"I know outsiders are probably going to say, 'Well, it wasn't you in there that brought the win,'" Tagovailoa said. "They call him FitzMagic for a reason."
Tagovailoa was right. The 34-yard miracle heave down the left sideline against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 16 with his facemask being yanked was a quintessential FitzMagic moment he described as the best of his 16-year career. Despite coach Brian Flores making clear after the game that Tagovailoa was still the Dolphins' QB1 and then adamantly defending his decision a day later, national debate stirred about whether Fitzpatrick should start Week 17.
In a must-win game at the Buffalo Bills on Sunday (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS), Tagovailoa will get a chance to validate his coach's decision.
"There's really no extra, added pressure. The expectation for myself is very high in how I perform and how I go out there and try to lead the guys to victory. Obviously, this past weekend, I didn't play to that standard," Tagovailoa said. "If you can't get the job done, then that's on you. That's on no one else."
The rookie quarterback's star moments will come in due time. But for now, Flores says he won't hesitate to substitute Fitzpatrick for Tagovailoa for the third time this season if the offense is struggling and he feels the veteran's aggressive strengths will spark them to win.
Yet this isn't about Tagovailoa vs. Fitzpatrick. The dynamic between the players has worked because of communication between them and the coaches; the roles are clear.
Tagovailoa's biggest competition is himself.
Tagovailoa has been more efficient yet risk-averse. Fitzpatrick has been more explosive yet volatile. The perfect home for Tagovailoa will be gaining more of Fitzpatrick's explosive passing tendencies while keeping his superior efficiency. This is at the heart of Tagovailoa's internal competition.
The rookie has the ability and intelligence to make every throw Fitzpatrick has made; remember Tagovailoa's tight-window touchdown to tight end Mike Gesicki against the Chiefs in Week 14? But he's still learning to trust his eyes, his ever-evolving wide receiver group and the difference between "college open" with speedy receivers at Alabama and "NFL open" with Dolphins' jump-ball receivers who are among the league's worst in creating separation.
The lack of speedy playmaking wideouts will be addressed this offseason, but Tagovailoa can't use that as an excuse.
"Pushing the ball downfield," Tagovailoa said. "I would say that's what I need to do a better job with, especially this past game and games prior."
Tagovailoa works best as a quick, timing-based passer. When he has less than 2.5 seconds to throw, Tagovailoa completes 71% of his passes. That completion percentage drops to 54% when he has more than 2.5 seconds. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick's yards per attempt increases when he has 2.5-plus seconds (8.58) compared to less than 2.5 seconds (7.09).
Fitzpatrick is also completing 62.5% of his 48 passes of 15-plus yards, tied for first in NFL among 36 qualifiers. Tagovailoa is completing 35.9% of his 39 passes of 15-plus yards, which ranks 31st of 36. Tagovailoa is the only qualifier without a pass over 20-plus yards downfield over the past two weeks, per ESPN Stats and Information.
Fitzpatrick has shown more effectiveness taking downfield shots, even when wide receivers aren't clearly open, and that's where Tagovailoa's competition stems more from his own growth to do the same as his mentor.
Tagovailoa has excelled in taking care of the football. He has 13 total touchdowns to three turnovers, and his 0.9% interception rate is the NFL's lowest and tied for ninth lowest in a single-season. Fitzpatrick's 3% interception rate ranks 33rd among 36 qualifiers.
"Turnovers are the No. 1 reason why people lose games," Flores said. "That's a good place to start at the quarterback position. [Tua's] done a good job from that standpoint."
The offense has looked different when Fitzpatrick replaces Tagovailoa -- more passes with deep vertical routes -- and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey confirmed Tuesday that the Dolphins' game has been called differently for each QB. Gailey warns it is not a matter of trust in either QB that sways the playcalling.
"We've been a team that has tried to be 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-play drives, run the football, play-action pass, control the time on the clock. That's the situation that we found with Tua in the ballgame," Gailey said. "You have the game plan set up that you go into it with, and you're in a different mode when you get to the end there. It is different because of the situations, not because of players."
Gailey wants his quarterbacks to manage the game early and then be more aggressive in the fourth quarter, with Tagovailoa better at the former and Fitzpatrick the latter. But, Gailey could call a more aggressive game earlier on for Tagovailoa as well as allow the rookie to play freely in no-huddle more. Also, Tagovailoa can do a better job letting it rip more down the field.
Tagovailoa's development isn't necessarily a linear process, and it's easy to forget he spent his entire offseason rehabbing after a career-threatening hip injury. This isn't the final version of Tagovailoa.
He will have a full offseason to get stronger and better. There will likely be a conversation on whether Gailey will return as playcaller in 2021. Gailey was noncommittal this week on his plans, saying it has been the most unusual season of his career because of the coronavirus pandemic and he is focused on Week 17. It's worth noting tight ends coach George Godsey has taken on a larger role in coaching Tagovailoa over the past two months.
The hope is Tagovailoa doesn't allow these benchings to affect his confidence and that he will earn the trust to remain the starter in moments of adversity. There's no reason that effort can't start Sunday.
It's not Tagovailoa vs. Fitzpatrick, Tagovailoa vs. Gailey or Tagovailoa vs. a potential 2021 first-round QB.
It's Tagovailoa vs. Tagovailoa to reach that next level.