It's Tua Time in Miami, and the immediate question is why now? It was well known that 2020 first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa would eventually become the Miami Dolphins' starting quarterback, but coming off back-to-back blowout wins does not seem like an ideal time to switch things up.
Most would have been fine with Tagovailoa sitting for longer, or even all of the NFL season, and learning behind veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had been playing very good football through six weeks. But after taking a step back, this move makes a lot more sense.
The way Dolphins coach Brian Flores has handled a difficult quarterback situation shows his plan will set Tagovailoa up for success, even if it isn't exactly how I would have mapped it. The timing of the decision comes as a surprise, but Flores' process has seemingly always had the rookie QB as his top priority. Flores has watched Tagovailoa in practice, and if he deems him ready to start now, then the move might be well-timed.
Patience is rare among NFL teams when it comes to playing rookie quarterbacks. Flores resisted the pressure to play Tagovailoa heading into the Dolphins' season opener at New England. And that same pressure was ratcheted up even higher when Fitzpatrick hit a rough patch and the Dolphins fell to 1-3. Add on that there was early success from rookie quarterbacks, including Cincinnati's Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert.
But still, Flores resisted caving to any outside pressure.
The second-year head coach, seemingly one of Fitzpatrick's biggest fans, preached patience to the Dolphins' fan base and promised he would not be rushed into starting Tagovailoa. He treated this decision as if he were the father and the quarterbacks were his sons, so in the safest scenario -- up 24-0 late in the fourth quarter against the NFL-worst New York Jets in Week 6 -- Flores let Tagovailoa get his feet wet by inserting him into the game. Tagovailoa had five plays, two throws and a moment he'll remember forever.
Then, when everyone felt Fitzpatrick was most secure in his starting job, Flores made the move to Tagovailoa. This wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision, either.
"Expect the unexpected from coach Flo," one team source told ESPN.
One player told ESPN he was surprised by the move but noted Tagovailoa keeps improving and makes one or two "wow" highlight plays in practice every week.
The biggest thing to know about the Dolphins' move is that it's more about Tagovailoa's development than Fitzpatrick's play.
Fitzpatrick did nothing to lose his job. In fact, Fitzpatrick's play would give every reason to believe he strengthened his grip on it. He ranks seventh in the NFL in QBR and he's the most beloved player in the Dolphins' locker room.
But everything about the 2020 season was about preparing for life with Tagovailoa as the starter and finding the ideal moment to make that transition. Although it's a blow for Fitzpatrick to be benched while playing his best football of the season, Flores' QB plan has never really been about him in the grand scheme of things. It has always been about Tagovailoa.
It will be 351 days since Tagovailoa's scary, career-threatening hip injury when he makes his first pro start on Nov. 1 against the Los Angeles Rams (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Don't underestimate the impact that anniversary has on the decision to start him.
Another important factor to consider is the Dolphins are entering their Week 7 bye, which gives Tagovailoa two weeks to prepare. It's worth wondering if Miami's plan was always to start Tagovailoa after the bye week, which was initially scheduled for Week 11 before schedule changes happened because of the coronavirus affecting other teams.
The Dolphins' move is reminiscent of the 2004 New York Giants benching Kurt Warner, who was playing well and had led his team to a 5-4 record in the first half of the season, for rookie Eli Manning.
The Manning-led Giants struggled, going 1-6 the rest of the way and missing the playoffs. Manning threw more interceptions than touchdowns, but the experience was invaluable. Manning led the Giants to the playoffs in each of the next four seasons, including two NFC East titles and a Super Bowl championship.
It's possible and maybe even likely the Dolphins' offense takes a step back initially with Tagovailoa leading it. Miami has two rookies, right guard Solomon Kindley and right tackle Robert Hunt, protecting Tagovailoa's blind side. Although the offensive line is much improved through six games, Fitzpatrick did a lot to cover up its faults. Tagovailoa's timing will have to be on point and fast for him to avoid getting hit often.
Another impact on how this transition has played out? The Dolphins are ecstatic to have Fitzpatrick in the fold to show Tagovailoa the way. Fitzpatrick will support him and teach him, and that's a rare trait in today's NFL. That dynamic between the experienced QB and the rookie has had a big impact on how this has all played out.
Flores believes this is the right time for Tagovailoa, and it makes more sense. The Dolphins (3-3) are in the thick of the playoff race and it will be invaluable to get their rookie QB the experience he needs. This is a franchise in a rebuild with promises to prioritize the long-term outlook over the short-term outlook.
Tagovailoa is the Dolphins' most talented quarterback and biggest star since Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino -- and this is before he has even started a game.
Tua Time begins in a bit of a surprising way, but early indications are the rookie quarterback is set up for success.