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What Miami Dolphins fans can expect without starter Tua Tagovailoa

Matthew Arrojas

For many teams, an injury to their starting quarterback immediately spells a doomed season. 

However, Miami Dolphins fans don’t yet know how much time quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will miss due to his fractured ribs. The injury will, at the very least, keep the second-year starter out of Sunday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders, but it’s unclear how much of the 2021 season he’ll miss. In the interim, sixth-year veteran Jacoby Brissett will take the reins of the team and hope to keep its trajectory toward a playoff berth. 

But what should Dolphins fans expect with Brissett behind the wheel? Let’s dig into what the team’s offensive plan may be. 

With Brissett, Miami Dolphins have a steady if unexciting captain

jacoby brissett
BILL INGRAM / Palm Beach Post via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Brissett has started a cumulative 32 games in the NFL, first playing for the New England Patriots in 2016 before being traded to the Indianapolis Colts the following year. That’s where he covered for Andrew Luck after injuries derailed the team’s season in 2017, forcing Brissett to start 15 games for the Colts. Luck’s retirement forced Brissett into the starting role again in 2019, where he started 15 games and led the team to a 7-8 record as a starter. 

The following season, Brissett only attempted eight passes, so he’d seen fairly little action before signing with the Dolphins in the offseason to be Tagovailoa’s backup. 

With Brissett, the front office likely saw the potential to add a veteran that can keep a steady course in a pinch. That’s precisely the situation he finds himself in now, and recent examples have shown he can do just that. 

Forced into a starting role in 2019, Brissett buoyed the Colts. 

He was, by most accounts, a middling quarterback that season. Per data from RBSDM, Brissett finished 15th in expected points added (EPA) per play among 34 quarterbacks that ran at least 200 plays that season. He ranked 27th, however, in completion percentage above expectation, meaning he’s not the kind of quarterback to consistently complete aggressive passes into tight windows. 

This is all to say that Brissett’s most recent experience implies Dolphins fans can anticipate competent quarterback play for as long as he is under center. However, don’t expect him to elevate the offense beyond mediocrity. 

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Further development of a young Miami Dolphins core

jaylen waddle
Sep 19, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) attempts to make a catch during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Miami’s splash pick in the 2021 NFL Draft was wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, and the last thing the front office would want is for Tagovailoa’s injury to stunt any of his progression. 

Waddle has already proven to be a focal point in the Miami Dolphins offense in his brief showing thus far. He has run the second-most routes on the team through two weeks behind only DeVante Parker, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Miami’s quarterbacks have an average passer rating of 132.3 when targeting him, too, which is first on his team among all pass catchers. 

It’s imperative that Waddle not take a back seat with Brissett starting for the foreseeable future. 

That’s not to say the quarterback should force-feed him the ball, but to exclude Waddle from the game plan due to a lack of chemistry or incompatible skill sets would be a mistake for the team’s progress. Miami obviously believes Waddle can be a No. 1 wideout if management spent a top 10 pick on him, so those skills need to continue to be developed. 

That also means giving Waddle the chance to make plays downfield, not just catch screens and dump-off passes. 

In 2019, Brissett ranked 26th out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks in air yards per attempt, which measures how far, on average, he attempted passes beyond the line of scrimmage. His 2019 rate (7.7 air yards per attempt) would rank Brissett 24th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks so far this year, per PFF

Miami’s coaching staff should encourage Brissett to push the ball farther downfield for the sake of its young pass catchers like Waddle and Will Fuller, who is expected to make his debut for the team against the Raiders

Continue testing Miami Dolphins’ run game

myles gaskin
Aug 21, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin (37) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

To say that Miami’s offensive line has been a weakness would be an understatement. 

The Miami Dolphins are one of only four teams that have two offensive tackles who have given up seven or more pressures through the first two weeks. One of those tackles was Austin Jackson, who didn’t even play in Week 1. The Dolphins’ offensive line has been the worst-graded pass blocking unit in the league thus far, per PFF

As is the case when most starting quarterbacks go down to injury, expect the team to lean on its run game more for the next few weeks. 

In this area, the Dolphins’ offensive line has been slightly more respectable. The team ranks 28th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, a way to measure a line’s ability to create space for its running backs. While that ranking isn’t anything to write home about, it’s worth noting there’s a steep drop off after the Dolphins. 

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Miami Dolphins running backs have averaged 4 yards per carry thus far, which is only slightly behind the NFL average of 4.13 yards per carry. 

Expect featured running back Myles Gaskin to get heavy usage while Tagovailoa is out, and for the line’s run blocking to be put to the test. An increased focus on the run game could help take some weight off of the struggling line, as it’s generally easier for most blockers to push forward in the run game than it is to shuffle backward while pass blocking.