Miami coach Brian Flores took some heat when he decided to hand the reins to rookie Tua Tagovailoa as the Dolphins were in the thick of the playoff hunt. Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, and whether or not they make the playoffs, how Tua develops will tell the story.
I'm a week late to the Tua/Fitz analysis in Miami but it's been such a polarizing decision I feel it's worth delving into. First, I will say I'm all for the move. Brian Flores did a very difficult thing but I believe it's the best move for the team both in the short and long term. He benched a popular player who by all accounts was the ideal teammate in order to get a rookie the work he needs to develop. With the Dolphins in the midst of a two-game winning streak, the timing made it even more difficult but ultimately it will pay dividends. Miami made it three straight with a home win over the Rams with Tua Tagovailoa at the controls. He did little more than stay out of the way in his debut, throwing for less than 100 yards. It was the defense and special teams that did all the work, accounting for three of the four touchdowns in the 28-17 win. But Sunday's results have little to do with why the move was necessary. Tagovailoa will struggle and the defense won't always bail him out. But Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn't going to lead Miami to anything more than he'd already done – which was a .500 record and the periphery of the playoff hunt.
Before we continue I'd like to clear up some apparent misconceptions about Fitzpatrick's play in 2020. I've seen several references to how well he's played. Yet the facts show he's been the same mistake-prone journeyman backup that he's always been, throwing interceptions at an alarming rate. He tossed seven interceptions in his six starts and was 3-3. On what planet does that represent great play? He and Dolphins destroyed San Francisco on the road in Week 5. Otherwise he beat the Jags and Jets and his play was uneven in most of the games. There also were a lot of comments worrying about how the locker room might take such a move. Veterans potentially being upset with the perceived step backward. Well, based on one game there didn't appear to be any signs of disgruntled veterans as the Dolphins defense and special teams were outstanding. All it takes is a modicum of success to keep the boat moving in the right direction. Flores understands that in order for the Dolphins to make any more progress they need better play at quarterback. If Tagovailoa proves worthy of his lofty draft status, he will get the training he needs and should be able to keep the Dolphins in contention. If he's not ready yet and costs the team games, he will still benefit from the experience gained and be that much further along when he opens the 2021 season as the starter. Either way Flores isn't interested in squeaking out wins and becoming playoff fodder with Fitzpatrick, who has never been to the postseason during his wildly overrated career for what it's worth. Flores knows that in order for Miami to continue to improve and become a contender, it will take dramatic improvement at quarterback and he's banking on Tagovailoa to deliver. It's a risky move but I respect Flores' desire to advance the Dolphins beyond the also-ran status Fitzpatrick represents.
Tua Time II
Moving past Flores' decision to move toward the future with Tagovailoa, let's not write the rookie off because he was a mere sidecar on his first game. The numbers – 12 for 22 for 93 yards and a touchdown – showed he did very little. He was also sacked just once and lost a fumble on the play. But he didn't need to do much as the game unfolded with offense coming from a variety of other places. It reminded me a bit of how Pete Carroll worked Russell Wilson in slowly back in 2012 when the Seahawks relied heavily on one of the best young defenses in football. In Wilson's first four starts he never passed for more than 160 yards and had four touchdowns and four picks as Seattle went 2-2. It wasn't until Week 6 against the Patriots of all teams that Wilson started showing signs of greatness as he passed for 293 yards and three touchdowns. He was eventually given more responsibility and the Seahawks finished 11-5. Tagovailoa has a long way to go and much to prove, but his style is similar to Wilson's, particularly his pinpoint accuracy, elusiveness in the pocket and diminutive stature. If he winds up being anything close to Wilson, the Dolphins will be in great shape moving forward.
Confession time: I hate division games. Seriously. Nothing bores me more than Cowboys-Eagles or Packers-Bears, and almost always in prime time. Just because teams have played like 1000 times doesn't mean it's great to watch. But there are some exceptions, and we watched one Sunday in Baltimore with the Steelers and Ravens. Those two teams always seem to play great football and both are almost always in the playoff mix. And the games almost never disappoint. Sunday was the latest example with the Steelers rallying late to remain perfect with a 28-24 win.
