The most anticipated quarterback switch of this NFL season has finally arrived. After three wins and three losses to start the year, the Miami Dolphins are reportedly benching starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (bland, overeducated, easily confused for Ryan Tannehill) and replacing him with the rookie second-stringer Tua Tagovailoa (charismatic, exciting, brand frickin’ new).
The move comes on the heels of Tagovailoa’s garbage-time debut last Sunday against the Jets, where the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft delivered a couple of competent completions against decidedly incompetent opposition. His scheduled adversaries after the bye, the LA Rams, will be a significantly tougher test—they get a bunch of sacks and have only allowed one 300-yard passer so far this season. But even though the Dolphins have enjoyed a decent start with Fitzpatrick at the helm, it makes sense from both a team-building and fan excitement perspective to trot out the kid with two full weeks of prep and see what they’ve got.
Fitzpatrick is fine—really, he’s fine—but at 37 years old, he’s clearly closer to the end of his career than its peak. It wasn’t Fitzpatrick’s job to carry the Dolphins to the playoffs, anyway; he was always intended to serve more as an early-stage mentor for Tua than an offensive centerpiece in his own right. The experienced QB succeeded in that regard, which means that his greatest value to the Dolphins at this moment is now as a piece in a trade that suddenly feels inevitable ahead of Nov. 3’s deadline. Fitzpatrick is uneven and imperfect in all the ways he always has been, but he’s still part of the best handful of quarterbacks alive, and better than a number of NFL starters. He’s posted a QB rating of 95.0 while leading his team to a division-leading 160 points in six games, and practically screams out as a trade target for the NFC East-“leading” Dallas Cowboys.
Dealing a veteran QB in order to fully commit to an unproven rookie, while still very much in playoff contention, is walking a narrow tightrope. But Miami will have a nifty Plan B in their back pocket should Tagovailoa be underwhelming. Thanks to the Laremy Tunsil/Kenny Stills trade they made with the Texans last year, the Fins currently hold two first-round picks in next year’s draft, with one of those belonging to 1-5 Houston. Though the season is long and the order may shift, as of right now the Dolphins should be in prime quarterbacking territory when they’re on the clock for the first time in 2021. In order to make an educated pick from that early slot, they’ll need to see a solid sample size of Tua’s NFL performances.
But the question on most people’s minds ahead of Dolphins-Rams in two weeks is not anything as complex as “Will Tua show the kind of promise that will allow the Dolphins front office to make moves that position him as the starter of the future?” The reason this move is such big news is, simply put, everyone wants to see the cool quarterbacks do cool shit, and the possibility of that happening instantly skyrocketed when word of Tua’s opportunity became public.
It’s difficult to remember another top QB prospect who’s inspired this much excited anxiety before even really stepping onto the field. Tagovailoa was by far the best-known player in the draft this year by virtue of his 1-1 record in National Championship Games with Alabama. Since making the most dramatic entrance into the spotlight in college football history, Tua spent two years scoring truckloads of touchdowns as he helmed a nearly unbeatable powerhouse. Every week seemed to bring another spin move into a corner end zone touchdown pass, or a long run away from 11 wrong jerseys, or a devastating long bomb that sailed over every defender and ended up in his wideout’s hands for six.
The promise of those moments returning is the exciting part. The anxiety owes to the fact that Tagovailoa hasn’t started under center in nearly 12 months, since he suffered a brutal injury on a hit against Mississippi State in his final college game—one of a few serious knocks he picked up during his time as an unpaid amateur. He scarcely had a chance to impress scouts since then, as he wasn’t cleared in time for the Combine and then had his pro day cancelled by COVID. He’s reportedly healthy, but he has also spent the first chunk of this season watching his young peers Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert get the sort of in-game experience he’s been missing for so long.
The Dolphins drafted Tagovailoa to start at quarterback, and it was probably inevitable that he would claim that job as his own at some point this season. The rest has always been much less clear, and the question now is not only how and how well Tagovailoa’s considerable talent translates to the NFL, but whether his body will allow him to do this difficult, dangerous job for a living. If he succeeds as the Dolphins’ new starter, we will be witnessing the arrival of another true superstar quarterback: a dual-threat wizard who loves big moments and keeps defenses off balance with his strong arm and quick, shifty feet.
And if he fails? Well, nobody wants to think about that right now.