Tua Tagovailoa admits he didn't fully grasp Dolphins playbook as a rookie

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From the moment he took over for Jalen Hurts to lead Alabama to victory in the 2018 national title game, Tua Tagovailoa was hailed as the next big thing. 

"Tank for Tua" became a mantra for bad NFL teams. A hip injury and the meteoric rise of Joe Burrow ensured that he wasn't the first pick of the 2020 draft. But he still arrived in Miami with fanfare and great expectations as the No. 5 pick by the Dolphins. 

After a mixed bag of a rookie season marked by a hesitance to throw the ball deep, the jury remains very much out on how Tagovailoa will fare as a pro. On Wednesday he shed some insight into why he didn't quite meet the hype over the course of his nine starts in 2020. 

He didn't fully grasp the Dolphins playbook.

“I wasn’t comfortable calling plays,” Tagovailoa told reporters. “I think the guys that were here last year were phenomenal. I just didn’t have the comfortability of checking plays, alerting plays and doing that. I just rode with the play, even if I knew it wasn’t going to work. I was going to try to make it work still.

Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins leaves the field after the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Hard Rock Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Tua Tagovailoa's admission sheds light on Miami's decision to look to Ryan Fitzpatrick in some late-game situations last season. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Tua was benched for Fitzpatrick in some pressure situations

After taking over the starting job in week seven, Tagovailoa was replaced in some late-game situations by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa's admission that he was operating with a reduced playbook and limited flexibility at the line of scrimmage sheds light on head coach Brian Flores' decision to look to his veteran backup in high-pressure situations.

Tagovailoa vowed on Wednesday that he feels better prepared going into his sophomore season.

“I didn’t actually know the playbook necessarily really, really good, and that’s no one else's fault but my fault. Our play calls were simple when I was in. I didn’t have alerts and checks. Where now, I feel comfortable and I can maneuver my way through these things now.”

Should Dolphins fans be worried?

A rookie quarterback needing time to grasp the complexities of an NFL playbook is not on its own cause for alarm. Some rookies (see: Justin Herbert) dive right into the NFL and find immediate success. Other quarterbacks (see: Drew Brees) struggle early in their careers before developing into All-Pro passers.

Of course, the patience that Brees was afforded 20 years ago isn't granted to young quarterbacks in a modern NFL that insists on winning now. But the Dolphins invested heavily in Tagovailoa and will presumably give him proper time to develop.

And to be clear, Tagovailoa wasn't bad a rookie. He completed 64.1% of his passes and produced a respectable 11-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

But the Dolphins offense was largely stagnant behind Tagovailoa, who threw for 181.4 yards per game and lacked the big-play explosiveness that marked his college career. The performance led to some concerns that Tagovailoa's college success was more of a product of the Alabama system and the NFL talent surrounding him in Tuscaloosa rather than his own ability. 

But Tagovailoa says now that he has a better grasp of an NFL offense. And that sets up expectations that he'll look more like the Alabama Tua in 2021 than he did as a rookie. 

The Dolphins are always a +325 betting favorite to finish in second place behind the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East this season.

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