Tua Time, Part I: Belief
The turnaround is remarkable. Tua Tagovailoa is an MVP candidate and the Dolphins are contenders. But how? Go Long flew to South Florida to find out. It all starts with a team's genuine belief.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Everyone hears it, sees it, feels it. This is a quarterback having the time of his football life. A quarterback riding the highest of conceivable highs.
Left for dead. Scorned by his coach. Written off by 99.9 percent of viewers as the guy a team selected instead of Justin Herbert. Yes, that quarterback is an MVP candidate. The Miami Dolphins’ F1 speed bends and snaps defensive coverages weekly. So average on the field, so bland off initially, the quarterback central to the entire operation is now letting loose.
The NFL world is just now being introduced to the real Tua Tagovailoa.
After lacing a blinding money ball to wide receiver Trent Sherfield for a 14-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone to rev Miami’s game vs. the Cleveland Browns into a blowout, there was Tua. Arms flailing Conor McGregor-style, he skipped and sashayed his way toward the end zone to celebrate with a cavalcade of teammates.
He does not shy from MVP talk. “No doubt,” he heard the fans at Hard Rock Stadium chanting “M-V-P! M-V-P!” During a TV timeout. Walking back to the tunnel. Of course, the Dolphins have much bigger goals, but Tagovailoa assured those cheers were flattering. His current odds to win the award are second to only Patrick Mahomes. He does not shy from Super Bowl talk. In a retro Dolphins sweatshirt a couple weeks prior, hood up, he went there: “We’re not afraid to talk about Super Bowls here. Having the opportunity to go to one and hopefully winning one.”
Next, he went there: “I think I’ve grown a lot with the deep balls, huh? Don’t we think?”
His face cracked into a shrewd smile. He nodded. He assured this was a jab.
It’s as if the character of Tua the first two seasons of this show was played by a completely different actor. The difference between a mic’d up version of Tagovailoa with Brian Flores and a mic’up version with Mike McDaniel is hilariously staggering. The prior relationship resembles an employee putting up with his pain-in-the-ass boss two or three words at a time. The latter’s a true partnership. McDaniel, arms crossed, cannot stop telling Tua how well he’s playing toward the end of that Browns win. Tua spontaneously leaps up and down to yell “B-Chubb!” and is informed that Miami has punted two times in three games. He says he can’t wait to flash a zero with his hand for punter Thomas Morstead.
Sights and sounds everyone in Tua’s universe loves.
From Teddy Bridgewater: “He’s done nothing but make progress.”
To Raheem Mostert: “He has that island flow to him.”
To Mike Gesicki: “He leads by his play and he’s able to bring everybody along with him. Guys rally around him.”
To safety Clayton Fejedelem: “As a teammate, he’s everything you could want. He comes in here looking to work every day. It’s been fun to watch him grow as a leader, to really take this team and put it on his shoulders. When he’s on the field the offense is going crazy.”
To Tyreek Hill: “Once he got a coach who truly believed in who he is as a person, who he is as a player, this organization got around him, look at the talent now he’s got around him. . … Media people, I’m saying this to y’all — y’all can apologize now.”
To a new teammate Jeff Wilson: “You all act like you haven’t seen him ball on national TV before. A player will always will be a player. You’re all acting like something changed just because. That’s bull.”
To an ex-teammate, Isaiah Ford, from afar: “The sky’s the limit for Tua. I don’t think you can put a cap on it.”
To the all-timers. Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon sees a completely different quarterback at the podium: “This is a kid who’s really confident about where he is right now.”
And a short drive away, his trainer sounds more like a big brother bursting with pride. Nick Hicks has seen Tua at his lowest. He helped build him up. Like everyone, he cannot wait to see what’s next.
Tua Tagovailoa was always talented. A five-star recruit from the Hawaiian Islands, his introduction to the country was, of course, legendary. Tagovailoa replaced a struggling Jalen Hurts the night of Jan. 8, 2018 in Atlanta and lasered a 41-yard strike to win Alabama the national championship. The live sequence of Nick Saban freaking out over a sack.. to Jalen Hurts walking the sideline… to Tua’s dime catapulted the quarterback’s hype into a new realm, and Tua somehow lived up to that hype the next two years with 76 touchdowns. He dislocated his hip, fractured the posterior wall, the Dolphins made him their fifth overall pick, and… he then entered the worst possible situation for a young quarterback. A dark dimension that didn’t resemble any of the fun we’re seeing in 2022.
