Tua Tagovailoa jogged off the field this past Sunday, went into the Miami Dolphins locker room, completed his postgame media session and then returned to the field for a few moments. The game was long over. The 65,000 fans were gone.
Almost all of them, anyway.
“Tua, you the man,” someone yelled from the seats.
That seems to be the consensus in Miami these days.
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For those seeking gaudy numbers from a quarterback, Tagovailoa isn’t the right choice. He has only one 300-yard passing game this season. But for those seeking effective numbers, that fan was right: Right now, he’s the man.
Tagovailoa has posted four consecutive games with a passer rating over 100, the longest such active streak in the NFL and tying the second-longest such streak in Dolphins history behind someone named Dan Marino, who had six straight.
Broken ribs, a busted finger and trade talks dominated the first half of the season. Tagovailoa has overcome them all and is suddenly on a roll.
“He’s definitely playing with a lot more confidence,” Dolphins offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. “Just making quicker decisions, having better plans. And that starts with the offensive line giving him the ability to do all of that, to have confidence, not be worried about getting hit a lot. We need to make sure we’re always on top of that. He’s been just way more confident, which is making sure that he’s having way more fun, which is ultimately helping him just go out and cut it loose.”
The Dolphins — who have a bye this week before returning Dec. 19 to play host to the New York Jets — have won five straight games, with Tagovailoa missing the first one of those against Houston because of an injury and then taking over in the second half against Baltimore in what became win No. 2 of the streak.
Put simply, he hasn’t been the same player since coming back. In his first five appearances of the season, dealing with the broken ribs suffered in Week 2 and then a broken finger on his throwing hand, he was completing 65.6% of his passes with a rating of 85.9 and the Dolphins were terrible. In the four games since, even with the finger not fully healed for some of these games, he’s completing 78% of his passes with a rating of 109.2 and the Dolphins have been unbeatable.
“He’s a young player,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “Every time he gets snaps and every time he goes out there and plays, he gets a little bit more comfortable. He gains confidence. We’ve seen that in his play and hopefully that continues.”
The numbers are changing. He hasn’t. He doesn’t go out much because he doesn’t like to be recognized. When his mother is in town, he’ll put on a hoodie and sunglasses and head to a nearby grocery store to buy her flowers. If people recognize him, they’re usually cool about it.
The typical reaction when that happens, in his words: “’Oh, that’s Tua. Let’s go eat Subway.’”
The compliments for Tagovailoa come from all corners of the Miami locker room, with good reason.
But getting Tagovailoa to play up his own numbers, well, that’s impossible. He was asked after Sunday’s win over the New York Giants how he thought he played, and politely answered a question on a topic that seemed to make him a tiny bit uncomfortable.
“I don’t think of myself,” Tagovailoa said. “I just think of the overall offense. I think we can get better, continue to get better, find ways to get better. And that’s what this bye gives us: a chance to self-scout, look at the things that we can clean up, work on, and then implement it when we play the Jets.”
The Dolphins are one of the last four teams to have their bye week this season. Some were off in early October; others, such as Indianapolis New England, Philadelphia and Miami, are getting theirs now, a break to recharge for a frantic finish.
Time to relax will be welcomed. Tagovailoa got some cheers at his first Miami Heat game earlier this week, deciding at the last minute to go with a few teammates. He recently picked up golf and broke 90 earlier this week. Some of his teammates are talking about catching up on gaming. At least one is headed to amusement parks in Orlando for the weekend. Others will inevitably find their way to the sun and sand and water; it’s going to be summery weather in South Florida this weekend.
Tagovailoa already has made this clear: He’ll be resting his body, but thinking about the stretch run. The Dolphins have four games left. They know that it’ll probably take four wins to have a realistic chance at making the playoffs, which, to be honest, are still very much a longshot. He’s got to be focused for Miami to have any chance of getting there.
That said, he will acknowledge one playoff matchup that’s already on his mind.
“Roll Tide,” he said.
His school, Alabama already knows it has a playoff game — a College Football Playoff game — to think about. In a development that nobody would have dared suggested as possible at 1-7, Tagovailoa has given Miami a chance to have some playoff hopes of its own.
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