Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Ryan Fitzpatrick showed Gardner Minshew II exactly why the beard is superior to the ‘stache in the Miami Dolphins’ 31-13 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday at TIAA Bank Field.
In doing so, he also ensured that Tua Tagovailoa will have a chance to grow out a beard of his own before he gets to start a game in the NFL.
Normally, a heralded draft pick should start when he’s ready. If that’s from the onset of his career or within his first handful of professional games, like Joe Burrow with the Cincinnati Bengals, so be it. Tagovailoa’s case is very different, and Fitzpatrick is a big part of keeping the future of the franchise on the bench for as long as possible.
With this unique offseason, head coach Brian Flores wasn’t ready to thrust a rookie signal-caller in the lineup—which made a veteran of Fitzpatrick’s caliber the easy choice to open the season behind center.
“A year like this with no OTAs, no minicamp, modified training camp, we felt like that would be the best decision for the team,” Flores told reporters when he named Fitzpatrick the starter. “He’s done a good job through the course of training camp, and he’ll be out there.”
The coach’s points are undeniable. It’s a tough ask of any rookie to thrive in the current landscape, especially a quarterback. But there were other issues the Dolphins had to consider when it came to Tagovailoa’s playing status.
As a prospect, the Alabama product fell into an elite category thanks to his excellent ball placement, lightning-quick release and feel for the game.
“Tua can do things that I couldn’t dream of doing,” Fitzpatrick was quoted as saying by NFL Network play-by-play commentator Joe Buck in a pregame interview.
However, the 22-year-old’s extensive injury history had to be taken into consideration. Tagovailoa is less than a year removed from a hip dislocation that included a posterior wall fracture. At the time, his career came into question. Thankfully, the quarterback exceeded all expectations in his recovery, and doctors cleared him for all football activities in late July.
Even so, the Dolphins are right to be cautious. While the hip injury is the most concerning part of Tagovailoa’s medical history, he’s also suffered a broken left index finger (his throwing hand), a sprained right knee, high ankle sprains to both legs, a broken nose and a concussion.
Owner Stephen Ross expressed concern before Miami had the opportunity to draft the talented signal-caller.
“I’ve been down there [at Alabama] to see him. He’s a great player. I just worry about his health,” Ross said in January, per ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe. “… We’ll have to look at what his health is and everything else and see what the alternatives are.”
The only difference between then and now is Tagovailoa currently wears the team’s aqua, orange and white uniforms.
Steven Senne/Associated Press
A healthy year could do wonders for the fearless gunslinger. As Tagovailoa’s body gets right after taking a beating during consecutive seasons, there isn’t much logic in playing him with a rebuilt offensive line that features four new starters, including a pair of rookies—Austin Jackson and Solomon Kindley—starting at left tackle and right guard, respectively.
Once everything settles, especially along the front five, the thought of Tagovailoa starting makes far more sense. But in the NFL, it’s rare for patience to win out when a first-round quarterback is sitting on the sidelines watching a veteran quarterback struggle.
After the New England Patriots defense intercepted Fitzpatrick three times in the season opener and Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen easily outplayed Fitzpatrick in Week 2, that patience was tested.
“There’s a great sense of urgency in this building,” Flores told reporters after Sunday’s 31-28 loss to the Bills. “Guys want to be good, they want to win, they want to improve, they want to get better. There is definitely a sense of urgency.”
What Fitzpatrick provided Thursday is exactly what the franchise needs right now. His vigor and on-field presence can provide a spark for the young squad while he serves as a mentor to Tagovailoa, who is absorbing the playbook and what it means to be a professional.
Sure, moments of the bad Fitzpatrick will rear their ugly head, as they did against the Patriots. But good Fitzpatrick is, of course, magical. The latter came to play against the Jaguars. The 37-year-old quarterback completed 18 of 20 passes, including his first 12 attempts, and threw a pair of touchdowns. Fitzpatrick excelled in every area, as NFL Next Gen Stats noted:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Fitzpatrick was effective in difficult passing situations — Under Pressure, 10+ air yards, and outside the numbers:
➤ 5/6, 56 yards, TD (+24.4% CPOE)
10+ Air Yards
➤ 5/6, 87 yards, TD (+29.8%)
➤ 7/8, 85 yards, TD (+28.3%)
#MIAvsJAX | #FinsUp
While this level of efficiency is impressive unto itself, Fitzpatrick’s passing stats don’t take into account his entire performance.
The veteran signal-caller extended drives by scrambling and scored another touchdown on a designed run. More importantly, the level of stick-to-itiveness Fitzpatrick displayed by lowering his shoulder on multiple occasions and taking on tacklers set an example for everyone else to follow.
The Dolphins needed to be tougher than they showed through the first two weeks of play, and Fitzpatrick established a new level of intensity. Miami expects more in the second year of its rebuild. The front office already stripped everything down to the studs last season. Now it’s building things back up while trying to establish a winning culture.
“This is a group that’s coming together. Today is one little step of where we’re going. I think we’re on the right path,” Fitzpatrick said in a postgame interview on NFL Network.
Eventually, the Dolphins will hand the reins to Tagovailoa. Make no mistake, he is the face of the franchise. But there’s no rush to move on from a competent option when considering all factors.
Once the Dolphins get past the Seattle Seahawks in Week 4, they have winnable contests against the injury-plagued San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos with the Los Angeles Chargers, who are currently starting rookie signal-caller Justin Herbert, slated as their last October opponent.
Miami can reassess after that point and continue to do so on a weekly basis. Eventually, the graybeard can give way to the left-handed whiz kid, but that time has yet to come. Fitzpatrick is the right person to lead the Dolphins for now.