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Tua Time, Part II: The Takeover
"Tua’s not scared of shit. He’s not scared of anybody." His confidence is back. Now, there's only one thing left for the Dolphins quarterback to do: Get this team to the Super Bowl.
Miss Part I? Read “Belief” right here.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Go ahead and cocoon your original take in denial. Rationalize. Credit the coach. Fawn over the receivers. Praise everyone around the quarterback in a circuitous criticism of the quarterback.
Nothing changes the reality that Tua Time is here. It’s real. And Tua Tagovailoa has been permanently locked in since that breakfast with Nick Hicks at Kristof’s Kafe.
The public knows very little about this quarterback because, for starters, he’s fiercely private. He was visibly pissed when news of his marriage to his college sweetheart leaked and this quarterback doesn’t speak much beyond mandatory press conferences. No podcast tours for Tua. Nor was he in the headlines for all the reasons other QBs were all offseason: Ayahuasca trips, sleeping with a mom’s best friend, homework clauses, 11-game suspensions, missing 11 days of training camp with “a lot of shit going on” and, hey, there’s Mr. Unlimited himself filming creepy Subway commercials. (Barf.)
Some of the closest people to Tagovailoa barely hear from him from camp on. His phone’s known to collect thousands of unread text messages. Yes, thousands. It’s never personal. People within the inner circle themselves often need to physically drive to Tua to talk to Tua about a document to sign, an upcoming event, etc., simply because he’s locked in such tunnel vision. Hicks, his trainer, believes Tagovailoa would rather not even have a phone.
The 2022 season began — Mike McDaniel’s offense was finally unveiled — and the NFL was not ready. In Week 2, Tagovailoa took a blowtorch to Baltimore’s 35-14 lead in the fourth quarter, throwing for 469 yards on 36-of-50 passing with six touchdowns. At Tap 42, as he polishes off some BBQ ribs, Hicks holds his cell phone over the table to replay the touchdown that kickstarted the comeback: Tua’s TD strike to River Cracraft. They practiced this same exact move, a spin escape rolling left, at PER4ORM through the offseason. The resemblance is uncanny.
Miami stunned the Buffalo Bills.
The last three weeks, the Dolphins have scored 105 points.
This is what it looks like when an athlete is in the flow state i.e. the zone. Tagovailoa is 100 percent immersed in a sensation of total focus, total enjoyment of an activity.
“He never gets too high but he never gets too low,” Hicks says. “He stays right in the middle the entire time. You ride this wave as a pro athlete to the point of, ‘Oh my God. Tua is leading the league in everything. He’s killing it.’ All that’s going to do, if you succumb to that, is sink below that line because you get a little complacent. You get a little content. But if you keep feeding the fire, the fire keeps getting hotter and hotter and hotter. That’s the thought process. There’s always things we can get better. Be humble. Be appreciative. Understand that it’s not just you, and take the attention off of yourself. We’re never going to reach perfect but we’re going to strive to it. That’s his Dad’s thought process: Work hard. Get better.
“Everyone’s happy right now. But this is not where they want to be. Kobe mentality. Job’s not done.”
All spring and all summer, teammates were able to “bear witness,” as Raheem Mostert put. Finally, it’s everyone else’s turn to see that super power that’s been hiding all along: that anticipation, that accuracy. To recap, Tagovailoa is 7-0 in games he has finished. He leads the NFL in passer rating (118.4), and it’s not close. Geno Smith is No. 2 at 108.0. He leads the NFL in yards per attempt (9.1), and it’s not close. Jalen Hurts is No. 2 at 8.3. He’s only been sacked eight times. He has thrown 18 touchdowns to three picks. He only trails Smith in completion percentage (71.0).
Hall-of-Famer Warren Moon likens this leap to Josh Allen.
Only more extreme. It’s time to rethink quarterback development.
