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Commanders can learn a lot from Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa

Commanders can learn a lot from Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa

Consider this scenario: An NFL team with a promising young quarterback and a defensive-minded head coach is underperforming, so the owner fires the coach and replaces him with a young, up-and-coming offensive mind in the hope that he’ll unlock the quarterback’s potential.

Two years ago, that was the Miami Dolphins. This offseason, it could be the Washington Commanders.

Washington is far from being a good team. Just look at the back-to-back beatdowns it has taken from Dallas and Miami. But Sunday’s 45-15 loss to the Dolphins offered managing partner Josh Harris a blueprint for improvement.

In 2022, Miami fired Brian Flores, hired Mike McDaniel and built the NFL’s most explosive offense in part by developing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

But let’s be clear: The blueprint is not as simple as finding the next McDaniel. Miami didn’t acquire a star wide receiver seemingly without a plan, as Las Vegas did, and it didn’t bet on a suspect quarterback to maximize a group of highly regarded skill players, as Atlanta did. Miami had a plan tailored to its young quarterback.

Since he was in college at Alabama, Tagovailoa has succeeded most in the structure of an offensive system. He doesn’t have the ad-lib-ability of Patrick Mahomes or the elusiveness of Lamar Jackson, but he’s elite at dissecting a defense and throwing with anticipation. He’s precise. His strengths elevate a talented offense, so Miami acquired fast skill players and amplified everyone with an innovative scheme.

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The wealth of talent around Tagovailoa can make it easy to forget that it’s a skill to play maestro. Even Commanders defenders were conservative in their praise of Tagovailoa on Sunday.

“He did what he was supposed to do,” linebacker Cody Barton said.

“He plays quarterback like a point guard,” safety Kam Curl said. “He’s got a lot of weapons out there that he can use, and he’s getting the ball to them.”

In 2018, Curl was at Arkansas when Tagovailoa arrived leading the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Tagovailoa distributed the ball to nine future NFL starters — including wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith — in a 65-31 rout. Curl said Tagovailoa hasn’t really changed his style in the NFL.

“He didn’t have [wideout] Tyreek Hill [in college],” Curl added, laughing. “But it’s similar.”

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Miami is reaping the rewards of building a similar infrastructure around Tagovailoa. Take Hill’s second touchdown Sunday. Tagovailoa went deep — Hill was running toward the middle of the field, and the throw was outside. Hill made a difficult adjustment, caught it and sprinted for a 60-yard score.

Initially, Hill said, he thought Tagovailoa’s throw was inaccurate. But when he re-watched the play, the quarterback had put it “exactly where I was supposed to be.” The play was an illustration of how Miami, in its second year in this offense, has combined and boosted elite talents. McDaniel pointed out that both players have become “super aggressive in certain windows” because of their mutual trust.

“They’re independently awesome, but together they’re even better,” he said.

Contrast that play with Washington’s — with its years of inconsistency, with its years of quarterback turnover and with Sunday, when Hill had five catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns as his Commanders counterpart, Terry McLaurin, had zero catches for just the second time in his five-year career. McLaurin has rarely, if ever, had enough reps with a quarterback to develop that kind of chemistry.

It’s difficult to untangle Washington’s problems on offense. Coach Ron Rivera bet big on many unproven pieces — offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, quarterback Sam Howell and several offensive linemen — and inconsistency has made it hard to parse who is at fault. But it’s clear the offense is not working, especially against good teams over the past two weeks.

“All you really have to do to defend this team is just be disciplined,” Dolphins linebacker David Long said of the Commanders. “They kind of struggle with the routine parts. When we watched them play, their best stuff was when Howell was scrambling or they moved the pocket and just let him try to make plays.”

Commanders’ blowout loss to Dolphins shows it’s ‘too late for growth’

Howell acknowledged that Sunday was a step back. McLaurin called the game “really frustrating.” Several players seemed fed up with the refrain they’ve used all year, that the offense is growing and developing every week.

“It sounds like words now,” running back Antonio Gibson said. “We’re not going to keep saying that in the back end of the season. It’s too late for growth right now.”

It’s hard to know whether Howell will be Washington’s quarterback in 2024. It’s hard to know who will make up the quarterback’s supporting cast other than McLaurin, fellow wideout Jahan Dotson and running back Brian Robinson Jr. The people who will make those decisions are not here yet.

But they are coming after the new year arrives. If they stick with Howell, they will have to figure out how to support him and maximize him. Howell is a different quarterback than Tagovailoa — he excels outside the structure of the offense. He’s a fearless gunslinger and an incredible runner who also has a lot of growing left to do.

Soon, Harris will go looking for the people who can help turn Washington into a winner. He could do worse than Miami’s blueprint with Tagovailoa.

Tramel Raggs contributed to this report.

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