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Tua Tagovailoa: 'Phin it to Win it?

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

Tua Tagovailoa has been one of the best, yet most controversial QBs in the NFL this year. He has been heavily criticized for his weak arm strength and inability to throw the ball downfield. With key additions like head coach Mike McDaniel and superstar receiver Tyreek Hill, many agree that this year is Tua’s make-or-break season.

How has he done so far? He started 3-0 with impressive wins over the Patriots, Ravens and Bills before suffering a scary concussion in the first half against the Bengals in Week 4 on Thursday Night Football. Luckily, he was able to recover before the Dolphins’ Week 7 Matchup vs the Steelers, where he threw for 261 yards and a touchdown and led his team to a 16-10 win.

Tua has played seven full games this year…and he is 7-0. As of Week 11, Tua is second in MVP odds (+500 only behind Mahomes) and is 5-to-1 to bring home the award.

Well, how does Tua compare to some of the league’s best quarterbacks?

One good indicator of a quarterback’s success is ESPN’s QBR (Total Quarterback Rating) metric, which transforms a QB’s performance on a 0 to 100 scale where a score of 50 is average.

Remarkably, Tua is leading the entire league in QBR, and ranks above superstars like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

Another indicator of a QB's success is the advanced metric of EPA. EPA is the Expected Points Added from a player’s performance to his team’s score. In other words, every action that a player does is worth a certain amount of points to a team and EPA allows us to assign numbers to how a player is playing. Using nflfastR (a play-by-play library in RStudio), we can look at Tua’s cumulative EPA as it relates to all other QBs in the NFL.

Tua’s EPA is in teal and is on similar trajectories to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen (the two highest grey lines). The only reason why his cumulative EPA is shorter than other quarterbacks is because the x-axis is the total number of dropbacks a QB takes, and since Tua was injured for a few weeks, he has less dropbacks than most QBs.

Well, what has made Tua so successful this year? A lot of his success can be attributed to his elite receiver duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

Under Mike McDaniel’s west coast offense, Tua has spread the ball to all of his weapons. However, Tua has heavily relied on his superstar receiving combo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle –– targeting them on 53.7% of his passes. This dynamic duo has made Miami one of the best offenses in the league and Tua has done a great job throwing the ball to his playmakers in critical situations.

While it can be argued that targets do not translate into production, Tyreek and Waddle have managed to make the most of their targets, combining for nearly 1600 yards in games Tua has played. These 1600 yards in only seven games is more than any other duo has had in nine or ten games. While they only account for just over 50% of targets in these games, the pair makes up 67% of all of Tua’s passing yards, helping propel the team to a 7-3 start and first place spot in the AFC East.

So, the question remains: how good is Tua Tagovailoa? Tua’s QBR and cumulative EPA show that he is up there among the top quarterbacks of the NFL; his numbers have been comparable to those of superstars like Mahomes and Allen. He is currently second in MVP odds, and is still undefeated in games in which he has been healthy. Despite the fact that he possesses at his disposal two receivers with generational talent, a receiver is only as good as his quarterback (a prime example is DJ Moore).

Through eleven weeks, it looks like Tua and the Dolphins are poised to make a deep run in the playoffs, and if Tua continues stellar play, the Dolphins have a real shot at the Super Bowl…

By Nate Yellin and Jack Gewanter

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