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Tua Tagovailoa is suddenly thriving, and the Dolphins are relevant again

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looks to throw in the Dolphins' comeback victory Sunday at Baltimore. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — It has been a trying year for the Miami Dolphins, from football-related turmoil to real-life tragedy. Yet two games into their season, they suddenly are grabbing attention for on-field exploits. It’s nothing that merits comparisons to the Don Shula, Bob Griese and Dan Marino glory days, at least not yet. But maybe, just maybe, the Dolphins are relevant again.

They improved to 2-0 with a 42-38 triumph here Sunday over the Baltimore Ravens. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa shelved the talk about him being a bust with a dazzling 469-yard, six-touchdown passing show. Wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle were virtually unstoppable. Coach Mike McDaniel said he stopped worrying about the outcome when the Dolphins trailed by three touchdowns at halftime and focused instead on the process — and then he watched Tagovailoa throw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

“I feel like as a team in the second half, we really showed who we were, who the Miami Dolphins were,” Hill said.

The Dolphins have not mattered much for quite some time. They last reached the playoffs in the 2016 season. They last won a postseason game in December 2000. Their two Super Bowl titles in the 1972 and ’73 seasons are nearly a half-century old.

In January, the Dolphins fired Brian Flores as their coach after a second straight winning season. Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL and its teams in February, accusing them of racial discrimination. He alleged in the lawsuit that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had offered him $100,000 per loss in 2019 in a failed effort to secure the top pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Flores also accused Ross and the Dolphins of tampering with a prominent NFL quarterback under contract to another team.

Ross denied the allegations. But last month, after an investigation, the NFL suspended him through Oct. 17, removed him from all league committees and fined him $1.5 million. The league also stripped the Dolphins of first- and third-round draft picks.

In late August, respected Dolphins communications executive Jason Jenkins died suddenly from a blood clot as the team prepared for a preseason game. He was 47. Colleagues and friends expressed shock and sadness, and the Ravens held a moment of silence in the press box before Sunday’s game.

The football that followed at M&T Bank Stadium was captivating. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was brilliant, and the Ravens led 28-7 at halftime and 35-14 early in the fourth quarter.

“I just didn’t care about the outcome of the game at that point,” McDaniel said. “At halftime … it was a huge opportunity for us to show who we are and play good football for each other.”

McDaniel told his players Saturday night that if they fell behind Sunday, it would represent a chance for them to demonstrate their resilience. “And apparently,” he said, “they just took me way too literal.”

These new-look Dolphins feature an improved version of Tagovailoa. He has fallen well behind the two other top quarterbacks in his 2020 draft class, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, and there was some speculation this would be a last-chance, produce-or-else season for him in South Florida, especially with Teddy Bridgewater as his backup.

Yet there was Tagovailoa on Sunday, shrugging off two interceptions and resembling the once-celebrated prospect who, while in college at Alabama, inspired “tank for Tua” talk among NFL fans.

NFL Sunday takeaways: Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins are a threat

“Now maybe Tua will finally listen to me,” McDaniel said. “What I mean by that is … it’s awesome to be critical of yourself. It is good. He has a high standard for himself. But after the first game, I just wanted to see the guy enjoy playing football and understand that, yes, you want to make the perfect read and the perfect throw every time. But who cares? If you just get better at one thing a game, you’re going to be pretty good at the end of the season. So let’s just press forward.”

McDaniel, a rookie NFL head coach who most recently was a relatively low-profile offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, already seems to have a positive, reassuring influence on Tagovailoa.

“This is huge because he stopped worrying about the [previous] play,” McDaniel said. “And he went and played and took his responsibility serious to his teammates about, ‘Hey, I’m going to lead this team confidently.’… I think it was a moment that he’ll never forget, that hopefully he can use moving forward. … His teammates learned a lot about him. And I think he learned something about himself.”

It helps, of course, to have a pass-catching duo such as Hill and Waddle. This was precisely what the Dolphins had in mind when they made their blockbuster trade in March for Hill, the standout speedster for the Kansas City Chiefs, to go with Waddle, a second-year pro who was the No. 6 choice in last year’s draft. The two totaled an otherworldly 22 catches for 361 yards and four touchdowns against the Ravens.

“The second half, we came in and played the way we wanted to,” Tagovailoa said. “That’s what I’d say about that.”

But if Hill and Waddle are the Dolphins’ modern-day version of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, they still needed their answer to Marino to get them the ball. It all works only if Tagovailoa develops into something close to the quarterback he was drafted to be.

“That last drive that we had, it really showed who he was as a leader,” Hill said, referring to the final rush down the field in Baltimore, punctuated by Tagovailoa’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Waddle with 14 seconds remaining.

Every Sunday won’t be as magical as this past one was. But the Dolphins’ season does seem to have possibilities.

“I’m always confident in what I can do, confident in myself,” Tagovailoa said. “But I think that just shows the resiliency of our team. It brings all our confidence up — confidence in one another, confidence that if the offense has its turnover, that the defense is going to get us the ball back and vice versa. So I think if you look at the big picture of it, the confidence goes up.”

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