During halftime of the 34-3 blowout loss to the Tennessee Titans that effectively ended Miami’s offense, Flores and Tagovailoa had a blowup. (The QB, finally, had enough.)
The head coach was fired. (Hello, Mike McDaniel.)
The supporting cast was revamped. (Hey, Tyreek Hill.)
Now, Tagovailoa is enjoying one of the most extreme turnarounds we’ve seen at the quarterback position.
So… how? How did Tua go from Point A to Point B? A (so-called) noodle-armed bust to a creature straight out of NBA Jam who does not miss? That’s what brought Go Long to the scene of the transformation, South Florida, and his journey serves a lesson for all teams trying to develop young quarterbacks in today’s NFL. Tagovailoa’s 2022 season could change the way all 32 teams navigate the most important position in sports. So much of playing quarterback is up to the quarterback himself. There better be an internal flame that never goes out — Tua has it. Yet this ascent also required the perfect confluence of factors around the QB to accentuate that QB’s most dangerous gift.
McDaniel’s brains. Hicks’ positivity. Tyreek’s speed.
He’s now swaggering, win to win, and yes. Tua Tagovailoa is right.
These Miami Dolphins are Super Bowl contenders.
Start here, at Tap 42, with stories about cookies and college parties and the night this absolutely electric trainer sitting across from you witnessed Tua Tagovailoa’s piss-missile of a touchdown against Georgia. Nick Hicks was at a friend’s house and had already opened up a gym. Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith in overtime and Hicks quietly asked himself, How do I get dudes like that inside of my gym? Was it as simple as sliding into DMs? A personal relationship? There was no singular answer, but he’d get this quarterback in due time.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard from Hicks — founder of “PER4ORM,” personal trainer to Tua, army of one on the tweet machine. When everyone else labeled this quarterback cooked, the man who works with him in the offseason, the man who’s built more like one of those Spanish fighting bulls saw red. He kept telling us greatness was brewing. He insisted he saw something that nobody else apparently did.
Most chuckled, called him a fool, moved along.
Today? Hicks resembles more of a prophet than president of a fan club.
“But not really,” he adds, “because I saw all the work.”
Optimism bursting from every pore, he starts at the start. Hicks landed Tagovailoa in roundabout fashion. Originally, the plan was for Hicks to be the trainer who physically put the quarterback through a program designed by Tua’s primary trainer from afar. The quarterback’s reps knew Hicks through another client, Bears running back Khalil Herbert, and the fact that he was based in South Florida was perfect. It was a rocky rookie season for Tagovailoa, what with the repaired hip and the musical chairs with Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Mom and Dad were in town, they toured Hicks’ gym and agreed this was an ideal laboratory. Hicks? Hell, he just couldn’t believe he was seeing the actual Tagovailoa family from the actual “Tua” documentary in-person. After a period of radio silence, Hicks learned at the eleventh hour that the master plan fell through. He wouldn’t merely be executing someone else’s plans.
Tua, into Year 2, was all his.
First workout? Tomorrow morning. He was understandably jacked. He stayed up nearly all night long jotting ideas down. At 6:30 a.m., Hicks met Tagovailoa for the first time. They had never even spoken to each other before, nor had Hicks ever trained quarterbacks before. Truth be told, Tagovailoa’s reps were trying hard to find someone else before settling on Hicks. He didn’t care. He’d run with this opportunity.
Hicks put a program together for the quarterback and, over time, gained the quarterback’s trust.
Even if Tua Tagovailoa didn’t know it at the time, Hicks was exactly what he needed. A serial entrepreneur. A go-getter who was equally ambitious.
As a college student, Hicks masterfully made $800 a weekend hosting parties. Five bucks got you a solo cup and he was a marketing wiz. If anyone bought him a handle of Captain Morgan (his old go-to), they were exempt from paying the $5 all trimester. After accumulating 25 handles, Hicks went to a hobby store, built a snow-cone maker and, hello. Here’s a rum ‘n coke slushy for $2. At one point, Hicks made cookies for a college roommate who instantly labeled these cookies the best he ever had in his life. Five years later, this friend was laid off from a tech job, said he was moving back to South Florida and insisted the two of them open up a cookie shop. Hicks honestly didn’t know a damn thing about cookies but he learned. He signed a lease for a space. He sent messages to 10 chefs on LinkedIn and one, Max Santiago, got back. They met with Santiago for six hours and, just like that, “Blueprint Cookies” was born.
