The Miami Dolphins shutout the New York Jets on Sunday, blanking the AFC East rivals 24-0. It was not a great performance from the Dolphins, but it was enough to win and it was enough to make it an easy win heading into the team’s bye week.
It was also enough of a performance for head coach Brian Flores to pull Ryan Fitzpatrick for the final two minutes of the game, allowing 2020 fifth-overall NFL Draft pick Tua Tagovailoa to make his debut. The rookie was 2-for-2 throwing, picking up nine yards - and the Dolphins’ first third-down conversion of the game - while handing off the ball three times to finish the game. It was not alot, but it was enough to get the crowd cheering and to give us all a little glimpse of the future of the team.
The moment did not seem too big for Tagovailoa, and the fact that his debut has now been made means he is past any nerves that may have come with it. “I think he went in and had a run play, threw a couple passes, got some — just got some playing time,” head coach Brian Flores said after the game. “It was a situation where we could do it.”
Flores was asked last week after the Dolphins dominated the San Francisco 49ers but never played Tagovailoa, why he had not given the rookie some playing time. He explained the play calling was going to be all run plays, so he did not think it was right to send in the rookie only to have him hand off a bunch of times. This week, he made the move in a similar situation, but they did let the rookie throw and it allowed him to make his debut in front of a home crowd - at least as much of a crowd as a coronavirus-caused social distancing and attendance limit could allow.
As Tagovailoa ran on to the field, the crowd did start cheering. There was clearly an excitement running through the stadium, including with Fitzpatrick, who was jumping around and urging the crowd to get louder from the sideline. Asked about that after the game, Flores admitted he did not even know Fitzpatrick had reacted like that. “I didn’t know that, but that doesn’t surprise me,” he explained. “Those guys have a great relationship. They root for each other. Those are some of the relationships that are building really throughout the team. You like to see that. Hopefully when you watch them play, people see that. It’s nice to hear that. I didn’t actually see it, but I know there was some excitement once he went in, and I’m happy for Tua. But I like hearing that.”
Fitzpatrick also discussed Tua’s first playing time. “I think he was happy to be out there,” the veteran stated. “It was nice to get a couple throws in, too.”
Fitzpatrick then showed the relationship the two quarterbacks have, joking, “The naked [bootleg] in your own end zone, getting the easiest of plays. He went in and completed that one and then completed the third down. I think that was a cool moment for him, just the reception, too, of the fans that were here and everybody on the sideline. We were all excited to see him get out there.”
Tagovailoa, speaking after Fitzpatrick, explained the play as well, “It was an easy completion, and everyone can say that; I can roll out and throw it to someone who’s two yards down the field. But you’ve got to deal with pressure, and there’s just a lot going on in such a little play like that. But I think a lot of credit with that easy completion goes to [offensive coordinator] Chan [Gailey] and then also goes to our o-line. Our o-line played their butts off today.”
The rookie also discussed just the moment of getting to go into the game and make his professional debut. “I definitely could hear [the crowd cheering and chanting his name]. There was nothing else playing in the stadium, so I could hear that, and that was awesome. But to just be out there with my teammates, being my first time, and getting the support and love from them, I think that was super awesome. You have a 16-year vet like ‘Fitz’ who has no animosity towards it, as well, who’s just been supportive the entire time. Good drive, bad drive, he comes to the sideline and just talks through his process with why he did some things. I’m very fortunate to have a mentor like him who is just very encouraging on the field. He’s just very personable off the field, as well. I could say a lot about him but just won’t have enough time.”
After the game, with all of the players off the field, the media members in attendance noticed Tagovailoa back on the field, standing near the 15-yard line and remembering the moment. Asked about that, Tagovailoa explained it was even more than that, “I think it was a very special moment for me because my parents weren’t here, so I couldn’t really remember where we ended our drive at, so I tried to sit close to where we ended our drive at, and I ended up FaceTiming my parents because they couldn’t be here. That’s usually how it goes. I usually talk to my parents after the game, and my parents usually never miss my game. That’s what I did, I went out there, and I talked to them. But yeah, that’s what that moment was about.”
Tagovailoa now heads into the bye week with his first NFL snaps under his belt. For the first time since he dislocated and fractured his hip last November at Alabama, he has been on the field during a live game, and he has shown that he is fully healthy and ready to play. Miami likely will continue with Fitzpatrick as the starter coming out of the bye, but at least we have all finally seen Tagovailoa on the field.