How Does Tua’s Rookie Year Stack up to His Peers?

BY MICHAEL QUIRK

Saying Twitter is a bit of a toxic place is like saying Oscar acceptance speeches are a bit pretentious. This toxicity is further exacerbated any time Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s name is broached on national accounts such as NFL Live, PFF, or PFT, among others. Even the most mundane of posts, along the lines of “Tua reportedly likes ice cream” gets filled with strangely agitated Bills, Patriots, and Chargers fans posting, “of course he does, because he’s also soft and melts when heat is applied.”

Some national pundits have even joined the fray as Colin Cowherd said on his daily talkshow (before Miami traded out of No. 3 in this month’s draft) that the Dolphins should consider drafting Ohio State’s Justin Fields one year after taking Tua at No. 5. The first issue with that suggestion is obviously how Cowherd ignored the well-known fact that general managers loathe admitting to their mistakes. Nothing exemplifies admitting a mistake quite like drafting quarterbacks in the top five in back-to-back years. The Arizona Cardinals did something similar recently, taking Kyler Murray at No. 1 a year removed from selecting Josh Rosen 10th overall. Is Tua really in the Rosen realm? You know, a guy who has been in the league for three years and is currently on his fourth team?

You would think so, given that even a minority of Dolphins Twitter speaks up to how the Dolphins could or should move on from the former Alabama signal caller. So if fellow NFL fans flock to comment threads to treat Tua like former Cavalier’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, talkshow pundits suggest Miami take a quarterback, and even some of Dolphins Twitter is suggesting a new guy under center, that must mean Tua had an abysmal rookie season, right? The numbers suggest otherwise.

UNSPECIFIED LOCATION – APRIL 23: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this still image from video provided by the NFL, Tua Tagovailoa shows off the lining of his jacket during the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft on April 23, 2020. (Photo by NFL via Getty Images)

I parsed through the numbers of first round quarterbacks’ rookie seasons dating back to 2015. Since that time, there have been 20 selected in the first round, though for the purpose of this piece I am going to rank out of 19 as the Green Bay Packers’ Jordan Love has yet to throw an NFL pass. Here are the quarterbacks in the last six years with the team they spent their rookie season:

  • 2020: Joe Burrow (CIN) , Tua (MIA), Justin Herbert (LAC)
  • 2019: Murray (AZ), Daniel Jones (NYG), Dwayne Haskins (WFT)
  • 2018: Baker Mayfield (CLE), Sam Darnold (NYJ), Josh Allen (BUF), Rosen (AZ), Lamar Jackson (BAL)
  • 2017: Mitch Trubisky (CHI), Patrick Mahomes (KC), Deshaun Watson (HOU)
  • 2016: Jared Goff (LAR), Carson Wentz (PHI), Paxton Lynch (DEN)
  • 2015: Jameis Winston (TB), Marcus Mariota (TEN)

Two of the 19 quarterbacks listed played only sparingly in their rookie campaigns as Mahomes started one game and Lynch just two. Their numbers, obviously, offer a minuscule sample size for this exercise, but also show that some quarterbacks are given the benefit of having a rookie year to learn rather than to be thrown into the flames. For Mahomes, that approach worked beautifully as he is now the undisputed best quarterback in football, and for Lynch, obviously not as well as he was out of football entirely last year. Only three quarterbacks started all 16 games: Winston for Tampa, Wentz for Philadelphia, and Murray for Arizona. Since drafting them, two of those teams (Tampa and Philadelphia) have gone on to win Super Bowls, but neither of which came with the aforementioned draftee winning that game for them.

On that note, the most important thing a quarterback can do you for you is win you games. I know I know, wins are not a quarterback stat, and you cannot point to rings as a symbol of greatness as Brad Johnson, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles, and Doug Williams all have more Super Bowl titles than Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. That said, you can extrapolate something from a quarterback’s win-loss record as a rookie; as we’ve seen with Russell Wilson in Seattle and Jackson in Baltimore that the biggest “ask” of rookie quarterbacks isn’t always to let loose and put on a show, but rather to put the team in position to win the game. Only three quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2015 led their team to winning records as a starter: Mahomes (1-0), Jackson (6-1), and Tua (6-3).

Again, I understand that winning is not a quarterback stat and there is immense context that accompanies those numbers such as coaching and surrounding talent. Let’s stay in that same area, however, and look further into the prompt of “don’t try to do too much and keep us in position to win the game” by factoring in turnovers. It wouldn’t be accurate to gauge the turnover marks by just the amount of interceptions thrown (led by Winston and Darnold with 15 each), as the amount of passes thrown ranges anywhere from 35 by Mahomes up to 607 by Wentz. Rather, let’s look at two things: percentage of interceptions thrown per pass attempted, and touchdown-to-interception rate.