Hicks now has three locations — in Fort Lauderdale, Plantation and Boca Raton — and his chocolate chip cookie is critically acclaimed.
Life is simple to Hicks.
“Figure it out,” he says, “figure it out.”
When he’s curious, he researches. When he researches, he gains confidence.
With that confidence, Nick Hicks guarantees himself success. After working as the head strength coach at St. Thomas University for three years, Hicks opened up his own gym and then sold “Elevate” to a former business partner. In 2015, his new gym — “PER4ORM” — was born. Running backs became his specialty. Minnesota Vikings back Dalvin Cook sharpens his craft with Hicks. So has Buffalo Bills starter Devin Singletary, whose game reached a new level after they connected, Jerick McKinnon, and J.K. Dobbins. Then, Tua became a client. It was not a matter of if they’d find success together, rather when. This trainer would pour his heart and soul into extracting that gold out of Tagovailoa.
Offseason No. 1 wasn’t about playing quarterback. Tagovailoa needed to get healthy. The duo dedicated the entire offseason to getting Tagovailoa right because, as Hicks says, “his hip was still really jacked up.” This was an injury that previously ended NFL careers. Tagovailoa couldn’t stand on one leg without falling over. Hicks was stunned the quarterback played as well as he did as a rookie, estimating that he was only 60 percent of himself. It was a minor miracle that he was even able to play 10 professional football games.
Strength, stability, isometrics. This was the focus their first offseason together.
“Because you can’t skip over that kind of stuff,” Hicks says. “Oh, we don’t want to work on strength? We’re going to start rolling out and throwing off-platform? Then, the hip decides to give out. Yeah, I want to work on the engine but the f--king tires have holes in them. I can’t do that. You’ve got to start from the ground up.”
As he speaks, one of Hicks’ tattoos stares back at you: a mustache inscribed on the inside of a finger. He got this gem during Cinco de Mayo in ’08. Whenever he speaks with his hand near his mouth, it looks like he’s holding up a ‘stache. He also has his quad tatted by a Buddhist monk once. It’s easy to see how any player would gravitate toward this personality. He’s got the ability to make you want to stop what you’re doing this instant and start a business in a field you knew nothing about six seconds ago.
Tua got right physically. Year 2 arrived. Tagovailoa was unquestionably The Guy.
Then things got… weird.
What we knew was strange enough. Tagovailoa was carted off the field with broken ribs in Week 2 and didn’t return until Week 6. Miami fell to 1-7. Miami was clearly flirting with Deshaun Watson. What we didn’t see was as miserable as you probably imagine. Start with the old-school style. Multiple players describe Brian Flores’ coaching style as “militaristic.” Another refers to Flores as a “dictator” who didn’t want people talking, didn’t want people laughing. Eyes forward. Sit up straight. One veteran who has played for several teams said it was unlike anything he ever experienced. We talked about it here. Obviously, Flores cut his teeth as an assistant under Bill Belichick in New England from 2008 to 2018. He won four Super Bowls. He had a very hardcore interpretation of what an NFL coach should be. Problem is, we’ve seen repeatedly that this style only works in New England.
Remarkably, all of Belichick’s assistants fail when they try copy and pasting this approach elsewhere. They’re knockoffs. It’s a lot harder to convince players that the drill sergeant approach works when you can’t flash the rings.
Many players have many horror stories. Like Josh McDaniels berating players for 20 minutes straight on the same play in a meeting. “He just completely degrades you,” one source says, “and breaks you down and thinks that’s the motivation that works.” Or Darius Slay explaining how he “lost all respect” for Matt Patricia in Detroit. Or Joe Judge making his coaches run laps with players. Flores fit this mold that’s proven to fail. What might’ve worked in past eras doesn’t fly with 20- and 21- and 22-year-olds today. Crushing a player today just may crush that player’s spirit for good. They shut down. They lose confidence. They become a shell of what they once were.
