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Why the Miami Dolphins have hit their ceiling with Tua Tagovailoa, reached a Jared Goff problem

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins built one of the best teams in the NFL around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. However, despite the investments made around him, Saturday’s playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs was the latest example of why Tagovailoa puts a ceiling on the Dolphins’ potential.

Miami spent more than $220 million this season only to come up short in the playoffs. While injuries and weather played a part, the Dolphins’ losses this season served as a reminder of their problem. Some of the best defenses in the NFL specifically forced Tagovailoa, not Mike McDaniel’s scheme, to beat them. In big moments, Miami’s quarterback came up short.

Related: Miami Dolphins draft picks 2024

Let’s dive into the reasons why the Dolphins are at their ceiling with Tagovailoa.

Tua Tagovailoa and falling short in critical situations

Syndication: Palm Beach Post
BILL INGRAM/THE PALM BEACH POST / USA TODAY NETWORK

One of the biggest criticisms of the Dolphins this offseason has been that they are front-runners. Give Miami an early lead and they are better than anyone at turning games into a blowout. However, when games are close, Tagovailoa gets worse as it goes on.

  • Tua Tagovailoa stats in 1st Half: 112.2 QB rating, 72.7% completion rate, 20-6 TD-INT, 9.7 yards per attempt
  • Tua Tagovailoa stats in 2nd Half: 85.5 QB rating, 64.5% completion rate, 8-8 TD-INT, 7.5 yards per attempt

When trailing, Tagovailoa also struggled in critical moments. During the 2023 regular season when Miami trailed with less than 2 minutes to go, the Dolphins’ quarterback posted a 57.0 QB rating with a 56.3 percent completion rate, averaging 3.2 yards per attempt. If you expand that to when he trailed with less than 4 minutes remaining, Tagovailoa still had just a 67.8 QB rating with a 56 percent completion rate and more sacks (2) than touchdown passes (10) on 25 attempts.

There’s also the matter of how Tagovailoa performs against top defenses. Everyone remembers the four-touchdown game with a 155.8 QB rating against the Denver Broncos, one of eight games with a 100-plus QB rating this past season by Tagovailoa. However, defensive coordinators with the personnel to take away the middle of the field had a lot more success against Miami.

QB RatingCompletion %Yards per AttemptTD % – INT %Sacks per Game
79.0164.6%6.93.66% – 4.27%2.5
Tua Tagovailoa’s statistics vs Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2023 regular season

If you want to expand beyond this season, there are plenty of other numbers to point to. Among them, per RBSM.com, Tagovailoa ranks 24th in EPA per Play (-0.152) and Success rate (41.1 percent) in the fourth quarter over the last two years. The only worse quarterbacks are Mac Jones, Sam Howell, Justin Fields and Josh Dobbs.

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Defenses with speed and instinctive second-level players can take away Tagovailoa’s first read and blanket the middle of the field. Once he’s forced to make something out of structure, the Dolphins’ quarterback struggles.

Mike McDaniel, Dolphins approach a Jared Goff problem

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019, the Los Angeles Rams signed quarterback Jared Goff to a four-year, $134 million contract extension. There was some skepticism for the deal, with Goff’s underlying numbers suggesting he was a benefactor of Sean McVay’s system. However, playoff trips and some impressive box score stats helped him earn the contract.

Fast forward to 2024, Miami is approaching decision time with Tagovailoa. While the Dolphins’ organization and fans have expressed plenty of confidence in their quarterback, it feels like history is repeating itself.

Related: NFL QB rankings

QB RatingCompletion %TD% – INT%Pass YPGAY/AEPA per Play
Jared Goff (2017-’18)100.863.6%5.8% – 1.8%273.98.50.198
Tua Tagovailoa (2022-’23)102.967.4%5.6% – 2.3%272.48.60.194

Goff’s weaknesses in the Rams’ offense were well-known late in his stint with the Rams. While he still posted Pro Bowl-caliber numbers in 2018, defenses turned him into a below-average quarterback with pressure in his face. It led to a downward spiral in his final two seasons with Los Angeles. Fittingly, Goff’s numbers when pressured in 2018 are pretty similar to Tagovailoa’s this season.

  • Tua Tagovailoa stats vs pressure: 57.5 QB rating (34th in NFL), 56.5% Adjusted Completion rate (39th), 5.5 yards per attempt (27th)
  • Jared Goff stats vs pressure (2018): 54.6 QB rating (30th in NFL), 63.6% Adjusted Completion rate (25th), 5.8 yards per attempt (29th)

Miami can limit the frequency of how often Tagovailoa is pressured if it maintains one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. After all, the Rams’ offensive line ranked ninth in PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency (86.8) and allowed the fifth-fewest sacks (15) in 2018. In 2023, Miami led the NFL in PBE (89.1) and ranked 11th in sacks allowed (20) across the regular season.

The following season in Los Angeles, the Rams’ offensive line regressed and Goff’s production (101.1 QB rating to 86.5 QB rating) plummeted. McVay grew more frustrated by his quarterback’s limitations and with the team’s pass protection becoming less reliable, Goff’s weaknesses were exposed more often.

Looking forward, Dolphins’ left tackle Terron Armstead will be 33 years old next season with injuries rapidly accelerating his body’s deteriorating. Miami’s center Connor Williams will be a free agent this offseason and coming off an ACL tear and left guard has become a bigger problem for the Dolphins.

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  • Tua Tagovailoa contract: $23.171 million fully guaranteed in 2024

Tagovailoa will be back next season, making nearly $14 million more than he did in 2023. A higher cap hit means less money to spend on the roster around him, making it harder for McDaniel and the front office to hide his weaknesses. While a viable replacement likely won’t come along in 2024, the Dolphins will have to find their own version of Matthew Stafford before long. Otherwise, Miami likely won’t ever even reach the AFC Championship Game and Tagovailoa’s effectiveness will dip as the roster around him gets worse.

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