Nowadays, the general public expects QBs to tear it up immediately and we can thank 2018 Patrick Mahomes and 2019 Lamar Jackson for that impulse. Being patient for the sake of patience is foolish. The New York Jets are correct to bench Zach Wilson after playing so poorly 20 starts in, let alone his striking lack of leadership after an all-time dreadful performance. But if there’s an elite trait inside your quarterback and an inner drive that’ll bring that trait to the forefront, patience is a must. Support is a must. Once the stars aligned, Tagovailoa started treating NFL defenses like SEC defenses all over again.
Both factors must work in conjunction. Quarterbacks past have torn up the college ranks, too. But guys like Johnny Manziel, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young and Ryan Leaf lacked the drive to attack their weaknesses like Tagovailoa did Year 2 to Year 3.
Tua fixed what needed to be fixed, as we covered in Part I.
When Moon watches these 2022 Dolphins, he now has flashbacks to the San Francisco 49ers of the late 80s and early 90s. Specifically to another lefty — Steve Young — surgically decimating defenses underneath.
“Those type of quarterbacks know where to go with the football immediately,” Moon says, “and get it to the receiver in a position where he can run after the catch. That’s what Tua’s doing in this offense and he’s only in his first year in it. It’s going to be scary what he does next year.
“They’re looking for YAC yards. They run a lot of shallow crosses and deep over routes. Routes where the receiver is running away from the defensive back so if you put the ball right in front of him, in stride, he’s going to make those 40-, 50-yard plays off of a 10-, 12-, 15-yard catch. That’s the way that offense is designed.”
Moon piloted a different type of offense, the Houston Oilers’ Run and Shoot, but can relate to the hot hand. Three decades ago, he threw for 4,600+ yards in back-to-back seasons which — carry the 2, multiply by 5, account for the league’s mission to soften the sport — equates to roughly 14,600+ yards in today’s game. The mentality that you’ll never, ever, ever miss when the ball leaves your hand is such a special feeling. Moon refused to let the ball hit the ground during Friday practices. Everything was sharp. Precise. And he's sure that’s the state of mind Tagovailoa is in right now.
“I bet when you go to his practices,” Moon adds, “you don’t see the ball hit the ground. He knows where to go with it.”
Yes, the accuracy is jarring. Like that strike to Trent Sherfield vs. Cleveland. Or all the needles threaded to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The last three games, Tagovailoa has completed 77 percent of his passes.
Yes, the X’s and O’s are dizzying defenses. At times, it appears Tagovailoa is throwing the ball to space. Not even a player. One second, the ball’s in his hands. The next, it’s triggered into the vacant pocket of a defense, and in swoops Hill or Waddle. Other times, both receivers are running deeper routes that put defensive backs in lose-lose situations: Do I carry 10 on this go route or pick up 17 on the crosser? There’s a good chance Hill eclipses 2,000 yards and Waddle hits 1,500. Absurd.
Tight end Durham Smythe shakes his head.
“Honestly,” he says, “I don’t know what I’d do as a defensive coordinator. You can try to double them but if that doesn’t work, what do you do?”
Adds Hicks: “Tua’s knowledge base right now is above and beyond everybody else in the NFL, and you can see it. Like the way he’s sitting at the line of scrimmage and he’s moving people with his eyes — Read 1, 2, 3, back to 1 — it’s wild, man. He throws the ball to a space. I’m like, ‘Where are you throwing it!?’ And here a guy comes to catch it and he turns upfield. It’s really unbelievable. He’s playing at a level I personally didn’t think he could get to this quick.”
Yes, Tagovailoa is tough. Far tougher than anyone realizes.
The concussion was a grisly sight. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, his head hit the turf, his fingers locked up as a neurological response and both the Dolphins and the NFL were raked over the coals for Tagovailoa even being on the field that night. Regardless of our opinions on the reported “back injury” the game prior vs. the Bills, we can all agree that it takes a different temperament to step back onto the field after such a chilling ordeal. A temperament he shields. This kind, ultra-religious family man doesn’t want to be known as an aggressive person and yet, naturally, Tua Time is revealing his gnarly side. When he returned to action against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tagovailoa took off downfield and lowered a shoulder directly into a tackler.
His complete absence of fear made millions of viewers cringe. But that’s him.
