Tua Tagovailoa can bring the Dolphins to an AFC East title
By: Cody Molla (@Cmolla1)
Far removed from dominating the division in the 70s and early 80s the Dolphins have won 4 division titles since 1985, and only two since 2000. The franchise and fans have their eyes focused on winning a division title and making a splash in the postseason. There is hype and expectations for the Miami Dolphins coming off a 10-6 season last year. Improvement is expected all around, and with that improvement do they win the AFC East?
The hype for this year comes off a strong 2020 season and strong offseason. However, the Dolphins aren’t the only team improved within the division. The Buffalo Bills return their core from last season that played in the AFC Championship game. The New England Patriots return players on defense that opted out of last season and have returned their quarterback for a second straight year who is more comfortable in his position within the offense. The New York Jets are completely turned over and though they don’t pose a threat to win the division in anyone’s eyes, they do have a chance to spoil someone’s season.
The biggest factor in winning the AFC East for the Miami Dolphins is to win their divisional games. Last year the Dolphins went 3-3 in the six division games. They swept the Jets, split with New England, and were swept by Buffalo. The Bills in perspective went 6-0. Winning division games is like winning two games in the standings, not only does it directly give you a game up on your rivals but it gives you tie-breakers which may play a role in deciding a competitive division winner. Yes! The AFC East is now a competitive division. The Patriots are no longer a juggernaut and three teams have playoff expectations placed on them.
To be division winners the Miami Dolphins will need to be 4-2 minimum in the six division games. More likely than not a record of 3-1 in games versus the Bills and Patriots would be necessary as well. This will be tested early in the season as their first two games are with New England and Buffalo.
These rivalry games will be competitive and a handful of key plays need to be made to seal the wins. Last year in a tight opener vs the Patriots the defense failed to stop Cam Newton and the Patriots run game. The Dolphins have the tools to do so this time around and score points to put New England away. As they did in the second meeting last year.
The first Bills game was completive but the Dolphins failed to contain the big pass plays from Josh Allen to his receivers. Part of this was an injured secondary that improved as the season went on. A slow start to the season this year will likely lead to the Dolphins failing to win the division again. A fast start and improved play is expected and will be key to winning the 2021 division crown.
After one game of 2021 preseason, the national narrative on Tua has piggybacked on their 2020 takes. In the preseason opener, Tagovailoa finished with a stat line of 8-11, 99 yards, and one interception. Tua played in three possessions in the first quarter and got the Dolphins inside the red zone twice on his final two drives. After having a full offseason knowledge of the playbook I saw an improved Tua in limited action. For those who didn’t watch the game and only saw the highlights you likely saw the big reception to Gesicki for 50 yards and the interception that drew large criticism. Yes, the interception was a poor decision. Whenever you throw a bit off rhythm late over the middle in the NFL bad things happen. What would the narrative be if that pass was completed for a touchdown?
What you didn’t see shown in all those highlights was a three and out to start the game, due to a dropped first down on a good corner route ball thrown by Tua that should’ve extended the drive. On the next two drives, Tua showed confidence, aggressive throws, and a handle on the playbook. These are all things he lacked in his rookie season. Tua has now had a full offseason, shown health from the hip injury, and an improved arsenal of weapons.
The Dolphins focused on making improvements around Tua and giving him weapons. Another reason I think Tua’s game is improved enough to win the division is that not all the offensive starters played in the preseason game. Tua defendants will tell you about the lack of weapons last year and how he was throwing to fringe NFL receivers. He did a lot of that in this preseason game and his improvements were noticeable.
Tua is a Drew Brees prototype of quarterback more than the playmaking strong-arm type like Mahomes, Rodgers, and Watson to some effect. Tua’s strengths are being accurate, on rhythm, and hitting receivers in stride allowing them to make the plays with their athleticism. He is not going to throw passes that travel 60 plus yards in the air downfield and cross body. The offense is built around Tua and it has the ability to score points as well as move down the field efficiently and often. Tua is the focus and key for the Dolphins offensive success and a division title.
On the other side of the ball, a huge part of the defense has officially been returned. After requesting a trade last month, All-Pro CB Xavien Howard and the Miami Dolphins came to an agreement on a restructured contract. Howard is coming off the best season in his career thus far and although 10 interceptions is hard to replicate I expect another strong season from X-man. The key will be health. Since coming into the league in 2016 he has 22 interceptions, the second-most in that span. He trails Marcus Peters by one despite playing 19 fewer games in that span. He has missed many games due to knee and ankle injuries.
With Howard, the Dolphins secondary is set up to be one of the best across the NFL. Playing opposite Howard is Byron Jones, who is a top 15 corner in his own right and could be a top 10 layer at his position. Along with the two highly regarded outside corners is a talented slot corner in Justin Coleman who is making his dolphin debut this year, upcoming player Noah Igbinoghene, rookie Jevon Holland, veterans Eric Rowe, Jason McCourty, and fellow youngsters in Nik Needham and Brandon Jones. The backend of the Dolphins defense is solid.
The third focus for the Dolphins winning the division is line play on both sides of the ball. The offensive line is the bigger focus. The preseason game versus the Bears didn’t show improvement on the offensive line. In fact, it prompted a trade for another offensive lineman. The Dolphins traded for Greg Little to seek another quality player. The offensive line struggled to protect Tua and open up running lanes consistently last year. Without an offensive line, it doesn’t matter what skill players you have. Look at the Chiefs superbowl performance. I don’t expect the offensive line to be one of the worst in the league but a slight improvement in all the young players will be a huge dividend. How much they’ve learned and improved needs to be seen.
On defense, the line needs to create pressure and get to the quarterback more consistently. With the good coverage if the pressure gets home early and often the Dolphins defense will have a lot of turnovers and spend limited time on the field. First-round pick Jaelen Phillips was brought in to help with this area of concern.
The Dolphins return to a division title is in sight. A lot of the load falls on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. I believe Tua’s improvement from year one will surprise a lot of people and the addition of playmakers will help this offense a lot. With a strong defense and potent offense, the Dolphins have the capability of winning 12 games. The first two will be the tone setters and the pivotal ones to earn the title of AFC East Champ.