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Tua Tagovailoa comes through crisis of confidence

AL.com 12/3/2022 Mark Inabinett, al.com

Through Week 12 of the NFL’s 2021 season, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had completed 165-of-234 passes for 1,701 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions for a 94.7 passing-efficiency rating in eight games. Miami had a 5-7 record.

During the CBS broadcast of the Dolphins’ 30-15 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday, reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala said the former Alabama All-American was so beleaguered by his coaches and Miami fans that he looked in a mirror and asked: “Do I suck?”

Through Week 12 of the NFL’s 2022 season, Tagovailoa has completed 198-of-284 passes for 2,564 yards with 19 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 115.7 passing-efficiency rating in nine games. Tagovailoa leads the NFL in touchdown-pass percentage and yards per pass, two of the four components used to compute the passer rating. Miami has an 8-3 record.

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After the 2021 season, the Dolphins fired coach Brian Flores and hired San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to take his place.

McDaniel said he could sense Tagovailoa’s confidence had taken a beating during the two seasons since the Dolphins obtained him with the fifth choice in the 2020 NFL Draft.

“This was not going off of straight fact,” McDaniel said. “This was just using intuition — that getting beat up and having your existence be completely tainted by people saying that you aren’t X, Y or Z. And then on top of that, from my vantage point, I felt like he was put behind the eight-ball in a way with the —basically his strengths, he couldn’t play to. And so if you’re not able to play to your strengths and one of the reasons you’ve gotten there is you’re an unbelievable point guard, I felt: How could he, with all the things going on?

“It’s a lot of loud noise that you try to ignore, but people are human. It was intuition.”

McDaniel assembled a highlight video of 700 plays from Tagovailoa’s career to remind the quarterback and others in the organization of his ability.

“I think it’s hard for people to truly wrap their head around what it is to be a quarterback in the National Football League in terms of you talk about as much pressure as one could ever have,” McDaniel said. “You have all these teammates depending on you to do the right thing on every play. People are trying to tackle you full-speed while you’re making split-second decisions, and you’re in charge of making sure that our plus-minus turnover ratio is right. That is a hard, hard job. Not to mention — this just in — anybody that’s drafted as a quarterback in the top 10, top five, they want to be good. I would not want to trade places or wish any sort of — anybody really — to be drafted super high and then fall short of the franchise’s expectations. That is a tough place to live in. That was the motivating factor behind everything. …

“There’s a lot of things that are telling me that this player may not have the confidence that he should, so instead of getting mad at that or doing anything, it was incredibly important that anybody that would listen would be able to see from a starting point — not just watch the FaceTime where I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be a great player’ — to actually know.

“And it was easy. He had the stuff on the tape. I think that’s a credit to him. To his credit, he’s really listened, taken the coaching that he’s good. Said ‘OK, Coach, I believe you.’ And I think you guys have seen the residuals up close and personal for a while.”

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During the 2021 season, the Dolphins pursued Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson at the NFL trade deadline despite the draft capital the team had invested in Tagovailoa. That and other signals from the organization during the quarterback’s first two seasons made McDaniel’s all-in attitude on Tagovailoa stand out even more sharply.

“I thought it was cool,” Tagovailoa said after Sunday’s game about the highlight video. “I think anyone here can attest to someone believing in them and how that changes how they see themselves but also things around them, so perspective. But it was awesome. There’s a lot of details that entail me sitting down with him and other things as well, but it’s awesome. It’s really cool.”

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But Tagovailoa said performance still comes down to preparation.

“At the end of the day, no matter how good your relationship is with someone, you’ve still got to go out and play,” Tagovailoa said. “You’ve got to go play football. And that’s with all of our guys. I could have a great relationship with our running backs — I mean, having a good relationship with you, I can’t help you rush for 2,000 yards or rush for however many yards you want to in the game. We’ve all got to be dialed in to the details of what the offense entails.

“I would say that’s just an add-on, the relationships we have with one another in the building, with each other, from coach to player, player to player and much more in the building with everyone else.”

McDaniel said Tagovailoa has done the work to reinforce his confidence in the quarterback.

“All he did was just come to work, buy in, listen, and then do what he could control instead of worrying about any of it,” McDaniel said. " He chopped wood, got with (quarterback) coach Bevell and (assistant quarterbacks coach) Chandler Henley, and they’ve not done anything but tried to work on technique, fundamentals and how to play the position at an elite level. And they’ve done an outstanding job with that, and henceforth, we were 8-0 with him — or I guess he didn’t finish the game, but you guys get it. He wins a lot.”

The Dolphins have won every game this season in which Tagovailoa was healthy. In the one loss started by Tagovailoa, he sustained a concussion in the first half, spent the second half at a Cincinnati hospital and missed the next two games.

The Dolphins play the San Francisco 49ers at 3:05 p.m. CST Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

Miami has won the five games since Tagovailoa returned from his injury, and San Francisco is on a four-game winning streak.

Sunday’s game will be the fourth in NFL history between a team that has scored at least 30 points in each of its previous four games and a team that has not allowed more than 16 points in any of its previous four games.

During their winning streak, the 49ers have not been scored on in the second half.

I don’t think we look at it as something that we shy away from,” Tagovailoa said on Wednesday. “We embrace adversity. We embrace competition, and it’s a great opportunity for us to showcase what we can do against the best. And what more can you ask?”

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Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter at @AMarkG1.

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