Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Should the Dolphins re-sign Tua Tagovailoa?

McDaniel excited to ‘assess everything’ in 2024
Mike McDaniel joins Mike Florio and Chris Simms to explain why he took a positive approach to Hard Knocks, how he’s looking forward to a healthy assessment, how he tried to “remove emotion” from decisions and more.

When you’re a football analyst and have the chance to say emphatically that the guy who led the NFL in passing yards a season ago should not be re-signed, you simply have to do it.

Such is my position after poring over Tua Tagovailoa’s metrics and peripheral stats as the Dolphins reportedly prepare to offer the QB a monster contract extension.

I very much enjoy when players get paid. The NFL life is nasty, brutish, and short. A player cashing in is always a positive development. And it appears Tua is on the precipice of doing just that. I’m happy for him.

Screen Shot 2024-03-04 at 10.00.30 AM.png

I’m also deeply interested in why NFL teams are so reluctant to explore other opportunities when it comes time to break the bank — and often shut the Super Bowl window — to retain a quarterback with a questionable profile. We saw this last offseason when the Giants went all in on Daniel Jones after he had a fine 2022 season and won a postseason game against a miserable Vikings defense.

The Tagovailoa situation is particularly intriguing because he was middling at best before entering head coach Mike McDaniel’s hyper-efficient, Shanahan-style offense sent from the future to maximize expected points added (EPA). Miami’s decision to make Tagovailoa its franchise quarterback for the next three to five years — maybe longer — can be found at the nexus of modern offensive football philosophy, a concerning dearth of viable starting NFL quarterbacks, and front offices’ palpable desperation to hang on to what they have.

Tua Before McDaniel

There was a time, long, long ago (2021) when Tua Tagovailoa was a mediocre signal caller by nearly every available measure. Under offense-hating head coach Brian Flores, Tua was 18th among 30 qualifying quarterbacks in a key efficiency metric: completion rate over expected plus EPA per drop back. He ranked below Derek Carr and a tick above the likes of Matt Ryan in 2021.

This part might come as a shock to Dolphins fans with whom I have quarreled on social media in recent weeks: Before McDaniel arrived in Miami, Tagovailoa was not good on middle-of-the-field (MOF) pass attempts. This, I think, undercuts Dolphins’ fans central pro-Tua argument that he is uniquely gifted on throws to the middle of the field, making him an ideal fit in a McDaniels/Shanahan offense that torments defenses with (usually short) middle of the field passing. Precious few NFL QBs, I’ve been told, can do what Tua can do on those throws between the hash marks.

Before I argue that the Dolphins probably shouldn’t re-sign the NFL’s leading passer this offseason, a bit about middle-of-the-field throws, a favorite among the geekiest football fans you know: Tej Smith of Sumer Sports has argued that the MOF throw is football’s version of the corner three point jumper, a cheat code of sorts that (smart) coaches have exploited over the past half decade. Quarterbacks are far more efficient on MOF pass attempts, and getting the ball into the hands of strong, fast pass catchers in the open field has been a boon to NFL offenses and QB stats in recent seasons. Consider that a pass thrown 20 yards down the middle of the field, according to NextGen stats, has nearly the same completion rate as a pass ten yards toward either sideline. It’s why sideline throws are the midrange jump shot of the NFL, as Seth points out in his breakdown of the league’s middle-of-the-field renaissance.

Every season from 2015 to 2020 (with the exception of 2017 partially due to multiple big quarterback injuries) saw middle of the field passing clear 0.25 EPA per pass. A season long passing attack of 0.25 EPA per pass would have been the 2nd most efficient in the league during the 2022 season. Defenses have deployed different ways to deal with middle of the field passing and the EPA per pass of such throws has been on a steady decline.

Getting The Most Out of Mid-Tier Quarterbacks

Back to Tua.

The 2021 season saw Tua rank 27th out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in net adjusted yards per pass attempt on middle-of-the-field attempts. He was 20th in completion rate over expected on those throws, with the 10th highest rate of turnover worthy attempts, according to Fantasy Points Data. The Flores-era Dolphins, of course, didn’t do a whole lot of middle of the field passing, as Tagovailoa averaged a meager 6.8 MOF attempts per game in 2021.

By 2023, with McDaniel’s offense proving vexing in the season’s first couple months, Tagovailoa was tormenting opposing secondaries with MOF throws. Tua’s 11.77 net adjusted yards per attempt on those throws led the NFL, as did his 15.1 percent completion rate over expected on MOF attempts. Only C.J. Stroud and Jared Goff — quarterbacks in systems designed by similarly-progressive play callers — had more passing yards on MOF attempts last season. In 2022, Tagovailoa led all quarterbacks in passing yards on throws to the middle of the field.

Exploiting defenses has become a calling card of every forward-looking, analytics-adjacent offensive coordinator, especially those coming from Shanahan, who — against all odds — once made Jimmy Garoppolo one of the league’s most brutally efficient passers.

Brock Purdy is the latest beneficiary of Shanahan’s all-out assault on the middle of the field.

The unheralded Purdy in 2023 led the NFL in adjusted drop back EPA, drop back success rate, and completion rate over expected in 2023. Only five signal callers had more MOF pass attempts than Purdy despite the run-first nature of the San Francisco offense (the Niners were below their expected drop back rate in 11 of their 17 regular season games). Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle catching short MOF passes and wrecking defenses with after-the-catch production has been Shanahan’s calling card in his team’s domination of the NFC.

Jimmy G’s success in the Shanny system makes it impossible to know where Shanahan’s EPA-maximizing machine ends and Purdy begins — a similar problem we have in evaluating Tua after two years in McDaniel’s system.

Purdy, unlike Tagovailoa, can create out of structure. When Shanahan’s lab-designed plays break down, Purdy can still make something happen, either as a rusher or throwing on the run. This is what has made Purdy such a clear upgrade over Garoppolo, who basically short circuited if a play didn’t go off just as Shanny had planned. The proof is in the numbers: Purdy last season was third in yards per attempt (8.2) when under pressure and sixth in PFF’s adjusted completion rate.

Tua, meanwhile, was 28th in yards per attempt under pressure — in line with Kenny Pickett and Aidan O’Connell — and 39th in adjusted completion rate. Only Mac Jones and Will Levis were worse. Tagovailoa was 18th out of 25 qualifying QBs in YPA on throws outside the pocket, according to Fantasy Points Data. Purdy was second, trailing only Lamar Jackson.

Relentlessly attacking opposing defenses in the short and intermediate middle parts of the field has allowed play callers — including Ben Johnson in Detroit — get the most out of quarterbacks who can generously be described as not elite. Avoiding the much-more-difficult sideline throw has been key in getting the most out of Goff and Purdy and, yes, Tagovailoa. Year after year, the game’s top passers — Mahomes, Burrow, Allen, Stafford to an extent — are worlds more efficient on sideline passes than the average QB.

And as Seth found, “there is around twice the amount of stability for how quarterbacks perform passing out wide as opposed to over the middle of the field.” In other words, nothing about top-notch sideline passing is fluky.

If the McDaniel-era Dolphins are going to continue using the MOF cheat code in 2024 and beyond — and there’s little reason to think they won’t — the team could likely find a viable replacement for Tagovailoa in the draft or in free agency and use the saved resources to bolster a defense that will have to stop Mahomes or Burrow or Allen if these Dolphins are ever going to reach the Promised Land.

McDaniel’s offense doesn’t need an elite QB to function well. Tagovailoa, who is much closer to Garoppolo than he is to Purdy, has been proof of just that.