Tua Tagovailoa and a Pair of Developing Defensive Stars Deserve All the Credit for Drastically Altering the Dolphins’ Once-Dismal Season

Not too long ago, the idea of Tua Tagovailoa trading places with Deshaun Watson seemed like a foregone conclusion.

As December rolls around, though, it looks like the Miami Dolphins should abandon any plan that involves sending their southpaw signal-caller to Houston for a quarterback who has yet to play a snap this season as he deals with a troubling legal situation involving allegations of sexual misconduct and assault.

After all, there’s no doubt Tagovailoa has done exactly what Dolphins fans expected when their beloved team took him fifth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Fortunately for those same fans, the front office secured two key building blocks in the 2021 draft who have quickly emerged as high-impact players for Brian Flores’ rapidly improving defense.

And if November represented a sign of things to come, Miami may just sneak into the playoffs after all.

Tua Tagovailoa quieted critics by taking his game to another level in November

Apparently, Tua just needed the temperature to drop to raise his game.

Coming off a rough October that included losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, and Buffalo Bills and his name being tossed around in trade rumors, the former Alabama star showed exactly why the Dolphins took him over Justin Herbert by putting together a month to remember.

In fact, it would be fair to say the oft-scrutinized signal-caller had the best November of any NFL quarterback.

Tagovailoa ranked first in completion percentage (80.5%), second in yards per attempt (8.58), and fourth in passer rating (110.0). He displayed excellent chemistry with exciting first-round rookie Jaylen Waddle, who leads the team in receptions (77) and receiving yards (759). He also hung tough playing behind an offensive line that ranks as a bottom-five unit.

Most importantly, Tagovailoa didn’t suffer a single loss on his record.

Thanks in large part to their starting quarterback’s stellar play, the Dolphins surged up power rankings by following a seven-game losing streak with four straight wins. While Brian Flores certainly had higher expectations for his team entering the season, it’s clear his players have bought in and the coaching staff has finally started to figure things out.

But as much credit as Tagovailoa deserves for helping Miami climb within striking distance of securing a playoff berth, two of his first-year teammates who play on the other side of the ball also need some time in the spotlight for their contributions.

Two rising rookies also deserve attention for helping the Dolphins turn their dismal season around

While the Waddle pick looks like a rock-solid move by general manager Chris Grier, Miami fans have watched two rookie defenders become big-time playmakers in what seems like the blink of an eye. And with the way Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland played in November, it looks like opposing offensive coordinators will have to spend some time scheming up ways to avoid the pair of rising stars.

Phillips, a 6-foot-5, 266-pound outside linebacker, arrived as the 18th overall pick following an eight-sack junior season with the Miami Hurricanes. A highly athletic edge rusher oozing with potential, he failed to record a sack in each of his first three NFL games. Another three-game drought in October raised concerns about Phillips’ ability to deliver on his first-round status.

Like Tua, he apparently just needed extra time to heat up.

Phillips registered 12 tackles (four for loss), five sacks, eight quarterback hits, and a pass breakup in four November games. During the Dolphins’ 33-10 Week 12 victory over the Carolina Panthers, he recorded three sacks, putting him just behind exciting Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons for the rookie lead.

Of course, like the rest of Miami’s front seven, Phillips benefits from having some top-level talent behind him.

And while veteran cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones have name recognition and lucrative contracts, they should expect Holland to join them sooner than later. A second-round pick out Oregon, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound safety has quickly gone from part-time player to full-time starter. Holland’s physicality has stood out, and he’s shown a knack for making plays on the ball, too.

Elevated to an every-down role in mid-October, the British Columbia native made a major impact once the calendar flipped to November. Holland stuffed the stat sheet with 15 tackles, five passes defended, two quarterback hits, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and one sack. His explosive hitting style and competitive attitude have added a different dynamic to a defense that’s only one season removed from finishing sixth in points allowed.

The future suddenly looks much brighter for a Miami team that may not have to rebuild after all

With Phillips and Holland looking like future Pro Bowlers on defense and Waddle and Tagovailoa cementing themselves as the centerpieces of the offense, the Dolphins have four promising young players who seem destined to call Miami home for years to come. Plus, 2018 second-rounder Mike Gesicki has proven he deserves a contract extension by totaling 52 catches for 596 yards and two touchdowns on 79 targets.

Meanwhile, 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins (52 tackles, three sacks, seven quarterback hits) ranks sixth among 123 interior defensive linemen in Pro Football Focus‘ grading system. Fellow 2019 draftee Andrew Van Ginkel has outperformed his fifth-round pedigree by posting 47 tackles and an eye-popping 17 QBH. And highly paid linebacker Jerome Baker, a 2018 third-round pick, has racked up a team-high 63 tackles while serving as the leader of the defense.

Ultimately, the Dolphins have rebounded mostly due to improved play from homegrown players. That seems like a promising sign for Grier and Flores, who both face uncertain futures with the franchise. But if the team continues to perform at a high level, perhaps they will get to go through another offseason together.

In the span of a month, the conversation about the future of football in Miami has suddenly shifted from firing the GM and getting rid of Tua to potentially making the playoffs and building around the talented second-year quarterback.

That just goes to show how quickly things can change in the NFL.

And for Dolphins fans longing for a legitimate shot at the Lombardi Trophy, they may not have to wait much longer thanks to the youth movement.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

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