#TankForTua

Image via phinphanatic.com

The Miami Dolphins have been one of the more intriguing franchises during the 2022 offseason.

Headlining all of their moves was a blockbuster trade to acquire Tyreek Hill. The former Chief will bring elite production and athleticism to a Dolphins offense that ranked just 25th overall last season. Acquiring Hill wasn’t cheap (5 draft picks and a $120 million contract), but he’s one of the NFL’s few non-quarterbacks who can single-handedly raise the ceiling of an entire offense.

While the Hill trade garnered the most headlines (for good reason), his acquisition was just the tip of the iceberg:

It’s obvious Miami’s number one priority this offseason was revamping the offense.

In theory, this spending spree drastically improved their talent level on that side of the ball. Throw in a new, offensive-minded head coach in Mike McDaniel, and the Dolphins are going to be a very different team in 2022.

While it may appear as though all of these changes occurred suddenly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. To best understand what Miami’s intentions were this offseason, we first need to go back in time and look at the roots of a bigger picture plan.

In 2019, the Dolphins served as a primary example of how tanking has made its way into the NFL.

Heading into the season, the Dolphins’ front office didn’t have the intention of being competitive. They traded away some of their better players — Ryan Tannehill, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Robert Quinn, etc.— in exchange for draft picks and the hope of greener pastures in the future. The most groundbreaking of these moves came when they traded starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil to the Houston Texans:

The haul the Dolphins received in this trade laid a great foundation for their future, but it came at the expense of their current roster.

These future assets provided a reason for long-term optimism, but Miami understandably struggled when they had to… ya know… ACTUALLY PLAY FOOTBALL.

In their first game of the season, the Dolphins suffered a 49 point blowout loss to the Ravens. This beatdown was followed by a 43 point loss to the Patriots, a 25 point loss to the Cowboys, and 20 point loss to the Chargers.

Based on point differential, this was the worst start in NFL history.

The craziest part is, this was all ok.

After enduring six years of the Ryan Tannehill era, the Dolphins craved something better. They desperately wanted to raise the ceiling of their franchise, and they determined their best chance at doing so was by first descending to the very bottom of the NFL.

One of the primary reasons Miami was willing to be bad was because it would (in theory) put them in a better spot to upgrade the quarterback position. The easiest path to success in the NFL is via a star quarterback, and in 2019 there was a young quarterback at Alabama — Tua Tagovailoa — who was garnering a lot of buzz.

Tagovailoa was such a highly touted prospect that fanbases were hoping their teams would lose games just so they could be in a position to draft him.

#TankForTua became a trending topic on Twitter, and the common belief was he could serve as the savior of an NFL franchise immediately upon arrival.

The Dolphins embraced the tanking mentality, and Tagovailoa became an integral part of their blueprint for long term success. Miami intended to press the reset button and position themselves to build around Tagovailoa (or another rookie) who they would draft in 2020.

As the season went on, the losses continued piling up and the Dolphins were in prime position to land the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. Then something strange happened.

They started winning.

After an 0–7 start, the Dolphins won 5 of their last 9 games. Their turnaround was unprecedented, and they became one of the NFL’s feel-good stories. Head Coach Brian Flores had the team playing like a legitimate NFL franchise that inspired further optimism for their long term plans.

The downside of Miami’s late-season surge was it pushed them down to the #5 overall pick in the draft. Luckily for them, Tagovailoa’s draft stock dipped due to injury and the ascension of other prospects, and he ended up falling to the number 5 spot. The Dolphins wasted no time making the pick as they rushed to the podium, selected Tagovailoa, and never looked back.

With an exciting quarterback, a promising head coach, and plenty of assets at their disposal, the Dolphins were ready to start winning for real.

Fast forward to today, and the Dolphins have yet to make the postseason with Tagovailoa at the helm.

They’ve been a solid team — winning 10 and 9 games respectively — but they’ve been far from spectacular. When comparing them to the other teams who drafted quarterbacks in 2020, Miami’s return has been underwhelming. Tagovailoa’s viewed as at best the 3rd best quarterback in his draft class, and some pundits have already written him off. However, the moves made by the Dolphins’ front office this offseason indicate they still believe he’s a winner.

Unfortunately, this belief led to some internal tension.

Brian Flores didn’t share that same level of optimism. He didn’t believe the Dolphins could win meaningful games with Tagovailoa under center, and he wanted to obtain a clear upgrade at the position by trading for Deshaun Watson. This disconnect forced the Miami front office to choose between quarterback and head coach, and they ultimately went with Tagovailoa.

There may have been other factors that led to Flores’ firing, but Miami went through a lot to get Tagovailoa in a Dolphins uniform and they weren’t going to give up on him prematurely. Instead, they pushed their chips to the center of the table and went all in on him.

After years of stripping down their roster and collecting assets, the Dolphins started putting winning football players around their quarterback.

In particular, the aforementioned Tunsil trade reaped great benefits. The 2021 first rounder they acquired from Houston wound up being the third overall pick, which was then used to acquire even more assets:

This time however, many of those assets were used for immediate help.

The number 6 pick turned into Jaylen Waddle, San Fransisco’s 2022 1st rounder became the premier asset used to acquire Tyreek Hill, and the cap space that would have gone to Tunsil was used on left tackle Terron Armstead. Getting rid of Tunsil may have been a tough pill to swallow initially, but Miami’s willingness to take a short term loss back in 2019 looks like it’s paying dividends now.

What Dolphins’ fans now need to ask themselves is, was this all worth it?

