s what Jordan did for us when I was at Utah State. He was able to throw the ball and knew exactly where that ball was going to go. And it wasn’t just all the under 10-yard passes. It was a lot of vertical throws and him getting a rapport with his wideouts where it’s “I can back-shoulder this. I can take this outside. I can bring him in on this.” He did that. I think there are a lot of similarities in that they’re big, athletic guys that can get you out of trouble. But also, his strong suit is his arm talent.

They’re leaders of groups. When Jordan took over, it was his team. As a redshirt sophomore, he was definitely the leader of the offense. Justin was the same way. Neither are big talkers. But when they did say something, everybody listened.

His first year, it seemed like every time we put Jordan in that huddle, there was a feeling in the other 10 guys, “Here we go.” They were just waiting for him to take off. He wasn’t the starter at the time, but you just had a feel that “This guy’s really good.” And that was an older group of kids. The next year, he was a sophomore and they were most all seniors around him. He led the group. They knew he was a player. … When he first got drafted, you’re sitting there thinking, “It’s going to be a while.” Now, with everything that’s happened, it could be sooner than anybody thought it was going to be. I know he’ll put himself in position to be the best player he can be. If he does have to replace the MVP of the league, a Hall of Famer, that’s not an easy task. But Aaron Rodgers had to do it with Favre. It happens at a lot of places.

Maybe Jordan is really good and we just haven’t seen him. People say Jordan being a gamer — and him reacting on the fly — is his best quality. You’re not going to see that necessarily on the scout team. You’re not going to see it in any kind of setting until he plays a game. How would you describe that element of his game?

Yost: I think guys play for him. They know he’ll give them the best opportunity to win so it just picks up around him — “Hey, we have the right guy with the ball in his hands.” And then he has an even-keel to him. He’s not rah-rah, screaming. He’s flat-lined. Like, does his heart rate ever really get going? You don’t get that from him. The guys around him know he’s always kind of cool. Herbert was very similar. You never knew if he was excited or not. If it was a touchdown or a pick, he looked the same. And with Jordan, if he made a great play or didn’t make a great play, it wasn’t the end of the world and there were never any arms up and down to show it wasn’t his fault. The body language of the quarterback — if you don’t make the play, are you willing to take responsibility for it? Even if somebody else did something wrong?

We lost a game to Air Force and Jordan gets hit in the end zone when he’s trying to make a throw and it gets tipped and intercepted. It was the turning point of the game and we have to drive down in 2-minute. He ends up having a throw that doesn’t get caught and definitely had a chance to get caught. After the game, he thinks he lost the football game for us. It wasn’t, “If he had blocked better for me or if he had caught that, we would’ve won.” Which I think his teammates around him understood he’d never point the finger at anybody else. He started with himself and what he could do to help the team out. He was going to take responsibility. It helps rally the guys around him to show you’re part of the team and you’re not “The Guy” and it’s never his fault.

You’ve spoken with him. Is he in a good place right now?

Yost: He’s super excited. I think he’s in a great spot. So much of their offense and their staff is back. He’s going to get more and more comfortable with their offense and he’s a smart kid. He’s going to add to his database of information on what they do and how they do it. And he had a great guy to learn from.

Whenever Jordan gets his opportunity, he’ll impress a lot of people. I don’t know if he’s MVP-worthy from Day 1 but it’ll be scrutinized that way. And that’s part of the deal. He understands that. He’ll be able to battle through that. This first year of not getting thrown into it — out of anybody — he would’ve taken full advantage of every ounce of information he could’ve gathered to make himself a better player. So when it does come, he’ll be ready to go.

Julio Jones should be a Titan

We spent plenty of time ripping the management of one AFC team last week so it’s worth noting one front office that does a phenomenal job: the Tennessee Titans. A franchise forever stuck in mediocrity is poised to make a Super Bowl run in 2021.

The Titans weren’t afraid to draft a player who utterly dominated the college game — Alabama’s Derrick Henry — and, in time, created an offense that allows him to dominate the professional game.

