There is an overused cliché in sports that a player turns into a New Man at the start of a new season.
That’s not exactly what has happened with Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa. He’s different, yes, maybe even in substantial and tangible ways. But he’s not suddenly transformed. And that’s a good thing. Tua is, if nothing else, sure of himself — and true to himself. And maybe he’s letting us see more of his personality than ever.
At the beginning of last season, Tagovailoa was an under-discussed MVP candidate. He was playing better than he’d ever played, with help from the best supporting cast he’d ever had, which included receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The three of them are back at it, still under the leadership of Miami coach Mike McDaniel.
After one week, Tagovailoa leads the NFL in passing yards. Hill leads the NFL in receiving yards and receptions and is tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns. The Dolphins offense looks like one of the best units in the league, if not the best.
“It’s Week 1,” Tagoaviloa said Wednesday. “Everyone overreacts on everything. [That’s] my personal opinion. Take that for what it’s worth. You’re either going to win the Super Bowl after you win your first game or you’re the worst team ever.”
That’s a fairly typical response from Tua, who tends to not get too high or too low. He stays humble, no matter the praise or the criticism. He even stayed humble last year amid reports that the Dolphins had previously checked in on Tom Brady — probably the most tenuous moment in Tagovailoa’s career to date. Tua is generally even-keeled.
But not always. Not anymore.
The haters have been getting under his skin. And while he said Wednesday, “I don’t pay too much attention to the outside noise,” we actually now know that’s not totally true. When ESPN’s Ryan Clark recently mocked Tagovailoa for gaining weight — with Clark saying Tua “wasn’t in the gym” — Tagovailoa responded by telling Clark to “keep my name out your mouth.”
I’d never seen or heard of Tua doing anything like that. He heard the noise. He stood up for himself. It was awesome.
And it’s not the only instance. Something similar happened on Wednesday.
When asked if he thinks anyone is still saying he can’t throw deep, Tagovailoa’s emotion seemed to rise slightly.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I mean, I don’t care — 466 [yards] is … that’s what 466 is if I can’t throw deep. Thanks.”
It certainly seems like Tua does care. A little bit.
And to anyone who doesn’t think he can throw deep, Tua is saying: scoreboard.
The Dolphins quarterback just threw for 466 yards in a Week 1 shootout in which he outdueled Chargers star Justin Herbert. Along with leading the league in passing yards, Tagovailoa leads the NFL in average depth of target (for quarterbacks who completed at least one pass). He completed his deep passes (attempts that traveled 20-plus yards) at an incredible clip: 5-of-6 for 161 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
And he did it in a QB duel against Herbert.
Herbert is an important character in Tua’s story because they entered the league together in 2020. Herbert and Tua were foils from a prospect standpoint. Tagovailoa had robotic efficiency at Alabama with all the supporting cast a college quarterback could ask for. Herbert was all risk, without a great supporting cast at Oregon but with a unique skill set and a cannon of an arm. Herbert had outstanding touch in the deep game — Tua was incisive in short and intermediate throws. The Dolphins went the safe route: Tua at No. 5 overall. The Chargers went risky: Herbert at No. 6 overall.
Guess who already has his contract extension? And guess who doesn’t?
Herbert signed a five-year, $262.5 million contract this offseason while the Dolphins have Tagovailoa playing on his rookie deal, which will pay him $4.738 million this year. It’s a stark contrast — and one the Dolphins will soon have to rectify if Tagovailoa keeps lighting up defenses. And trust me, he’s going to keep lighting up defenses so long as he’s healthy — maybe, in part, because of how feisty he feels. Even the Dolphins are questioning him (along with the media and the fans).
Miami is holding this contract over him. He’s thriving under the pressure.
“We see it every day, what he does in the offseason, how hard he works,” tight end Durham Smythe said when asked about Tagovailoa’s success. “It doesn’t surprise any of us. I think that was just more validation than anything. Obviously, we all expect big things from him the rest of the season in this building, and I think some people outside are starting to see that as well.”
A part of Tua’s offseason was spent purposely thickening up. He put on muscle to help him withstand a season of hits. And Tua has to consider his history of concussions. He suffered two documented concussions last year. In turn, he has taken up Jiu-Jitsu in hopes it might help him fall more gracefully — and avoid smacks to the head.
His feistiness, his intentional weight gain, his Jiu-Jitsu training — they all show how the veteran quarterback is altering the way he does things. And so far, the results have been impossible to dispute. It’s just one game — but it might have been the best game Tagovailoa has ever played, with a demonstration that his mental tools (anticipation, eye control, progressions) and physical tools (touch and velocity) are at a new level.
It would be a disservice to say this is a New Tua. For the most part, he has always been like this. He’s just doing what the best quarterbacks do: He’s tweaking things to make sure he’s as true to his skills as he can be. And when it comes to letting his emotions show in front of the media, it seems he’s looser. He’s more free.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that’s how he’s playing on the field, too.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.
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