It's no coincidence that these dinosaurs are dying off in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the worst-kept secret at Dolphins HQ was that Flores couldn’t stand his quarterback. In truth, Tagovailoa is abnormal in that he can take hard coaching. His own father would famously put his son through strenuous workouts as a kid. Yet, there was an utter 24/7/365 lack of support from the one person who should’ve been supporting Tagovailoa all along. Flores couldn’t hide his disdain for the quarterback at press conferences and, privately, one player recalls the head coach really ramping up his contempt when the Dolphins officially failed to acquire Watson. During meetings, he could be ruthless.
The boss felt stuck with a quarterback he didn’t want. Everyone could see it.
It's hard enough to play your opponent on Sunday and here was a coach taking a sledgehammer to his quarterback’s confidence.
Warren Moon saw telltale signs from afar. On top of the Watson interest, Moon notes the reports that Flores preferred Justin Herbert from the get-go in that 2020 draft. “Brian didn’t get what he wanted at the quarterback position,” Moon says, “and it started from there.” To win, a quarterback needs to know his coach has his back.
When it’s lacking? “You can feel that,” Moon explains.
He explains life for Tua during the 2021 season perfectly:
“The coaches look at you a little bit different when you make a mistake in practice. They’re not as complimentary when you do something well. They’re more critical when you do something bad. You’ve got to have that. If you don’t, you feel that pressure every day at practice. It’s enough to feel it in a game every weekend going against another opponent. But when you have to feel that every day in practice, like you’re on a job interview every day in practice because your coaches don’t really believe in you and you feel like you have to do everything right in practice, that’s not a great feeling for a quarterback. You want to be able to go out there and go over the gameplan and execute the gameplan in practice and not have to worry about anything else.”
Myles Gaskin, a running back in Miami since 2019, remembers the tumult. Gaskin also remembers Tua’s reaction.
“He took it as motivation,” Gaskin says. “Every guy wants a reason for another chip on their shoulder. That was another one for him, to prove, ‘I’m one of the best guys out here. I’m the guy you want here for the Dolphins.’ And I think he has proven that week-in and week-out. It shows in how he’s played and it shows in how many games we’ve won. He’s hungry for it. That’s the biggest thing.”
Gaskin acknowledges that Flores was particularly rough on the quarterback.
“That’s the only coach I knew,” he adds, “so at the time I didn’t think much of it. I thought it was just the league. Now, it’s a little bit different.”
Simultaneously, the No. 1 pick in his class (Joe Burrow) led the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl and the No. 6 pick (Herbert) led the AFC in passing yards and touchdowns. It was strange to see Tagovailoa a clear tier below this duo because everyone was so accustomed to his ‘Bama obliteration. Dolphins safety Keion Crossen believes it was unfair all along for Tagovailoa to be judged like a vet. Sitting in his locker, he snaps his finger three times in a row. That quickly, NFL teams expect young quarterbacks to excel. As a teammate now, Crossen sees that Tagovailoa is harder on himself than anyone else ever could’ve ever been.
Nobody should interpret the bad blood with Flores as a player needing to be coddled. What makes Tagovailoa special is his diligence.
“That’s his expectation,” Crossen adds. “That’s his standard.”
And, true, it’s at this precise moment so many quarterbacks begin to disappear. Ryan Leaf, possibly the greatest bust in NFL history, always makes an important distinction on his own demise. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that Leaf threw two touchdowns to 15 interceptions as a rookie. His career spiraled out of control because of how he reacted to on-field struggles. He allowed misery to mount. So many talented quarterbacks fall into the same trap. The line between which quarterbacks are special and which bust is far thinner than anyone realizes.
One of Tagovailoa’s close friends on that 2021 team, wide receiver Isaiah Ford, remembers this potential breaking point… and how the quarterback processed it all.
“Going through adversity in the NFL can waver your confidence,” Ford says. “When that happens, you have to remind yourself of what you’re capable of and the work you’ve put in. If you just keep your head down and keep digging, it just turns into football again.
Flores’ obvious pursuit of Watson was a cloud over the team.
“Yeah, last year was…” says Ford, pausing. “There was a lot of moving parts to say the least. I think everybody saw that. Anything we do in life, the adversity you go through — once you get on the other side of them — I think you’re a better person. And a better player for having to go through those things.”
The system was vanilla. Miami relied heavily on RPOs but too often lacked the “R” to create the “P.” Yet as the schedule softened, as Tagovailoa got healthier, the Dolphins reeled off seven straight wins.
