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Tua Tagovailoa learns NFL receivers don't usually run as open as Alabama's

Joe Schad
Palm Beach Post
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) warms up before the game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020 in Denver, Colorado.

One of the things that skeptics of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa often said is that in the NFL, he wouldn't enjoy receivers running wide open, as they often did at Alabama.

That has proven to be true.

After being pulled in Sunday's loss at Denver, Tagovailoa said he needs to realize that a tightly-covered Dolphins receiver may still be a viable target. The talent discrepancy in the pros is less than it often is for an SEC powerhouse.

"For me, a lot of the time I see guys who are covered, but they’re not necessarily covered, if that makes sense," Tagovailoa said.

This is one of the many lessons veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick has imparted on the rookie Tagovailoa. Fitzpatrick, after all, is the guy who believes he can park his car in a spot that would seem impossible for even the most skilled valet.

 "Just being able to see a lot of what Fitz was doing when he got in, a lot of it was a learning lesson for me," Tagovailoa said.

Fitzpatrick carried himself with the self-assuredness of a 16-year veteran. He came out firing and seemed to jolt a dormant offense. But he was also nearly intercepted once and finally was intercepted to end the game.

On the one hand, Tagovailoa has limited turnovers and protected the football throughout his high school and college career. On the other, Tagovailoa is realizing that even though defensive backs are more talented in the NFL, so are his receivers.

"If a guy is on the back hip of DeVante Parker, sometimes he's not covered," Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said. "You can throw it and he can make a play. If they're on the back hip of some other receiver, they might be covered. So I think it depends on the player. I think it depends on the defensive back."

More:The Tape Don’t Lie: Miami Dolphins, Tua rocked by Broncos, a review

One of Tua's strengths is accuracy and ball placement, particularly on short- and intermediate-length routes. Tagovailoa will, in time, likely learn to trust his judgment and his targets.

Receivers like Parker and Mike Gesicki have had their confidence boosted, and their careers bolstered, by Fitzpatrick's unwavering confidence in them.

Fitzpatrick has also been unwavering in his support of Tua, whom he believes is both talented and humble.

"This is such a tough position to play and you’re just going to continue to learn and it’s going to be a bumpy road, but you just hope that the things that you learn, you put them in the back and you make a catalog in the back of your head and you continue to get better," Fitzpatrick said.

As Gailey stressed, the struggles of the offense were not entirely Tua's fault. Tagovailoa did hold the ball too long, and was largely responsible for perhaps up to four of the six sacks allowed to the Broncos.

"It's easy to say, 'Oh you should have thrown it,'" Gailey said. "Tua's seeing things and he's looking for things. Part of that's on receivers. We've got to do a better job of getting open at times and beating coverage. I've got to do a better job of calling plays, where he doesn't have to stand there and hold it waiting for guys to get down the field. It's a combination. Sometimes it's missed blocks or poor techniques."

More:Miami Dolphins Snap Conclusions after loss at Denver Broncos

Miami's receivers are not getting enough separation. Jakeem Grant ranks tied for 27th in that area, according to the NFL's Next Gen stats. Preston Williams ranks 115th.

Gesicki and Parker are tied at 119th in the league with only 1.9 yards to the nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion, per Next Gen.

But that does not mean that Gesicki and Parker should not be regularly targeted by Tagovailoa, as they have been by Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa just needs more repetitions with those players to get a better feel for what can and cannot be accomplished on a given play.

"You have to keep working with the receivers," Gailey said. "You have to keep working with the routes. And you have to see it time after time after time to know this guy is going to come open, I just have to throw it in the spot and let him go get it. And other times, don’t try to force the ball."

Gailey admitted that as an offensive coordinator he can talk out of both sides of his mouth on that matter. 

"If it’s complete, great job. If it’s not, it’s a poor decision," Gailey said. "That’s easy to say. We just have to help him get more comfortable with seeing things, getting more reps at it and let him keep learning and getting better."

It is possible Miami gives more playing time to Antonio Callaway and Lynn Bowden, speedsters who have proven they can create separation. It is also possible the Dolphins use a pick in the first two rounds of the next NFL Draft on a game-breaking receiver.

Perhaps that receiver will even be a former teammate of Tua's at Alabama, such as Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith. But for now, Tagovailoa has to learn to maximize the strengths of the players he is operating with on Sundays.

And it's not as if Parker and Gesicki, for example, aren't proven receivers, who have shown they are more than capable of completing a catch when it seems they are actually blanketed or shadowed.

"I believe all this comes with experience, to be able to go out there and see a guy (and say), 'OK, he’s even, but he’s open,'" Gailey said. "Well, this guy is even but he might not be open."