How Tua Tagovailoa has changed, and why there's confidence with the Miami Dolphins

MIAMI -- As the Dolphins prepared for one-on-one drills with the Philadelphia Eagles during a recent joint practice, Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receiver Tyreek Hill discussed which route to run first.

Hill didn't have a preference, but quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell jumped in and said: "I want to hear the crowd cheer." Tagovailoa told Hill, who's one of the fastest players in the league, to run a go route -- a straight line downfield as fast as possible.

Hill lined up against Eagles cornerback Darius Slay, flashed his quick release off the line of scrimmage and streaked down the sideline. He corralled an arching pass 40 yards downfield while Tagovailoa held his follow-through, maybe a beat or two longer than usual.

Dolphins fans in attendance at the Baptist Health Training Complex in Miami Gardens roared.

Tagovailoa is aware of what fans want -- and expect -- to see from him this season. It's what they've expected since he was the No. 5 overall pick in 2020. But for a variety of reasons, the expectations have gone largely unmet. And preseason passes won't change the narrative.

The deadline to pick up Tagovailoa's fifth-year option is scheduled for May 2023. If it doesn't work out, it won't be because the Dolphins failed to surround him with talent. In this offseason alone, they acquired one of the league's top playmakers in Hill, the top free agent in tackle Terron Armstead, and a creative, offensive-minded head coach in Mike McDaniel.

Now it's up to Tagovailoa, who has been working on personal upgrades throughout the offseason. Part of his transformation has been working on his physical, as well as his mental, preparedness. And the result has been a level of confidence Hill said would surprise people.

"You know, in the NFL, they only give you like two or three years to be a successful quarterback, especially if you're a first-round pick," Hill said on his podcast. "And if you don't succeed after those years, then it's 'kick rocks, man.'

"They're going to put Tua into that. So this is basically his last year, just to show people what he's got."

McDANIEL WAS FLYING from the San Francisco Bay Area to South Florida on Feb. 7 to be introduced as the Dolphins head coach when he FaceTimed Tagovailoa from the plane.

"One thing I know about you is you have the ambition to be great. My job is to coach you to get all that greatness out of you," McDaniel told his quarterback. "I'm going to make sure that when you look back at this day, you're going to be like, 'Damn, that was one of the best days of my career, too.'"

McDaniel followed up the call by not just attending Tagovailoa's charity event in April, but by going on stage during the luau in Miami for a drum lesson that went viral.

"I think that speaks a lot," Tagovailoa said. "That's kind of how the relationship has been, very supportive.

"I go up to his office and tell him I've got a couple of the guys coming over to hang out, and he feels bad that he didn't get an invite to come over and hang out. It's been different, but it's been super cool."

For everything McDaniel had done to create a strong first impression with Tagovailoa, just a few months earlier the Dolphins looked into trading for Deshaun Watson at the deadline, despite Watson then facing 22 active lawsuits alleging sexual assault or sexually inappropriate behavior during massage sessions. Miami's pursuit ended, and Watson eventually waived his no-trade clause to Cleveland and was traded to the Browns.

Miami was also disciplined by the NFL in August for tampering with Tom Brady while he was under contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an attempt to bring him into the organization as a limited partner, football executive and potentially a player. Commissioner Roger Goodell said the violations were of "unprecedented scope and severity," and it cost the Dolphins their first-round pick in 2023, among other sanctions.

They still have the 49ers' first-round pick next year, but two first-rounders would have given the Dolphins more assets with which to move up the draft board and select a quarterback in case Tagovailoa doesn't work out.

In the meantime, Tagovailoa represents Miami's best chance for 2022.

When asked about his team's interest in Brady, Tagovailoa tersely said the Dolphins were "all-in" on the third-year pro, a reflection of the way his coaches and teammates made him feel over the offseason.

And with that support and trust from his organization, Tagovailoa has responded this summer.

STATISTICALLY, THE WORST game of Tagovailoa's career came at the worst possible time -- a must-win Week 17 game at the Tennessee Titans to keep Miami's 2021 playoff hopes alive. In cold, rainy conditions, the Dolphins lost 34-3 as Tagovailoa completed just 18 of 38 passes for 205 yards and an interception. His 53.1 quarterback rating was the lowest of his NFL career. He was sacked a career-high four times and fumbled three times, losing one.

