Tua Tagovailoa's breakout game puts NFL on notice about him and Dolphins' potent offense | Opinion

Safid Deen
USA TODAY

Six touchdowns.

A whopping 469 yards.

And the NFL’s first comeback victory facing a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit in 12 years.

After two seasons of doubt and criticism about his arm strength and ability to lead a franchise, Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins had a breakthrough 42-38 victory over Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens last week.

You want arm strength? Watch the replays of his touchdowns of 48 and 60 yards to his most lethal weapon, Tyreek Hill.

Leading and handling adversity? You’ll notice those two touchdowns to Hill came in the fourth quarter, along with two others, like the game-winner to another speedster Jaylen Waddle with 14 seconds left.

The Dolphins put the league on notice: Their offense – with Tagovailoa wheeling and dealing to Hill, Waddle and others – can compete with anyone in the NFL.

Still, Tagovailoa knows just one outstanding performance won’t end all the discussion about him. He must stack moments like his last game to rewrite the narrative.

“He took such a step in the right direction,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said of Tagovailoa on Monday.

Tagovailoa’s career and inherent criticism has coincided with a recent renaissance at the quarterback position, where young franchise stars see success so early in their careers that it resets the bar and school of thought on how teams approach the position.

Blame quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes (who has a Super Bowl title), Jackson (2019 MVP), Josh Allen (AFC title game in 2020), Joe Burrow (reigning AFC champions) and Justin Herbert (most touchdowns and passing yards in two seasons) for that.

It’s why teams have not hesitated to move on from quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold, Mitch Trubisky and others sometimes before their rookie contracts expire. It’s the same standard younger quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones will be held to as well.

Tagovailoa is teetering on the same boat in Miami in his third NFL season, but first under McDaniel with Hill as the splash offseason signing intended to help evaluate the Dolphins’ quarterback in a make-it-break-it year.

And in Tagovailoa’s second game of the season – with the Dolphins staring at a 35-14 deficit with 26 seconds left in the third quarter – he had a game for the record books.

Tagovailoa became the first quarterback to throw six touchdowns in a game since Mahomes did twice and Trubisky did once (yes, Trubisky) in 2018.

All while outplaying Jackson, who became the first player to throw for more than 300 yards with three passing touchdowns and rush for more 100 yards with a rushing touchdown since at least 1950.

“I would say I’m always confident in what I can do, confident in myself,” Tagovailoa said of his performance.

“But I think that just shows the resiliency of our team. It brings all our confidence up, confidence in one another, confidence that if the offense has a turnover that the defense is going to get us the ball back and vice versa.”

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Tua Tagovailoa walks on the field after the Dolphins' win over the Ravens.

Tagovailoa was 13 of 17 for 199 yards with four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. He was 24 of 30 for 319 yards and five touchdowns if you count the entire second half. He rebounded from a 12 of 20 start with 150 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in the first half.

More important, Tagovailoa flexed the clutch gene he had at Alabama when he found his college teammate Waddle in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds left in the game.

Hill finished with 11 catches for 190 yards, while Waddle also had 11 catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns as the Dolphins became the first team since 2011 to overcome a deficit of 21 points or more. All other teams were 0-711 before the Dolphins accomplished the feat.

“He’s dealt with so much criticism and outside noise from people that aren’t in the building, people that aren’t aware of the situation ... rather than understand that he’s a young quarterback and he’s only getting better, and he’s made plays for this organization for the third year now,” Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki said of Tagovailoa.

"And now this year, people want to hop on the bandwagon, hop on the train. And if I was him, I wouldn’t let them.”

After a career day, Tagovailoa told his teammates in the locker room to enjoy the victory over the Ravens, but keep in mind what’s ahead.

They’ll host Allen and the reigning, two-time AFC East champion Buffalo Bills on Sunday in Miami, and travel on a short week to face Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals four days later to start Week 4.

The Bills have won seven straight games in the series, where Tagovailoa and the Dolphins defense have watched Allen dominate, including a beatdown by at least 30 points in each of the last two seasons.

The Dolphins (2-0) could set themselves up nicely in the AFC playoff picture if they’re able to keep the momentum rolling against teams that have been the last few standing for the Super Bowl in recent years.

If Tagovailoa wants to take another step in his game and his career as the Dolphins' starter, stacking a win over Jackson with wins against Allen and Burrow could do wonders for how many think of him around the league moving forward.

“He knows he did some really good things. I think deep down, he wouldn’t say it. But I think there’s also something to the fact that none of his teammates were surprised, which is much more impactful than words,” McDaniel said of Tagovailoa.

“I think that’s great for him. He deserves it. None of it was given at all. He earned every ounce of that.”