When the NFL juggled its schedule to accommodate the postponement of the New England Patriots-Denver Broncos game by a week to this past Sunday, the ripple effect included the Dolphins having three games rescheduled and their bye week moved from Week 11 to Week 7. Well, Week 7 is now at hand, and the Dolphins, with their earlier-than-planned bye, decided the time is right to hand the reins to Tagovailoa, the celebrated prospect chosen fifth in April’s draft.
The Dolphins’ decision was confirmed Tuesday by a person familiar with the situation; it was first reported by ESPN. The team believed, the person said, that the bye week was the appropriate time to make the move. So the rescheduled bye perhaps merely accelerated the move, one that the Dolphins can only hope will last for the next decade or more.
With the Dolphins on the fringes of the AFC playoff race after winning three of their first six games as Fitzpatrick provided occasional “FitzMagic” sightings, only time will tell whether Coach Brian Flores made the switch at the proper time.
“They should write an NFL self-help book on how to handle a rookie quarterback, and Brian Flores should author it,” former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt wrote on Twitter.
In today’s NFL, top quarterback prospects will get their chances sooner rather than later. Situations such as Aaron Rodgers biding his time for three years behind Brett Favre with the Green Bay Packers or Patrick Mahomes waiting his turn for a full season while backing up Alex Smith for the Kansas City Chiefs are increasingly rare. Prospective franchise quarterbacks play, and they play quickly. A team needs to find out whether it has the right guy. And if it does, it wants to receive the salary cap benefit of being able to construct a winning roster around a quarterback who has yet to cash in on a lucrative second contract.
Tagovailoa is set to start the Dolphins’ Week 8 game Nov. 1 against the visiting Los Angeles Rams. He joins fellow April draftees Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert as rookie-year starters. Burrow, drafted first, was a starter from Day 1 with the Cincinnati Bengals. Herbert, selected sixth by the Los Angeles Chargers, got his chance in Week 2 when Tyrod Taylor was sidelined after his lung was punctured during a pregame painkilling injection.
Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn initially said Taylor would regain the starting job when he was healthy, but that changed after Herbert provided glimpses of potential stardom. It doesn’t matter that the Chargers have yet to win with Herbert as the starter. These situations are about the young quarterback and his development, not the placeholder or the team’s short-term prospects.
The Dolphins might have a better chance to remain in the playoff mix with Fitzpatrick at quarterback. But they’re certainly not a Super Bowl contender in a conference that includes powerhouses such as the Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. There certainly was no point in keeping Tagovailoa’s development on hold while losing games behind Fitzpatrick. And there probably was no point in hovering around .500 with Fitzpatrick, either.
It’s time. As long as Tagovailoa is sufficiently recovered from the hip injury that cut short his final season at Alabama, the move had to be made, and its success should not be based on what happens over the rest of this season. Tagovailoa needs to be allowed to play, make mistakes and get better. That process takes time, and it needed to get started.
The timing of the Dolphins’ move is reminiscent of the 2004 New York Giants, who, at 5-4, switched from Kurt Warner to Eli Manning during his rookie season. There was short-term pain: Manning struggled, and the Giants finished 6-10. But there also was long-term gain: Manning ultimately became a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Giants.
Tagovailoa made his NFL debut in relief of Fitzpatrick with the outcome already decided in Sunday’s 24-0 win over the New York Jets. He sat alone on the field long after the game was over, speaking to his parents on a video call to share the moment with them. That was surely a memorable moment for the rookie quarterback.
The Dolphins hope the move they made Tuesday will be just as memorable to them in the future.