Make it nine straight with wins over the Titans and Patriots and they’d miraculously make the postseason.
Tennessee led 17-3 at halftime. Flores lost it. Tua had enough. The two engaged in a heated locker-room confrontation with Tagovailoa (loudly) standing up for himself and his teammates. He told Flores, in so many words, that he didn’t know how to talk to players. The Dolphins lost 34-3, finished 9-8 and Flores was fired for what owner Stephen Ross called “communication and collaboration” issues. When Flores then sued the NFL and three teams (Broncos, Giants, Dolphins) for racial discrimination, the overwhelming consensus in the national media was that the Dolphins were fools for letting such a quality coach exit the building.
While it’s true Flores can coach up a defense — a major factor in Miami’s win streak — many players in the building knew better. Someone had to go: Tua or Flores.
Physically, the quarterback was finally healthy. Miami’s strength staff did a phenomenal job with him behind the scenes. Now, he needed to truly believe in himself again.
His force of positivity in the offseason was lined up. Hicks and Tagovailoa scheduled a breakfast meeting at Kristof’s Kafe in Plantation, Fla. It was now time to attack an offseason as a true quarterback.
His force of positivity for the regular season was now lined up, too. On Feb. 6, the team hired Mike McDaniel.
The tide was about to turn.
Ego is inherent to the occupation. Meet a quarterback who lacks ego and you’re also chatting with a quarterback who better find a new line of work because, damn right, you better feel good about yourself to gun a throw 30+ yards through heavy traffic. With so much speed and strength and athleticism slashing all directions, the dude holding the ball every play needs, as scouts love to say, “some shit to him.”
And yet, there’s also one DNA thread in the quarterbacks who struggle initially before, then, turning it on: A willingness to work.
Which brings us to Kristof’s, to the do-or-die offseason of Tua Tagovailoa’s career. Hicks first asked the QB what he wanted to work on, and the QB was blunt. He rattled off three items: 1) Footwork; 2) Throwing off-platform, grippin’ and rippin’ it on the move left and right; 3) Driving the ball downfield. Nothing in pro football was being ridiculed with more ferocity than Tagovailoa’s arm strength. Hicks then offered his own three points of emphasis: 1) Throwing over the middle of the field; 2) Movement within the pocket; 3) Running upfield. By now, he could deliver tough love himself. Hicks told Tua he was doing a lot more “falling,” than “running” in the open field. His legs needed to strengthen. Even on one run that got Fins fans excited — when Tua trucked Michael Carter II — Tua was falling over. He only blasted through the DB because he had no choice.
Tua agreed. Tua understood the stakes.
Year 3 was it. A new head coach with zero ties to himself was coming to town. His career would either skyrocket or plummet… and if you were to poll the country last offseason? It would’ve been a Reagan-Mondale landslide with only Hawaii and (maybe?) Florida forecasting good times ahead. From the hip to the negative coaching to his own choppy start coinciding with the astronomical rise of Herbert and Burrow, the pressure could’ve suffocated Tagovailoa for good.
“It really could’ve,” Hicks says. “That’s a testament to him. Because he just kept working. He just kept f--king working.”
Because of who Tagovailoa is to his core. He’s genuinely not satisfied after 300-yard, three-touchdown games today just as he was never satisfied with anything as an anointed prospect his entire life, an extension of his Samoan heritage. In the “Tua” doc, his mother explains why Polynesians are literally built to play football and ex-Hawaii coach June Jones points out that you’re 20 times more likely to make it in the NFL if you’re Samoan or from Samoa. His father, Galu, primed Tua for this pressure. From the suite, during games, Hicks is always blown away by Galu’s calm after dynamite plays. Dad nods, looks up at the Jumbotron and calmly points out how Tagovailoa manipulated a safety with his eyes.
Tua’s mentality? Like father, like son. “Never be satisfied,” Hicks says. “Keep working.”
So, they got to work.
From Feb. 1 to middle of March, Tagovailoa attacked arm strength with the same tenacity Josh Allen attacked accuracy Year 2 to Year 3. Allen had Jordan Palmer. Tua had Hicks. What Hicks lacked in actual quarterback experience, he made up for in that relentless motor and curiosity and outside-the-box thinking. He was wired the same way as Tua which, in his mind, guaranteed he’d get the best out of Tua.