Ryan Tannehill has enjoyed one of the most impressive career renaissances we’ve seen.

Kevin Byard is arguably the best safety in football.

The team wisely paid up for one of the best edge rushers on the market: Bud Dupree.

Now, the missing piece is available: wide receiver Julio Jones. How does anyone defend this offense with Jones on the field? Sit back in a two-deep shell to defend Jones and A.J. Brown and Henry may rush for 300 yards. Load the box up to stop Henry and you’ve got two physical freaks out wide eating up man coverage. Tannehill may not be Patrick Mahomes but he has proven he can hit receivers that are singled up with ease. He has completed 67 percent of his passes in going 18-8 as the Titans starter with 55 passing touchdowns, only 13 picks and another 11 rushing scores.

That’s more than enough proof to know it’s worth going all in on Jones to win right now.

The Atlanta Falcons apparently want a first-round pick and players. That’s a steep price for a 32-year-old receiver, with 135 career games, who’s likely seeking a new contract. Not sure I’d go to that extreme but GM Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel should come close. If any receiver can defy age and play into his late 30s, it’s Jones. He didn’t resemble a fading star last season, either. In nine games, Jones averaged 86 receiving yards per game with the best catch rate of his career — 75 percent.

The bigger risk is not going all in when you have a legit shot at a title.

No doubt, the man both Robinson and Vrabel once worked for, Bill Belichick, is lurking.

No Huddle

  • Early signs point to the Packers calling Rodgers’ bluff. As of now, they still have zero desire to trade the league’s MVP. We’ll see. I’d still be shocked if he reports to minicamp. And if he doesn’t? If he makes it clear he’ll sit out training camp? The organization will need to reconsider.

  • The Vikings are heading… in the right direction? Maybe so. The fact that GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer (stuck in their ways for quite some time) wanted Justin Fields at No. 8 overall and then took Kellen Mond in the third round at least suggests they see the same Kirk Cousins we all see. A good sign long term. The Vikings also snared the hidden gem in this year’s draft: Iowa State’s Kene Nwangwu. Got into this and more with Matthew Coller over at Purple Insider right here.

  • Take: Carson Wentz is going to win Comeback Player of the Year and threaten to win a Super Bowl. The Colts attacked their playoff moment back in mid-February and they won’t regret it. This sure sounds like a rejuvenated quarterback — Wentz plans on getting together with players between offseason workouts and training camp, too. Surrounded by some of the worst starters in the NFL last season, Wentz is now handing the ball off to a bull of a No. 1 back in Jonathan Taylor and has the support of a top 5 defense. Hey, I’m no gambler but I’d throw a few dollars down on the Colts if I was you. Those odds are enticing.

  • Be on the lookout for a Q&A with former NFL safety George Teague Friday AM. What a fun conversation. Few players in the game have had as many iconic moments as Teague. His beef with Terrell Owens lasts to this day, too.

  • Ben Roethlisberger took a pay cut to stick around Pittsburgh for one more run and said he’s approaching 2021 like he approaches every season — “like it’s my last.” The Steelers collapsed down the stretch but let’s not forget that the old man was pretty good up to that collapse. Through an 11-0 start, Roethlisberger threw for 2,800 yards and 25 touchdowns with only six picks on 67.5 percent passing. The problem in Pittsburgh wasn’t the QB, rather the anemic rushing attack. Alabama’s Najee Harris is a massive upgrade. The Steelers will be right where they are every year, in the thick of the AFC playoff picture all season long.

    While I get that it’s never smart to clutch to a Hall-of-Famer past his prime, what would’ve been Pittsburgh’s Plan B? Andy Dalton? Jameis Winston? Dwayne Haskins? All teams picking late in the first round every April face this same transition challenge. Which is also why Gutekunst traded up for Jordan Love.

  • Tim Tebow is trying to make an NFL roster at tight end. Good for him.

  • Peter King of NBC Sports is our special guest on this week’s Zoom Happy Hour. All log-in info is right here. Man, I cannot wait for this one.

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