Lamar Jackson continues to both electrify and disappoint for the Ravens as he tries to build on his MVP season. He flashed both on Sunday, but ultimately turned the ball over four times and allowed Pittsburgh to escape with a victory in a game largely controlled by the Ravens. With the game on the line Jackson appeared to lose faith in his throwing ability and tried to run for a first down inside the 10 on both third and fourth down, getting stopped each time. The Steelers-Ravens theatre is almost always memorable with a great mix of hatred (some scuffles and ejections – Matthew Judon) mixed with mutual respect. The latter was on display when Baltimore's standout tackle Ronnie Stanley was carted off the field with an ankle injury as Pittsburgh players, notably fellow Notre Dame alum Stephon Tuitt, prayed by his side and offered condolences. Unlike most, this division rivalry is worth the investment every time.
The 49ers-Seahawks matchups don't have the history of Steelers-Ravens but it has had its share of moments as well and is another division rivalry usually worth watching. Remember the Richard Sherman-Michael Crabtree battles back in the day, as well as last year's incredible end when Jacob Hollister was stopped less than a yard short of a winning touchdown on the final play of the season, allowing the Niners to emerge with the top seed in the NFC. Sunday's latest installment fizzled beneath the balky ankle of Jimmy Garoppolo, who once again was unable to finish. The Niners had some momentum early but a Garoppolo pick cost them a chance to score first, and then after taking a 7-6 lead the Niners allowed the Seahawks D.K. Metcalf to take over.
Seattle won going away but the bigger concern in San Francisco has to be Garoppolo and his health. He's missed significant time in his career with shoulder, knee and ankle injuries which have cost him 17 games and knocked him out of four others. Kyle Shanahan has to be wondering if Garoppolo is capable of withstanding the rigors of an NFL season as he decides his future. And now reports indicate that the quarterback will sit out the next six weeks due to the ankle. At this point he's started just 32 of a possible 49 games, and the Niners season is hanging by a thread in the ultra-competitive NFC West.
Kudos to Joe Buck and Troy Aikman and doing the unthinkable and questioning Sean Payton's late-game clock management. The Saints had a first down at the Bears 11 with 1:40 to go in overtime and Chicago had just one timeout left. Instead of having Drew Brees take a knee and run the clock down, he opted to kick the game-winning field goal on first down, even after a delay of game penalty pushed it back to the 16. That left the possibility of a Wil Lutz miss (he'd already missed from 27) leaving the Bears time to go down the field for the win. Buck and Aikman called him out immediately, wondering why Payton was in such a rush. It's not the first time Payton botched such a situation. Everyone remembers the 2018 NFC title game when the refs allowed a blatant pass interference penalty against the Rams to go uncalled, before the Rams eventually won in overtime. But had Payton run the ball on second and third down, allowing the clock to drain, the Saints could have won on the field goal because the Rams wouldn't have had time to tie the game. By throwing twice, both falling incomplete, the second of which resulted in the missed PI call, Payton gave the Rams life. Had Lutz missed in Chicago, he would have done the same for the Bears. … So, last week I credited Tennessee's toughness following a loss to the undefeated Steelers. This week they repay me by laying an egg in Cincinnati. That's a bad loss for a team that expects to be in the thick of the AFC playoff picture, and honestly they were outplayed virtually from start to finish. The Titans are allowed a stinker and will remain in the hunt with the Colts in the AGC South, but more was expected of Mike Vrabel's team coming off a loss. … Back to Miami, after watching Flores' defense dominate Sean McVay's offense on Sunday perhaps he should have received much more credit for the performance the Patriots defense put forth in the Super Bowl win over the Rams. In both games Flores had all the answers.
The Steelers remain unbeaten and therefore remain at the top.
- Pittsburgh (7-0, 1st last week) – The Steelers grit was on full display, turning the Ravens aside several times in the red zone.
- Kansas City (7-1, 2nd last week) – Patrick Mahomes had some fun with the lowly Jets this week.
- Seattle (6-1, 5th last week) – Seahawks started slow until DK Metcalf turned it on.
- Baltimore (5-2, 4th last week) – I remain convinced there's something missing with this team but Ravens offense controlled Pittsburgh like no other team has – turnovers are killers though.
- New Orleans (5-2, unranked last week) – The Saints continue to win without Michael Thomas, showing some toughness on the road in Chicago.