That’s the fighter Hicks saw on the punching bag at the end of workouts. Tagovailoa would slip mitts on and resemble a world-class boxer.
After initially describing his quarterback as “chill,” as “a typical Hawaiian guy,” Mostert makes sure we don’t get it twisted.
“He’s definitely a tough guy. He’s hungry.”
And yet for all of his tangible qualities — the fireworks that could propel Miami to its first Super Bowl since 1984 — none of it’s possible if he doesn’t regain his confidence. This is a quarterback who traded a horror show for a dream. Brian Flores and misery for Mike McDaniel and bliss. Teammates echo each other: Tua is having fun. Like a kid back in Pop Warner. Smythe cites a “linear progression” since 2020 and says that line is now jetting straight upward because his confidence is soaring. Too often, we’re obsessed with the schematics of the sport. We need to see it to believe it. Thy All-22 must deliver all answers. Thou DVOA must neatly organize a very complex, very human game onto a spreadsheet.
We saw a small quarterback playing small and justifiably drew conclusions.
Well. About that.
Much like the transformation of an entire team, there’s a mental dimension to the sport that NFL owners are starting to realize they must value. The Minnesota Vikings replaced an old-school coach with Kevin O’Connell — kept Kirk Cousins and the same core in place — and now sit atop the NFC North at 8-2. They just shook off a 37-point defeat to beat the New England Patriots on Thanksgiving Night. The New York Giants ditched Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge for Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll and are 7-4. Daboll is most certainly a coach who checks the “treat people right” box and the effect is real Player 1 through Player 53.
Especially at the most important position: Quarterback. Tagovailoa transformed back into the player he was always meant to be out of Hawaii.
“Everybody in this organization has bought into him,” Smythe says, “and obviously surrounded him with the best receivers in the NFL. He’s always been trending in the right direction but I think this year is different because of his confidence.
“That’s overlooked by people on the outside because you do want to break things down schematically. Did he get his job done? X’s and O’s. Things like that. But if you can be confident in yourself — whatever it takes to get there, the organization believing in you, better players around you, you being more prepared — that’s when everybody plays their best. Tua has always had the talent. From college and high school. You can see that. But now his confidence is as high as it’s ever been.”
Isaiah Ford, the quarterback’s friend who played receiver with the Dolphins last season, is not shocked one bit. He sees a quarterback who’s exactly what Moon describes.
One who is decisive with every decision, every throw.
“He’s playing the game freely,” Ford says. “He’s not doing a lot of thinking. He’s subconsciously letting his habits — the work he’s put in — take control of his game. Every throw he makes, he thinks is going to be a completion. Most of the time it is.”
Production like this, at quarterback, raises the bar. If Tua’s ball is never hitting the ground, receivers never want to drop it. Backs don’t want to miss their blitz pickups. Linemen want to keep him clean. Running back Myles Gaskin believes everybody in this locker room is striving to be “as close to perfect” as humanly possible and that the spike in confidence has given Tagovailoa more ownership of the offense. He sees the quarterback telling receivers exactly how he wants routes run, a quarterback declaring: “This is my team. This is my offense. This is mine.”
The result is a feeling — by everyone — that Miami is never out of a game.
And before any talk of a gameplan, a coach and a quarterback must establish trust. This was obviously (and painfully) lacking before. Now? It’s the foundation for these 2022 Dolphins.
It’s not complicated. Most NFL players seek answers to questions. They’d prefer the sport stripped of its screaming and intimidation and Varsity Blues-like high school football BS. McDaniel is an answer man who values collaboration. He’s always explaining the why behind play designs to Tagovailoa and welcoming input because the No. 1 goal is to maximize what each individual does best. The moment Tagovailoa was sold on his new head coach? When Miami lost its first game to Cincinnati.
Because that’s when you see a coach’s “true colors.”
“The guy’s been the same person,” Tagovailoa explained. “He’s never changed. Never gotten mad. It’s just always, ‘What can we work on?’ Things we can fix. And you look at two more times we ended up losing. Same dude. I would say he won the trust of me, the guys in the locker room, and also the guys in the organization. Everyone feels free to come up to his office. Everyone feels free to be around this guy and say whatever they feel like they can say and be themselves.”
