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Analysis: Do Dolphins essentially have one playbook for Tua, one for Fitzpatrick?

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post
Tua Tagovailoa never threw deep against the Raiders.

The question posed to offensive coordinator Chan Gailey on Tuesday was inspired in part by former Dolphins quarterback Don Strock, who isn’t the only one wondering if the team’s play-calling when Tua Tagovailoa is playing isn’t different from when Ryan Fitzpatrick is at the controls.

Different, as in much, much closer to the vest with the rookie.

“You have the game plan set up that you go into it with,” Gailey said. “And then you’re in a different mode when you get to the end there. You’re in a totally different mode, so it is different because of the situations — not because of the players.”

Given how the offense was stuck in neutral for much of three quarters against the Las Vegas Raiders last weekend, and given how the offense reacted as if it had guzzled a gallon of Red Bull in the final 10 minutes when Fitzpatrick replaced Tagovailoa, it cannot be argued with a straight face that the results weren’t night and day.

Exactly why, and how the Dolphins’ offense can look more like it did in those final 10 minutes and less like it did in the first 50, is what has South Florida abuzz as coach Brian Flores says he plans to retain Tagovailoa as his starter Sunday at Buffalo, where a victory would assure Miami of a playoff berth.

Was it really the situation that gave the offense a kick in the bottom? Or was it the man at quarterback? And if it was the man at quarterback, does it indicate a lack of trust — either by coaches or Tagovailoa himself — to let it fly the way Fitzpatrick did?

To take a step back from that Raiders game is quite revealing.

In the first quarter, Tagovailoa threw six passes. All short.

In the second quarter: seven passes. All short.

Third: eight passes. All short.

Fourth: one pass. You guessed it. Short.

Now, Fitzpatrick.

Of his 14 attempts, 10 were short, including one that running back Myles Gaskin turned into a 59-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. But four went deep, producing two completions, for 31 and 34 yards.

To look at it another way, it wasn’t until 6:58 remained that the Dolphins first attempted to stretch the field. The Raiders, still subscribing to the vertical passing game Al Davis loved, attempted nine deep throws in the game, completing four for 169 yards.

To attribute the difference between plays called for Tagovailoa and plays called for Fitzpatrick as situational is debatable. The Dolphins trailed by anywhere from three to seven points when Tagovailoa was in, but only by 16-13 when Fitzpatrick was inserted, again, with 9:47 remaining — hardly a time that demands you tear up the game plan and go bombs away. But two of Fitzpatrick’s deep attempts came on that first possession, resulting in a 16-16 tie.

Only two of Fitzpatrick’s deep heaves were in desperation mode, on that 18-second drive that will go down in Dolphins history. That includes his no-look bomb to Mack Hollins for 34 yards to help set up Jason Sanders’ winning 44-yard field goal with one second left.

By the time it was over, Tagovailoa had averaged 4.3 yards per attempt and 5.5 yards per completion, paling next to Fitzpatrick’s 14.0 per attempt and 20.2 per completion.

Broadening the scope to the season as a whole, many of these same indicators are in play. The story they tell is a reluctance to go deep, which, in fairness, can also be explained by a series of injuries to Dolphins receivers as well as the obvious need to add a deep threat in next year’s draft.

Long passing plays? Kansas City has 67 going for 20 or more yards. But that’s Kansas City. Miami? 34 (tied for 30th).

Another good indicator is the distance in air travel of pass attempts. Tom Brady and Drew Lock lead the NFL at 8.9 yards. Others of interest include Buffalo’s Josh Allen, the Dolphins’ next opponent, and rookie Joe Burrow (both 8.5), Patrick Mahomes (8.2),  Ryan Tannehill (8.1) and Justin Herbert (7.3). Fitzpatrick is at 7.8. Tagovailoa: 7.5. And the air travel per completion is 6.8 for Fitzpatrick (seventh in the NFL) and 5.8 for Tagovailoa (tied for 20th).

A final variable to turn to is pressure, since no quarterback can be expected to go deep if his line won’t cooperate. According to Pro Football Reference, Tagovailoa has been pressured only 14.7 percent of the time, ranking 34th in the league and less than half the rate of the most-rushed QB, San Francisco’s Nick Mullens. Fitzpatrick is at 20.9 percent.

Yes, that’s a lot of numbers. But what they add up to is something Strock wondered aloud to The Miami Herald this week.

“What I saw in the game was there was a difference in the plays that were called for Fitzpatrick and for Tua,” Strock said. “They were totally different plays. … I don’t know why. That’s my question.”

Situational football — that was Gailey’s explanation and he’s sticking to it.

“You get behind and you need to get down the field and score points quickly — then that has a lot to do with it,” Gailey said. “And then we’ve been a team that has tried to be nine-, 10-, 11-, 12-play drives. Run the football. Play-action pass. Control the time on the clock. And so that’s the situation that we found with Tua in the ballgame. Plus you’re missing some receivers from time to time and that has something to do with it. And so a lot of that goes into decision-making about how the game is being called and what kind of plays we run.”

So, too, is Fitzpatrick’s comfort level with some receivers.

“He does have a lot more experience with a few of the receivers,” Gailey said. “You noticed he threw it to Isaiah (Ford) and to Mike (Gesicki) a couple of times — guys he has a great comfort level with. He knows how they’re going to react in certain situations.”

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