One of his clients is Grant Siegel, a baseball pitcher at West Virginia who could be throwing in the big leagues one day. Hicks saw him ripping through a series of warm-up drills one day and asked what this was all about. Siegel told him it was the “Driveline Program,” an offseason throwing regimen that helps increase velocity. Hicks watched him rip through the program, took mental notes, purchased it online and — first — used himself as a test dummy.
His mind was blown. Hicks started throwing the ball effortlessly and decided to use this with Tagovailoa, quarterbackifying the drills. Throwing a football is “tighter,” he explains, than throwing a baseball. Tua slung around a 21-ounce plyo ball. Reverse throws. Single-leg throws. Reverse-pivot throws. The heaviest he’d go is 32 ounces. By aligning arm with shoulders with hips — throw to throw to throw — his arm got stronger. That 16-ounce football started to feel light.
On the field, they focused on four different tosses. One was a “square toss,” in which Tua’s feet were stationary on the line and he rotates and throws. The next was a regular throw in which Tua pushes off his back leg. The third was an “opposite rotational” toss. From his booth here at Tap 42, Hicks demonstrates with a full trunk rotation. Finally, the fourth was an on-rhythm toss in which Tua bounces around… takes a couple steps forward… and airmails the ball as far as he possibly could.
Hicks taps open his phone to replay the progression. The “crazy progressions,” as he puts.
The Week 1 results?
Square: 40 yards.
He replays each throw from his phone as proof and he’s not kidding. Right there are cones lined up in five-yard increments — the increases are legit. Catching the bombs deep is ex-Dolphins receiver Lynn Bowden Jr., who nearly crashes into a back fence hauling in the 71-yard heave. “I mean he f--king got behind this one,” Hicks says. “This is rhythm. You can see him cocking back.” Tagovailoa could’ve retreated to Hawaii. Kicked back. Tua’s a family man who easily could’ve put the sport on pause after such a stressful second season. He did not. And all it took was one month for Tagovailoa to drastically improve his arm strength.
His confidence grew.
“I knew he was going to shake it up,” Hicks says. “I saw all the work. He was just humming it. I didn’t create this monster. I just cleaned and polished the gem.
Then, on March 22, another person entered Tagovailoa’s life right when he needed him. In a Cat 5 hurricane of trade that shook the league, Miami sent a package of draft picks to Kansas City for Tyreek Hill and inked the wide receiver to a four-year, $120 million contract. Approximately 2.3 nanoseconds after this transaction hit Twitter, all of us naturally said the same two words: “But Tua.” What everyone should’ve done is recognize exactly what Stefon Diggs did for Allen’s career in Buffalo. Soon, the Philadelphia Eagles followed the same blueprint in adding A.J. Brown. All three quarterbacks were teetering at the time of the trade. No impartial viewers could declare one way or another where their careers would go. All fits have been perfect. All three players have been discussed as MVP candidates.
Instead of trying to find everything that was wrong in Tagovailoa, the new coach in charge went out of his way to see what was right. Suffice to say, this was a gamble Flores would not have considered. We had a better chance of seeing an actual dolphin run a deep crosser on third and 16 than Flores quadrupling down on Tagovailoa with such a trade.
As it turned out, Tagovailoa possessed a deadly weapon all along. It wasn’t as obvious as Patrick Mahomes’ improvisational magic. Or Lamar Jackson’s breakneck speed that renders linebackers Tyronn Lue. Or Allen’s right arm. Or Burrow’s clairvoyant brain. But Tagovailoa’s superpower — without question — could prove just as demoralizing to AFC defenses: his accuracy. That’s why Hicks is more jacked to show off a different batch of videos: In-rhythm, “level 2” ball. From 35 yards out, there’s Tagovailoa dropping and delivering shots to receivers on a rope. Lasers that’d be perfect for speedy receivers like Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
That’s why Hicks was so vocal for months.
No element of the modern passing game is as overlooked as a quarterback’s ability to hit a receiver over the middle… in-stride. Readers of “The Blood and Guts” may recall the time Tom Brady tried to convince tight end Tony Gonzalez to come out of retirement. They worked out together at UCLA and Gonzalez couldn’t believe how perfectly Brady presented the ball on a silver platter. Yet, at one point, Brady was pissed at himself for not placing one throw six more inches in front of the tight end. In real time, he spit out the math behind it. Those six inches equated to an average of three more yards after catch.