A gauntlet looms. After hosting the hapless Houston Texans this weekend, Miami hits the road for three straight. First, McDaniel faces his former boss: Kyle Shanahan and the peaking San Francisco 49ers. Next, it’s the quarterback selected right after Tua: Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers. Finally, on Dec.18, they’ll travel to frigid Orchard Park for a rematch with the Buffalo Bills. A town still digging itself out of 80 inches of snow. After getting fried in the South Florida humidity, the Bills will be eager to pull the Dolphins into their sub-zero world. We’re about to learn everything we need to about these Miami Dolphins and their 24-year-old quarterback.
Cold playoff games are a near-lock, too. Kansas City. Cincinnati. Baltimore. Foxborough. Orchard Park.
Everyone mocking Tagovailoa back in May over a practice throw will get loud again. That’s how sports opinions work. The nonbelievers will see a golden opportunity to reaffirm what they were barking all offseason long.
Hicks tried to warn us then.
Hicks warns us again.
“Tua’s not scared of shit,” he says. “He’s not scared of anybody. And he’s on a confidence wave right now to where he doesn’t give a f--k.”
Work your way around the Dolphins locker room and it’s apparent Tua Tagovailoa is not alone in the DGAF department. Swagger’s contagious like that. When a quarterback’s riding high, he’ll take others with him. As Moon says, “Tua and Tyreek both have swagger and it’s rubbing off on the rest of the football team.” You’ve seen the peace-signing, backflipping Hill and waddling Waddle take up residency in the end zone. But as the calendar turns — as Tagovailoa’s fearless “Super Bowl” expectation becomes more realistic — there are two other direct beneficiaries of Tua Time that’ll make this a dangerous team in heat, sleet, wind or snow.
Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson.
The two locker mates are feeling liberated, just like their quarterback. Mostert and Wilson give McDaniel what he seeks on that play diagram. As defenses have no choice but to shift four or five defenders toward those two receivers, lanes are bound to gash open in the run game.
Yet, like Tua, their motivation runs deeper.
Start with Mostert, a pro’s pro who was cut six times before starring as San Francisco’s lead back. We met for steak ahead of the Super Bowl a few years back and his unbelievably compelling story is made for HBO. From shooting himself in the toe… to a father shooting his half-brother four times… to losing his beloved mentor, “Chop,” in June 2019, Mostert’s lived it all. After going off for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game that same year, he should’ve remained a core piece with those 49ers. He did not. He suffered a knee injury last season, disagreed with the team on how best to treat that injury and signed with Miami in free agency.
Asked if this offense is better than that one, Mostert looks around.
“We have way better talent here,” he begins. “It’s going to get spooky.”
Mostert uses every pink slip as motivation, keeping a list of all teams that ditched him on the Notes app in his phone. Every time he faces one? “I’ve got to turn up,” he says. “Former employers? They’ve got to come see about me.” He confirms that the 49ers have absolutely worked their way onto this list considering how things devolved last year. With Wilson to his side, he adds, “Me and ‘Jefe’ are gonna go crazy.” It’s hard to imagine how a smart franchise like the 49ers could allow two quality backs like this to exit the building, but they did. He gets it. In the NFL, business always comes before feelings.
He’s thrilled to join forces with Wilson, and in case you didn’t hear him the first time? He smiles. He laughs. Mostert again assures he and Wilson are about “to go crazy.”
Similar to Tagovailoa, it took a frustrating 2021 to reach this point.
The first game of last year — a contract year — Mostert ripped cartilage off of his left knee. After getting an MRI, he had options and says the 49ers told him he could return in eight weeks “with a hole” in his knee. Scoping and such. He didn’t like the sounds of that, instead opting for a more extensive surgery to rehab the knee fully. This exact tug of war happens all of the time in pro football. Thinking back, cornerback Stephon Gilmore wishes he would’ve spoken up to the New England Patriots when they rushed him back from a quad injury. Linebacker Za’Darius Smith didn’t like how the Green Bay Packers handled his back injury.
