April 18, 2024

The Miami Dolphins can’t surround their quarterback with an average bunch of offensive players, select well enough to have the second-youngest defense in the playoffs, and continue their five-year Super Bowl run as Kansas City did this season.

Probably no team can win like that. In recent playoffs, only Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow (who defeated Mahomes in 2021), Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, and San Francisco’s Brock Purdy and Jimmy Garoppolo have given Patrick Mahomes’ squad a run for their money. The Dolphins do not have Allen, Burrow, or Jackson as quarterbacks.

Tua Tagovailoa is now in the Hurts, Purdy, and Garoppolo (2020 vintage) tier after four seasons. Good. Possibly amazing if everything around him is perfect. But capable of elevating average potential to greatness? No one has seen it. Given his progress over the last two years, it’s possible that it will happen in his fifth season. Do you bet your future on it? This leads to the riskier plan the Dolphins may use if they’re serious in winning a championship rather than just having nice seasons:

 

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa still on concussion protocol and will  miss Sunday's game | CNN

 

Play Tagovailoa next year on his fifth-year option, and look for a young quarterback to emerge. If Tagovailoa does not take the next step, resulting in a large contract and a smaller supporting cast, consider if the young quarterback can become good enough with excellent talent surrounding him. Maybe that is too ambitious. Perhaps the Dolphins should not be focused solely on winning a championship. Maybe they should just go for 11 victories, a playoff triumph for the first time in two decades, a puncher’s chance for more, and call it a good season. Think Dallas, with Dak Prescott.

This is why Tagovailoa’s contract has sparked so much attention this offseason. It’s the bigger model at work. The Dolphins are expected to extend Tagovailoa’s contract in order to reward him for his efforts over the last several years and demonstrate their complete faith in him.
The organization can also reduce its short-term salary-cap number from his present $23.2 million during a winter when many numbers need to be reduced. Everyone is happy, right? This Dolphins culture is also focused on having happy players (with the exception of Christian Wilkins). Tyreek Hill, Bradley Chubb, Jalen Ramsey, Terron Armstead, Emmanuel Ogbah, Xavien Howard, and Byron Jones have all received significant financial rewards. It isn’t just money. New defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver’s first move was to appease Ramsey with promises of an expanded role that former coordinator Vic Fangio had not allowed.

Coach Mike McDaniel has created a players-first culture, and Tagovailoa is at the helm of that effort. Again, the Dolphins are unlikely to follow Baltimore’s lead in making Jackson play out his fifth-year option of $23.1 million in 2022 before monitoring him for another year and signing him to a contract extension. If that’s the case, the Dolphins definitely don’t want to take the San Francisco route. However, except from Kansas City, there is no other established formula for becoming a consistent title challenger.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has done an excellent job of controlling his roster and timeframe. First, he hasn’t overspent salary-cap millions on good-but-not-great quarterbacks. Second, he has built strong quarterbacks and surrounded them with great personnel while assessing their potential.

Shanahan and Garoppolo traveled to the 2020 Super Bowl. However, when Garoppolo failed to develop into a top-tier quarterback, the 49ers dropped him. Shanahan traded three first-round picks to move up and take Trey Lance in the 2021 draft. That did not work out. But Purdy, the last pick in the draft, did. Shanahan preserved a roster of talent and developed Purdy in two years, coming within a failed extra point, botched punt return, horrible overtime decision, and Mahomes’ title-winning excellence. There are two paths to a ring in the last decade:

Path 1: Hire a brilliant quarterback, pay him well, draft well to get inexpensive labor, and win. Tom Brady (seven championships) and Patrick Mahomes (three championships) fit well in that category. Matthew Stafford (one title) also applies.

Path 2: Sign a solid quarterback on a lower contract to allow for more talent around him. Nick Foles of Philadelphia is the only such quarterback to win a ring in the last decade, but Purdy, Hurts, Jared Goff, and Garoppolo have all made it to the Super Bowl. If Tagovailoa signs but does not develop into an elite level player, the Dolphins will face Atlanta in the 2016 Super Bowl. Matt Ryan, a second-tier quarterback, nearly led the Falcons to a Super Bowl victory over New England in 2017. The simple solution is to offer Tagovailoa a contract and make everyone happy. But who is looking out for the greater organizational good here?

If good quarterbacks like Tagovailoa are hard to come by, it’s even more difficult to find a decent-but-not-great, pricey quarterback who wins with a weaker supporting cast. That’s why the plan is to evaluate him in his fifth year, just as you would with a rookie quarterback.

 

 

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