Think of pro football more as a 4x100 Olympic relay race.
Tua doesn’t have a cannon and that’s OK. Very rarely is any quarterback trying to throw a football over the mountains. Especially with defenses doing everything in their power to eliminate deep shots with Cover 2 and Quarter coverages. The greater gift is to hand that baton to a receiver without that receiver slowing down. With Hill? With Waddle? The difference between a ball that forces a receiver to stop vs. a ball that allows the receiver to keep running is the difference between a 15-yard first down and a 75-yard touchdown. Factor in a brilliant X-and-O mind devising ways to unleash this speed and a perfect storm was building as players reported to OTAs. McDaniel understands the acute geometry of 22 players on a field and how various route combinations can stress every possible defensive coverage.
Even with that 50-to-71 gain in arm strength, Tagovailoa wasn’t about to morph into a quarterback who over-relied on his arm. That’s never been him. From high school to college to the pros, he’s never been the sort of gunslinger to fit a throw into triple coverage. Instead, he leans on his smarts. Too often, we hear that a quarterback needed to learn six offenses in six years and we interpret the constant change as a negative.
Hicks quickly saw why this was actually a positive with Tua.
“The way he plays football is cerebral,” Hicks says. “It’s just different. It blows me away. He knows so much football, bro. Think about how much football knowledge he has. Because when you learn an offense, you learn the why’s and the how’s behind the offense. You don’t just learn the offense. You learn a certain scheme and why this scheme’s going to work and how this scheme’s going to work. How lucky is he?”
In April, Hicks met the man bringing Offense No. 6 into Tagovailoa’s world, McDaniel, at the “Luau with Tua” event that raised $45,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Whereas Flores is described as a coach who’d keep individual players in the dark, McDaniel instantly resonated to Hicks as the perfect coach for this quarterback.
“The best thing,” Hicks adds, “that’s ever happened to him.”
No, Tua’s old coach probably is not learning how to play the drums at a luau.
All April, all May, all June, Tagovailoa was a content machine. Football fans didn’t have access to Nick Hicks’ phone, thus didn’t have a clue. When an innocent clip of Tagovailoa throwing a deep ball to Hill was tweeted by the team, the quarterback was mocked to the high heavens. Never mind that Tua was in a bucket hat and that this was, you know, May. The clip generated nearly 7 million views and became the No. 1 sports talking point in America. Right here was all the proof anyone needed.
Hill needed to hit the brakes to catch a Tua pass? Disaster clearly loomed.
Fejedelem noticed how well Tua blocked out the noise then. “Regardless of their credentials and reporting,” he says, “it’s just another guy sitting on a bar stool talking their shit.”
There likely was a tiny speck of cautious optimism bordering on skepticism internally. The Dolphins did sign Teddy Bridgewater to a one-year, $6.5 million pact. Bridgewater, in theory, could run this McDaniel offense the way Jimmy Garoppolo had in San Francisco — if Tua flopped, Miami was prepared. Even running back Raheem Mostert admits he did not expect Tagovailoa to set defenses ablaze. That changed quickly in OTAs when the ex-Niners back was a spectator. Mostert was still rehabbing from his knee injury, thus was able to watch Tagovailoa closely.
Check that. Watch isn’t the appropriate word. Mostert says he was able to “bear witness” that spring.
Maybe part of Bridgewater was hoping to win the job at some point. He’s a proud veteran who overcame the trauma of nearly losing his leg, who has started 64 games, who even made the Pro Bowl. Bridgewater soon recognized that elite trait in Tagovailoa. It’s not just that Tagovailoa is accurate. He wastes zero time spitting the ball out.
“The way he anticipates throws stands out a lot. His anticipation,” Bridgewater says. “It can be difficult for a lot of guys. He makes it look easy. When you add that accuracy with the anticipation, man, how do you stop it?”
Adds safety Clayton Fejedelem: “He’s had talent forever. You’ve seen what he did at Alabama. He’s working with a lot of tools around him. He’s extremely skilled. In the NFL, the jump from the rookie year to your second year is the biggest jump you’re ever going to see. We had a defensive-minded head coach. Now, we have an offensive-minded head coach.”
With each dime, confidence spread throughout the team. Soon, everyone with a microphone was pumping Tua positivity into the atmosphere.