In addition to the recently acquired players, the arrival of Head Coach Mike McDaniel provides further reason for optimism in Miami.

From a stylistic perspective, McDaniel and Flores couldn’t be more different. Flores was a fiery coach who’s made his way up the NFL ranks on the defensive side of the ball. McDaniel on the other hand is a relaxed guy who many view as an offensive guru.

McDaniel rose through the NFL ranks under Kyle Shanahan’s wing where he learned from the esteemed head coach in Washington, Cleveland, and most recently in San Fransisco. The expectation is he’ll run a Shanahan-style offense in Miami which could be great news for Tagovailoa.

Much like San Fransisco’s offense this past season, Miami’s new offense will likely feature plenty of misdirection, motions, jet sweeps, screens, and more to constantly stay a half step ahead of their competition. These were common features in San Fransisco’s offense, and they allowed star players like Deebo Samuel and George Kittle to get open in space and wreak havoc with the ball in their hands. Both Samuel and Kittle ranked near the top of the league in yards after catch in 2021, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hill and Waddle emulate that same success in Miami.

Deep speed may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Miami’s electrifying receiver duo, but their talents go far beyond running fast in a straight line. Both Waddle and Hill finished the season inside the top 20 in YAC last year, and alongside one another they should only be more dangerous.

On paper, the Dolphins have the potential to be one of the scariest offenses in the entire league. The biggest factor that will ultimately make or break their season will of course be quarterback play.

Heading into year three, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about Tagovailoa. His supporting cast is stacked, the new offensive scheme should fit his skillset perfectly, and he’s now got a few years of NFL experience under his belt. Plus, in this offense he likely won’t need to play like a superstar. If he can be a rich man’s version of Jimmy Garoppolo, Tagovailoa should be able to find success rather easily.

Given their respective playstyles, the Garoppolo and Tagovailoa comparison makes a lot of sense. Looking at their 2021 statistics helps highlight their similar styles of play:

Data via Pro Football Reference

Both quarterbacks were near the top of the league in completion percentage (5th and 6th), but near the bottom of the league in air yards per attempt (22nd and 30th). These stats support the narrative that both Garoppolo and Tagovailoa were relatively conservative passers. While this style of play may be frowned upon by some, it’s perfectly acceptable in their respective offenses.

One of the main reasons Garoppolo’s dink and dunk approach worked well last year was because of how dangerous his receivers were after the catch. On a per catch basis, Garoppolo finished 1st in the league in yards after catch, while Tagovailoa only ranked 30th.

Enter Mike McDaniel and Tyreek Hill.

One of the main reasons Tagovailoa was so successful at Alabama was his ability to let the stars around him shine bright. Accuracy and decisiveness were two of his most impressive traits, and these skills should translate perfectly to the offense he’s expected to run in 2022.

The hope is McDaniel and Hill’s additions will help recreate a similar atmosphere in Miami. If this happens, Tagovailoa’s numbers should improve without a drastic change to his play style. He can continue quarterbacking the offense like an NBA point guard, and the improved situation around him should lead to better results.

This style of play may not be what every fan, coach, or GM dreams of, but it can still lead to success.

While Tagovailoa’s ceiling may never reach the tank-worthy heights Miami envisioned back in 2019, he can still be one of the NFL’s most valuable assets. He’s entering year three of his rookie contract and he’s slated to make just $8.3 million this year, and $9.6 million in 2023 — a relative bargain for a starting caliber NFL quarterback. Compare this to Patrick Mahomes cap hits these next two years ($35.8 million and 46.8 million), and it’s easy to see how Tyreek Hill wound up in Miami.

For all intents and purposes, Hill was a budget cut in Kansas City. He wanted to become the game’s highest paid receiver, and Miami was in a much better position than Kansas City to make that happen

The Dolphins hope that one day Tagovailoa forces them to run into this same problem. If Tagovailoa turns into a $40+ million quarterback who becomes the face of their franchise, they’ll gladly deal with the financial repercussions when that time comes. For now though, they’re simply stacking the deck around him and betting on their ability to win while he’s still cheap.

However, there still are plenty of questions about this plan that need to be answered.

Is Tagovailoa worth this investment?

Was McDaniel the right hire?

Will Hill’s play start to decline as he approaches his age 30 season?

In Miami’s eyes, the answers are all positive.

If they’re wrong about even one of those questions though, this whole thing could collapse like a house of cards. In today’s NFL though, that’s the risk you have to take.

Gone are the days when the slow and steady approaches are proving to be fruitful. The last two Super Bowl winners (the Rams and the Bucs) are evidence that aggressiveness in team building is becoming a requirement for postseason success.

The question is, was this the group Miami should have gone all in on?

It’s possible that sticking to their long term plan was the smart move, but it’s also possible they were simply being stubborn.

Flores was a very highly touted coach, and he may have been right about Tagovailoa’s limitations. There’s a chance Tagovailoa never evolves into a quarterback capable of winning playoff games and this whole process turns into an abject failure.

#TankForTua was a great idea in theory. It provided fans with a reason for optimism and it gave the front office a chance to start from scratch and build a brand new winning football team. The problem is, theories only go so far in the NFL.

One thing is for certain though. Following the 2022 season, the Dolphins will have a definitive answer to the Tagovailoa question. We’ll quickly find out if the front office was right to gamble on their quarterback, or maybe it’ll be Brian Flores who ends up with the last laugh.

If Tagovailoa winds up being successful, this whole plan will have been worth it. If he’s not though, he’ll be out of excuses and it won’t be long before the next #TankFor_______ movement starts up again in Miami.

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