This wasn't a gamble as much as it was a declaration of faith. This was Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores telling the world that he knows exactly what he's doing with his young quarterback and precisely when to pull a trigger. Tua Tagovailoa's time was coming sooner or later. The decision to make him Miami's starter -- revealed Tuesday -- means that everything finally has fallen into place for his much-anticipated debut.
That is the enlightened take on this news coming out of South Florida. Skeptics can ask the obvious questions, pointing out that it's a curious move when the 3-3 Dolphins have been playing so well under veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick that they could become a playoff team, but that would be short-sighted. Miami's real dreams always have been tied to how quickly the team could prepare Tagovailoa to take the field. The true accomplishment is that Fitzpatrick kept the Fins competitive until the rookie was ready to move under center.
So far, Flores has offered no details of what prompted the decision. The Dolphins are on their bye in Week 7, which means it's safe to say that factored into his thinking. Tagovailoa will have two weeks to settle into the job, which begins with a game against the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 1. That's also plenty of time for everyone else on the squad to acclimate themselves to the idea of him being their new leader.
This much we also know: The Dolphins haven't been this excited about a quarterback since Dan Marino showed up back in 1983. Tagovailoa was the fifth overall pick in this year's draft for a reason. He became the most efficient passer in college football history while playing at Alabama and established his legacy by coming off the bench to win the national championship game for the Crimson Tide as a freshman. The dude can ball.
In fact, if not for injury questions, Tagovailoa might have been the first player selected in this year's draft, an honor that ultimately went to Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Tagovailoa sustained a dislocated right hip and posterior wall fracture last November. He recovered quickly enough that the Dolphins felt comfortable drafting him and clearing him for training camp. Tagovailoa came off the injury report in Week 2 and played in his first game last week, as he completed both passes he attempted for 9 yards in a 24-0 win over the New York Jets.
That brief appearance should've told us what Flores was thinking. The Dolphins fans attending the game went nuts. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey gushed about the way Tagovailoa handled himself, how the rookie made one accurate throw under duress and then converted a third-down situation while calmly completing another pass from the pocket. Those might have been the two most highly anticipated throws in the last two decades for the Dolphins.
This is a franchise that will have started 22 players at quarterback (including Tagovailoa) since Marino retired in 2000. Not one of those signal-callers made the Pro Bowl with the Dolphins, and only one (Jay Fiedler, in 2000) won a playoff game with the team. Tagovailoa surely will be expected to do both. The good news for him is that he's taking over this job at a time when the pressure won't be nearly as great as it would've been in the regular-season opener.
The work Fitzpatrick has put in -- he's completed 70.1 percent of his passes for 1,535 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions in six starts -- has made a substantial difference for this team. The Dolphins have won their last two games, including a 43-17 win over the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers on the road. That means there's ample confidence in the locker room. This is a team that is starting to learn what it's made of at exactly the right time.
There won't be any drama with Fitzpatrick moving into a backup role. He's logged 16 seasons in this league, and he's known his primary function in Miami was to buy time for Tagovailoa to prepare. From everything that's been reported, Tagovailoa has used that time to soak up the offense and pick Fitzpatrick's brain. It's a sure bet that Fitzpatrick will be just as generous with his advice when he's the guy holding a clipboard on game days.
More than anything, Tagovailoa is becoming a starter in an era when coaches are far more willing to make young quarterbacks comfortable on the field. Long gone are the days when so-called offensive gurus tried to force inexperienced signal-callers into time-tested systems. Coaches today are far more likely to play to a quarterback's strengths until those players can handle more complicated stuff. Gailey, for one, built his reputation tweaking his schemes to fit the skill sets of the players he's coached.
The Dolphins can look all around the league to see how this approach has helped young quarterbacks prosper. Patrick Mahomes has become a superstar in Kansas City because Chiefs head coach Andy Reid altered his West Coast offense to rely more on college concepts. The Baltimore Ravens turned Lamar Jackson into the 2019 Most Valuable Player by installing a read-option system. Kyler Murray became last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year because his coach, the Arizona Cardinals' Kliff Kingsbury, brought his Air Raid offense from college to the NFL.
The players that Tagovailoa entered the league with this year also have enjoyed some early success. Burrow has impressed people in Cincinnati with his moxie and toughness, while the Los Angeles Chargers have liked what they've seen from sixth overall pick Justin Herbert, especially since he was thrown into the lineup after veteran starter Tyrod Taylor was sidelined in Week 2. Scouts considered Herbert to be a lesser talent than Tagovailoa coming into the draft. Herbert currently ranks ninth in the NFL in passer rating (107.1) after four games of action.
This isn't to say Tagovailoa is going to cruise to stardom. It does mean that there aren't many reasons for him not to be playing at this stage. The Dolphins have spent the last two and a half months watching him move, learn and grow. They had to be increasingly more excited about what they were seeing to give their rookie quarterback 10 more games to make his mark.
That's why this move feels less about a gut decision and more about logic. Young quarterbacks are succeeding all across the NFL, with the best ones having benefitted from having a little time to sit and watch. Mahomes did it for nearly a full season before turning into a phenom. Jackson waited eight games into his rookie year before taking over in Baltimore.
Now Tagovailoa has his shot. It comes with a sage mentor, a supportive coordinator, a team that just restocked its roster with an offseason shopping spree in free agency and an AFC East division that is very much up for grabs. We might not have known the date in which the Dolphins were going to turn their team over to Tagovailoa when this year began. It's also clear that they couldn't have picked a better time to start thinking about the future.