Teams putting pressure on players to set their long-term health aside and hurry back is more common than we realize.
“It isn’t right,” Mostert says. “And it’s up to the player to step up and say, ‘This isn’t right. I don’t think this is the best of my interest.’ Sometimes, you don’t get that with players. But, for me, that was my case. I knew exactly what I wanted. I knew exactly how I’d handle the situation. I knew exactly — coming off of rehab — what I needed to do in order to get back on the field.”
After so many nicks throughout his turbulent NFL career, Mostert wanted to be as healthy as he possibly could. Knee injuries can render running backs sad, slow reincarnations of what they once were. You’re often deemed damaged goods. Replaceable. Sent to the Goodwill bin in favor of someone younger, healthier, with much less mileage. Mostert weighed all pros and all cons when he decided to sit out the season. He knew how much he was risking — the decision absolutely pissed the 49ers off — but he also knew how hard he would work.
When free agency hit, he believes the 49ers used his decision against him.
“Yeah, they did,” Mostert says. “They definitely did. I moved on from the situation. I have the opportunity to see them.”
With Miami, with McDaniel, with what he labels “a perfect team, perfect position, perfect everything.” The main objective was for Raheem Mostert to become Raheem Mostert again. The same player who lit up that NFC title game. Half-assing a procedure just to stay on the field might’ve had him hobbling the rest of his career. His game is speed and Mostert wanted to do everything in his power to get that speed back — he has the second-fastest NextGen time ever recorded. As he adds: “It paid off. I’m here.” The trainers in Miami were familiar with this injury and, month to month, Mostert’s health gradually improved. There’s still discomfort. Mostert admits he has a long way to go. But that signature speed is returning. Once McDaniel sensed Mostert was becoming Mostert again — he’s up to 662 total yards and four scores on the season — the team shipped fellow free-agent acquisition Chase Edmonds to the Denver Broncos in a package for defensive end Bradley Chubb.
“You just have to take a leap of faith,” Mostert says. “That was my thing: Take a leap of faith. Be strong-minded. My mindset was to attack rehab.”
Now, yes. He gets to face those 49ers in one week. He’s not alone, either.
Wilson soon joined him via midseason trade.
After the 49ers acquired star Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers, Wilson asked out. Nearly every running back in NFL history believes they deserve more touches. Wilson, however, has an ironclad case as the sport’s most disrespected back. When a player like this decries “politics” and “Instagram followers” and begs evaluators to simply turn on the tape to realize he’s better than more household names — as he does in our chat — Wilson actually has a point. Undrafted out of North Texas in 2018, all Wilson has done is epitomize everything Shanahan could want out of any of his players. From the practice squad, the barren depths of the roster, Wilson worked his way up to the No. 4 spot… No. 3… No. 2… and the occasional No. 1 to gain 1,532 yards on 323 carries for a whopping average of 4.7 per carry.
Nonetheless, Shanahan refused to delete the Running Back Tinder app on his phone and kept swiping right.
“They had to make a business decision,” Wilson says, “and I had to make a business decision. Yeah, there’s love and relationships around here. But at the end of the day, it comes down to business. People are going to do what they’ve got to do. That’s what it was with both parties. No hard feelings. It could’ve gone the other way. A year or two ago, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. I just kept my mouth shut and took it. Just like they spoke out about that, I can do the same.
“Even a blind man could see what we’re doing. They’re still a great team. I’m not taking anything away from the 49ers. They’re one of the best teams in the league. I’ve been around them. I’ve practiced with all the players. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what’s best for you. I’ve got a family to feed. I’m the first person to make it in my family, so I have to do what’s best for me.”
Wilson took matters into his own hands and — like his pal Mostert — ended up in Miami. The passing game’s been so blistering hot that we forget McDaniel rose to coaching fame as the Niners’ run-game coordinator. Wilson raves about his intelligence and is sure McDaniel was a key cog in building the scheme itself. Simply put, he’s happy again. Like Tagovailoa, he gets to play for a boss that truly believes in his talents, his worth.