On the very first episode of his podcast, aptly titled “It Needed to be Said,” Hill broke the Internet when he said Tagovailoa was more accurate than Mahomes. We all assumed he was trying to take a shot at the KC quarterback and/or needed to be drug-tested pronto. A slight this extreme had to signal bad blood in KC. Few paused to wonder if Hill was on to something, if Hill was… God forbid… correct.
It was simple to Hill: Mahomes had the stronger arm and Tagovailoa was more accurate.
To recap, here’s what Hill said:
“He’s that dude, bro,” Hill said. “I’m not just sitting just saying this because he’s my quarterback now. I’m not trying to get more targets right now, but what I’m trying to say is Tua is that deal, bro. He has a heck of an arm, bro. He’s accurate. He can throw the deep ball, and he actually goes through his reads, where people on Twitter saying, ‘Oh, he doesn’t go through his reads.’ Man, this dude is that dude.”
“I want it to hit me right in the breadbasket, just like I did in the Buffalo Bills game and take it 70. And the rest is history. It needed to be said.”
“I love the deep ball, but guess what though? I expanded my game. So now I’m doing a lot more than just the deep ball now. I’m doing intermediate routes. I’m doing short routes. So now I actually need a guy who can just get me the ball now, on a dagger route, on a corner route, on a shallow cross route. Right now, right in my chest. So I can do the rest. I make you look good now.”
“I just want people to understand I went for 150 with Matt Moore as my quarterback. … I love Matt Moore, but Tua T is 10 Matt Moores.”
On “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz,” McDaniel added more fuel to the fire in saying Tagovailoa threw “the most accurate, catchable ball I’ve ever seen.” Through 17 years as a coach, McDaniel was an assistant with the Denver Broncos when Jake Plummer won 13 games, the Washington Redskins during RGIII’s banner rookie season, with the Atlanta Falcons during Matt Ryan’s 2016 MVP season, and also spent time with Kirk Cousins and Garropolo. As an avid Denver Broncos fan — and ball boy — he grew up on John Elway. Given a chance to backtrack, McDaniel paused, genuinely contemplated the question again and affirmed this was the truth.
Players noticed. McDaniel had their back.
Tight ends Durham Smythe and Mike Gesicki don’t have anything negative to say about Flores but do note how this head coach’s door is always open and that he doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach with everyone. McDaniel treats players on an individual basis. If he needs to get after someone, he will. If he needs to encourage others, he will.
“I think that’s the No. 1 strength a coach can have at this level,” Smythe says. “He’s a personable guy. He likes to keep everyone engaged by keeping it fun. When you have that atmosphere, it makes it easy to go up and talk openly. … When he’s getting on people, he’s good about complimenting before — ‘we know you can get this done.’ Maybe he’ll make a joke about it. There’s always a reasoning behind what he’s doing. But he presents it in a unique way to where everyone is laughing or engaged and having fun with it.”
Winning equates to joy. That’s the (strong) argument those hardened by Belichick always make. When Miami won seven in a row last season, Gesicki notes, football was fun. Yet, McDaniel displayed a knack for making the workplace much more enjoyable. Through the spring, whoever was named the practice player of the day wore an orange jersey the next day and got to pick the music playlist that blared over the speakers. This fed camaraderie. Instantly. Because if you’re in that bright orange jersey — and any of the 89 players on the camp roster dislike your taste — you’re going to hear all about it.
Adds Gesicki: “He’s always in a positive mindset. Whether it’s the first meeting in the morning at 7 a.m. or the last one the night before the game on Saturday night. He’s got good energy and it’s contagious to the guys.”
McDaniel brought an offensive mind to the top of the Dolphins hierarchy, too. He cleared Tua’s mind. The hype built. And, into training camp, a different Tua clip went viral. A 65-yard touchdown that was viewed 3 million times and, as Mostert says, “shut the critics up.” When Tagovailoa was asked about the public’s fascination with his arm, it was clear his confidence was growing.
“People don’t think I can throw the ball far,” he said. “I would say that’s the fascination. Like, ‘Wow! He can throw the ball!’ Kind of hard to be in the NFL if you can’t throw the ball, right?”
Hill was starving for YAC. Waddle was set to face inferior corners. Mostert got healthier.
The stage was set.
It was Tua Time.