The Dolphins' postseason hopes were dead, but the theory that Tagovailoa didn't have the arm strength for cold weather was alive and well. Afterward, Tagovailoa said he would try to find someplace to practice in the cold, so he visited his younger brother, Taulia, in Maryland in February and did some throwing in snowy conditions.

As for getting the ball downfield, Tagovailoa attempted just 18 passes of at least 25 yards last season. Only Jimmy Garoppolo attempted fewer with 15. But Tagovailoa said that was by design, not because of any lack of arm strength. And when he did throw 25 yards or farther, no quarterback completed a higher percentage than Tagovailoa's 50%.

But Tagovailoa ranked 27th in QBR on pass attempts from outside the pocket last season, with an off-target percentage of 26.7% -- the fifth-worst rate in the league. He recognized he needed to improve throwing off-platform and on the run.

Nick Hicks, who is the co-owner of PER4ORM sports in Davie, Florida, and Tagovailoa put together an "arm strength plan" for the offseason that featured exercises with plyo balls, focused on building core and lower body strength to coincide with his throwing mechanics.

The plan also featured a long-distance-throwing program that gauged his progress. By the seventh week, Tagovailoa's numbers improved dramatically.

"Something that his dad had told me, which really resonated, is when Tua is at his best, his lower half is in the best shape possible," Hicks said. "I saw a lot of progressions with his footwork. He is really using his legs and snapping forward and pushing the ball off his back foot."

The Dolphins saw improvement throughout training camp, and Tagovailoa's confidence seemed to grow with every completion. That was reflected during a media session in June when Tagovailoa was asked about the narrative surrounding his arm strength.

"For me, it's just zone that out," he said. "We come out to practice; everyone else -- Twitter warriors, keyboard warriors, whatever you want to call them -- they're not out here practicing with us working hard. So I don't know if you guys recorded that last [throw] to Tyreek ... I don't know about you, but that looked like money."

It's a level of bravado Tagovailoa had not displayed publicly in his previous two seasons, but those around him say it's a more accurate reflection of his confidence.

"Well, Tua is low-key cocky -- like, a lot of people don't know that," Hill said. "But when you see him start getting into his zone -- when it's like, 'Oh yeah, that dude is unstoppable' -- when he gets locked into that zone, it is over with for the opposing defense. I promise you.

"I've had a chance to see that a few times out of him, where he gets into the zone and he's like on everybody's behind, and it's like, ridiculous, you know? That really motivates the rest of the guys on the team, having such a great leader in Tua."

IT WAS 2:30 P.M. on Aug. 20, five hours before the Dolphins were to face the Las Vegas Raiders in their preseason home opener, and there was only one player on the field.

With the play sheet in hand, Tagovailoa was getting in his mental reps. It's not something he'd been known to do in his prior two NFL seasons.

"I'm just trying to picture the operation of how I want the offense to operate," Tagovailoa said. "So I'm looking at the playcall, saying the playcall out, getting the motions. If a certain person is not where they're supposed to be defensively, then that's an opportunity to exert all the adjectives, as far as getting us into the right play.

"That's what my practice is every time that I go out there. And then going through my entire progression. Just all the little details."

McDaniel was impressed.

"That says everything. That's why his teammates are confident in him," McDaniel said. "That's why I'm confident in him, and that's why his coaching staff is, because that is something that he has done on his own, with guidance from his quarterback coach. ... Coming in here this year, that wasn't something that I had heard about Tua -- that wasn't really his M.O., just to go ahead and go outside the framework of whatever the schedule is and really invest all-in on your craft.

"He has really been doing that every single day at the beginning of the day before he gets the script, and that's why he is owning the offense and leading us well so that we'll be in a good position to be what his teammates really need him to be Week 1."

Tagovailoa's transformation, at least heading into the regular season, was completed Thursday, when his teammates voted him captain for the first time.

"I think it speaks volumes on where he's at with the team and their belief in him," McDaniel said.