Tua ties for third among the quarterbacks at an interception percentage of just 1.7 as he threw five picks in 290 attempts. He is tied with Herbert, trailing just Burrow and Lynch (1.2). The worst in their rookie years at this metric are: Watson (3.9), Allen (3.8), Darnold and Rosen (3.6 each). Those first two names are pretty curious given the fact that many in the Dolphins fanbase are clamoring for a trade for the now embattled Watson (who, don’t get me wrong, if he is cleared is certainly a trade you at least kick the tires on); and Allen, who is the subject of great pride for an incessantly trolling Bills fanbase, yet came in worse on the list than Darnold and Rosen, two former AFC East quarterbacks that have been much maligned.

When it comes to touchdown-to-interception ratios, only four of the quarterbacks came in above a 2:1 mark: Burrow (13:5), Herbert (31:10!), Watson (19:8), and Tua (11:5). Only three quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdowns, one of which being Mahomes (0:1) which again is not statistically terribly relevant, along with Allen (10:12) and Rosen (11:14).

Now that we have covered the turnover piece, let’s look at the other side of the spectrum: touchdowns. It’s not enough to just limit the mistakes, but at the most important position in pro sports, you have to be able to make plays down the field and in the red zone. Tua ranked eighth in touchdown-per-attempt percentage at 3.8 percent. The quarterbacks in front of him are Watson (9.3!), Mayfield (5.6), Herbert (5.2), Jones(5.2), Mariota (5.1), Darnold (4.1), and Winston(4.1). Diving into whom had what targets adds an array of context to this piece as having guys like DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans never hurts, but at an attempt to not over-convolute things, I’ll save that for another time.

In order to score touchdowns, teams have to be able to move the ball down the field. A three-and-out does no one any good, so finding a quarterback that can complete a large number of his passes is as important as anything. Tua ranked fourth out of 19 in completion percentage as a rookie at 64.1 percent. The quarterbacks in front of him are Herbert (66.6 percent), Burrow (65.3), and Murray (64.4). Nine of the quarterbacks came in under 60 percent, with the bottom three being Rosen (55.2), Goff (54.6), and Allen (52.8).

MIAMI, FL – DECEMBER 02: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills leads the team on to the field prior to the game between the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium on December 2, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Tua’s rookie year also deserves the context that it was less than one year removed from dislocating his hip and fracturing the posterior wall, and like Burrow and Herbert, came with the most unique offseason in NFL history given the global pandemic. He was one of three quarterbacks with a winning record, was third in lowest interception percentage, fourth in completion percentage, and eighth in touchdown percentage.

The point of all of this is not to say Tua will be better than Mahomes or Watson or Allen, who is fresh off a second-team All-Pro season with the Bills two years removed from a dreadful rookie campaign. It isn’t even to say Tua will be the long-awaited franchise quarterback in Miami. Hell, nine of the 19 quarterbacks listed are not even on the team that drafted them, anymore.

The point is that any narrative attempting to describe Tua’s rookie year as a disappointment warranting a change of direction is beyond premature. Tua had no running back rush for 600 yards and only one, Patrick Laird, played more than 12 games. The receivers and tight ends saw only Mack Hollins and Adam Shaheen play a full year in Miami in 2020. Let’s not forget, either, that the now-departed coordinator running the Dolphins’ offense was Chan Gailey, a man who was out of football entirely the three years preceding.

Does it help the perception of Tua that Herbert, drafted one pick later and reportedly not considered by the Miami front office, had inarguably the best rookie season of the 19 quarterbacks listed? Absolutely not, and that could very well prove to be a decision that haunts the franchise much like the Greg Oden-Kevin Durant debate historically mishandled by the Portland Trail Blazers. Could Tua end up usurping Herbert like Allen did to Mayfield, the latter of whom had the infinitely better rookie year but is now unquestionably below the former in the NFL hierarchy? That is also very plausible.

One thing is for sure, however, and that is 2021 is going to be a big “prove-it” year for Tua. He is now the starter and leader of the team going into Week 1, has new and fresh eyes at offensive coordinator, has a full offseason, is fully healthy, and figures to have some shiny new toys to throw to following the draft later this month. Nothing is set in stone today on what Tua’s career will be, but one year from now, we will know a lot more on if Miami has their franchise guy or if they should be looking ahead to options in the 2022 draft.

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