We’ve all heard the most common narrative around the Miami Dolphins Franchise Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa; he has suboptimal arm strength and can’t consistently stretch a defense, vertically. That has recently transformed into “Maybe he had some deep passing success last season, but that’s only because he has Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill, and Mike McDaniel.”
Like most persistent narratives, there are kernels of truth that help to perpetuate it. The kernel in this instance is that Tua does not have top-end arm strength. That means he can’t generate the same velocity on his throws that some other quarterbacks can (Mahomes, Herbert, Allen etc...). He probably possesses somewhere between NFL average and bottom-third arm strength.
Why would that matter for a quarterback? If they’re late to a read or are facing especially tight coverage, it can make it difficult (if not impossible) to “squeeze it in there.” If that’s the case, how has Tagovailoa been such a high-level vertical passer for the majority of his career (both at Alabama and in the NFL)?
Well, that’s possible because pure arm strength isn’t the only thing that allows a quarterback to beat coverage and complete difficult passes. When the football is snapped, the quarterback needs to read the defense, anticipate defender movement, key in on their target and complete their throwing motion. Pure arm strength doesn’t come into play until the very end and is often used as a way to compensate for shortcomings earlier in the process.
Luckily for Tua Tagovailoa, he excels at the other steps. You’ve probably heard him referred to as an anticipatory thrower. That means that Tagovailoa has an excellent feel for the game. He’s able to scan the football field quickly, find open areas of the field, and deliver the football to that location.
This is one of the better examples of a high-level anticipatory throw that Tagovailoa makes look routine (it is anything but that). The video is slowed down at the point that Gesicki appears on the screen to better exemplify Tua’s anticipation. He quickly identifies where the hole in the zone will be and knows that the underneath defender won’t have the depth to make a play if he throws it high. Quick ID, quick release, and perfect accuracy.
The other thing that gives Tua an advantage is his lightning-quick release. Once he starts his throwing motion, there isn’t anyone in the league who can get it out as quickly as he can. In most instances, a defender will have already started breaking on a pass by the time a quarterback begins his throwing motion. Much of the time, release speed can be just as important (if not more so) than actual velocity on a throw.
Tim Dix of Medium did a really fantastic breakdown of release time, velocity, and trigger time among QB prospects and it is linked below.
Tua’s History as an Elite Vertical Passer
Now that we’ve discussed how Tagovailoa has made it in the NFL as a vertical passer, let’s go over his body of work. We won’t be breaking out any high school film (sorry), but what better place to begin than Tuscaloosa, Alabama?
There’s no better place to start than right here; the throw that made Tagovailoa a national sensation. This was at the tail end of his true freshman season. About 47 yards from his hand to DeVonta Smith. Just like we talked about before, he read the defense perfectly, located his target, and the ball came out so fast that Georgia had no opportunity to make a play.
The rest of his career at Alabama would be more of the same. In 2018, his 98.3 regular season PFF Passing Grade on deep throws was the third-highest among all FBS quarterbacks, while his yards (9th), TDs (4th), and QB rating (3rd) on those throws were all top-10. In 2019, his 94.3 regular season PFF Passing Grade on deep throws came in as the 13th highest among all FBS quarterbacks (over 160 qualified) with his QB rating being the 3rd highest in the nation (per PFF).
A Rocky Start in the NFL
At the tail end of his Junior year (2019) with the Crimson Tide, Tagovailoa would suffer a career-threatening hip injury that would come to define his early career in the NFL. While he rushed to get back on the field for his rookie season, it was clear that Tagovailoa was not fully recovered. When generating power (whether that’s to throw a punch, a baseball, or in this instance, a football), it’s all about lower body strength and Tua didn’t have that back yet. While a rookie season can be a struggle for any quarterback, this one was especially difficult for Tua.
Tua Tagovailoa on passes that travel 20+ air yards:— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) January 24, 2022
On-Target: 69.6% (Per SIS Data Hub)
Adjusted Comp Percentage: 55.2% (per PFF)
Both figures led all NFL passers. #FinsUp
(Part 1 of video) pic.twitter.com/qxAbcuYpPh
In his second year in the NFL (2021), we began to see glimpses of “Alabama Tua.” While the training wheels never really came off in his sophomore campaign, we started to see some of the special anticipatory throws and elite accuracy that make Tua.... well, Tua. The video above shows the majority of his deep throws with some longer intermediate passes sprinkled in. It was after going through these plays that it became obvious that he was snapping back into form.
2022: Tagovailoa’s Breakout Campaign
I call it a breakout campaign because it shocked the world. If you were paying close attention though, it shouldn’t have shocked you. He had two years under his belt, elite weapons, and an offensive head coach that believed in him. This was the first time that we really got to see what made him such a blue-chip prospect while in a Dolphins uniform.
Tua Tagovailoa 2022 Deep Passing (20+ yds from LOS)— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) July 17, 2023
Tua Tagovailoa's Deep Passing Rankings
Completion %: 54.5% (1st)
Yards: 990 (4th)
TDs: 10 (6th)
QB Rating: 124.1 (1st)
PFF Passing Grade: 94.4 (4th)
(per PFF)#FinsUp pic.twitter.com/zPYQr8Lg3K
The above video features all of his 30 deep completions from the 2022 season. 30 deep completions were tied for the 3rd most in the NFL, even though his 55 attempts were only the 14th most. These statistics are all listed in the video, but his QB rating on these throws was the best in the NFL and his regular season PFF Passing Grade on deep throws was the 4th best in the league (just ahead of Patrick Mahomes). It’s also worth mentioning that he led the NFL in ADOT (average depth of target). Tua succeeded last season and he did it as a vertical passer.
Why the False Narratives?
Well, Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t look like he should be an elite deep passer. The ball doesn’t explode out of his hand like it does for some guys. He doesn’t have any clips of him throwing a football 85 yards (like that actually would matter). What he can do is put the football where he wants 50+ yards down the football field, which is infinitely more valuable than being able to throw it 100 mph or 80+ yards.
With all that said, a healthy Tua Tagovailoa is one of the best vertical passers in the league. History has shown it and the numbers don’t lie. Folks with a casual understanding of the game (or a need for attention) will continue to doubt his ability to succeed down the football field, but they’re dead wrong and Tagovailoa will continue to show that.