Authenticity is what he appreciates most. McDaniel isn’t trying to be anyone he’s not.
“He knows how to connect,” Wilson says. “He just knows the modern-day world. Times change. It’s not like the old days. He connected with us on a professional level and a personal level. Relationship-wise. He’s still the same guy. I’ve seen it firsthand. He’s still the same guy, the same cat. And people are going to gravitate toward being genuine. He’s always going to be real. Ever since I’ve known him, I ain’t seen him change. He’s still the same person.
“They have something special here and I’m just blessed to be a part of it.”
Ironically enough, the disciple (McDaniel) is now relying on two backs the teacher (Shanahan) grew tired of. Maybe Shanahan is proven right to think Elijah Mitchell isn’t that different than Mostert or Wilson. Maybe his big swing for McCaffrey is the move that gets the 49ers back to the Super Bowl.
“You think you’re upgrading,” Mostert says, “but, honestly, you’re getting rid of staples. That’s it. Staple pieces. I have an opportunity here.”
There’s no need to wish Wilson well against his former team on Dec. 4.
“I ain’t need no luck!” he says. “I don’t need no luck!”
Slide that popcorn into the microwave, friends. Miami-San Francisco will be fun and, who knows, maybe the two organizations even square off in a rematch of the ’84 Super Bowl.
The 49ers’ rushing attack is a menacing operation. Honestly, it’s unfair how the igloo-built Trent Williams moves in open space. And the reason why George Kittle is the true gold standard at the tight end position is that he’s liable to crack back on any of the 11 defensive players any given play. Shanahan took what his Dad built to a new level, creating devastating blocking angles within the zone-blocking scheme. But what both running backs here lost in San Francisco’s mighty offensive line, they gain in lighter boxes.
They gain in what they believe is a much more dynamic offense.
The reason is obvious: Tua Tagovailoa.
“We have a quarterback,” Mostert says, “who can actually sling it.”
This new 1-2 punch in the Dolphins’ backfield will help plow the offense through the winter months. Smythe points out that improving the rushing game has been a point of emphasis as this season grinds on. They’re all starting to pick up the complexities of the scheme and Moon, for one, could not believe Miami added Mostert and Wilson. (“That’s stealing!”) But if the Dolphins, the 49ers, any NFL team has learned anything, it’s that this is still a quarterback’s league. Oh, it’s possible Miami keeps winning and forces those AFC teams to play in their sauna of a stadium. Moon wouldn’t be surprised if Miami won the division and earned some playoff games at home.
Yet, the Hall-of-Famer is also perplexed by the noise building up all over again.
Didn’t everyone learn their lesson the first time?
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Let’s see what he does when the weather gets bad,’” Moon says. “Everybody wants to tear him down because a lot of people didn’t have a lot of faith in him when he came into the league. So they’re looking for every reason that maybe he’s going to fail. Now, they’re pointing to the weather getting cold and if he has to go outdoors. Is his arm strong enough to throw in the wind? So he’ll answer those questions, too, because again they’re not asking him to throw these big balls down the field. He’s still going to throw the same kind of balls he’s throwing now. He throws a tight ball and he throws an accurate ball. If he continues at this pace, he’s going to be right in that MVP discussion.”
The Super Bowl is the bar in Miami. Tagovailoa told us that himself and, no, we have not heard that from quarterbacks in South Florida since Dan Marino retired 23 years ago. To win it all, he knows it’s up to him more than anyone else in the building. Every quarterback does. Using those magic words reflects all pressure back on you.
And, really? That’s fine by him. He welcomes it. He surely remembers the battles with Flores, the training with Hicks, the reps with McDaniel.
Asked why he took it to this extreme, Tagovailoa zoomed out. Offseason. OTAs. Camp. So much goes into a statement like this.
“Why shy away from that?” Tagovailoa said. “We’re not afraid to talk about that here.”
If he was before, he certainly is not now.
Where Tua Time goes from here is completely up to him.