Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins put rest of NFL on notice with epic comeback win over Ravens

BALTIMORE — In the smattering of Miami Dolphins fans here Sunday afternoon, there were more than a few wearing Dan Marino jerseys. It has been a long time since Marino played — he was on the sideline pre-game as an eminence gris for the franchise — and that was the last time it felt like the Dolphins could score anytime, from anywhere, when they are on the field.

Marino never wanted for believers the way Tua Tagovailoa does and maybe always will. Nobody picked apart Marino’s mechanics or questioned his arm strength. And certainly, nobody ever wondered if Marino was the right man for the Dolphins’ job. Maybe, after Sunday, there won’t be quite so much doubt and debate about Tagovailoa anymore either. His passes don’t have Marino’s zip — few quarterbacks’ do — but on Sunday, in throwing for 469 yards and six touchdown passes to bring the Miami Dolphins back from a three-touchdown fourth quarter deficit for a stunning 42-38 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Tagovailoa gave the Miami Dolphins what Marino did every Sunday and what the franchise has craved ever since — hope and thrills and a sense of what might be possible.

“Now maybe Tua will finally listen to me,” said coach Mike McDaniel. “What I mean by that is, it’s awesome to be critical of yourself. It is good. He has a high standard for himself. … The absolute worst thing could have happened in the beginning of the game, the contested ball, not really his fault on the first interception and then he starts pressing and throws it up for the second interception.

“This is huge. He stopped worrying about the last play and went and played and took his responsibility seriously to his teammates. ‘I’m going to lead this team confidently.’ It is what you get into sports for. It is cool for the coaching staff and him. It was coming to life. It was a moment, I think, he’ll never forget and hopefully he can use it moving forward. … His teammates learned a lot about him and I think he learned something about himself.”

If Tagovailoa has lacked confidence, it is understandable. Brian Flores, the Dolphins’ previous head coach, clearly had concerns about him. A segment of Dolphins fans are still mourning the draft day decision to select Tagovailoa ahead of Justin Herbert in 2020. Last week — after the Dolphins beat the Patriots in their season opener — his former teammate, Ryan Fitzpatrick, said Tagovailoa was limited physically and former Saints coach Sean Payton predicted the team would eventually bench Tagovailoa. To which Tyreek Hill, who has become a one-man public relations executive for his quarterback, said Sunday, they can watch the tape.

“I ain’t got to say too much,” Hill said. “All people gotta do is look at the film, who he is, how consistent he is, that last drive it showed who he is as a leader, telling guys, ‘make sure you run the ball to the official to save time.’ “

Like Marino for so long, Tagovailoa has a pair of dynamic receivers to run under his passes and run with them. Jaylen Waddle and Hill are the modern day — and very fast — version of the Marks Brothers, Duper and Clayton, and they feature prominently on Sunday’s film, too. Facing a nearly flawless performance from Lamar Jackson, the Dolphins were in a 21-point hole at halftime and again at the start of the fourth quarter. After the Dolphins had dominated the Patriots last week, this was something different — a test for a new coach, and a reconstituted offense and a team that believes it has the players to be special.

“I told the guys I was really hoping to get some adversity in this game, I want to see how we respond to a deficit,” McDaniel said. “Apparently, they took me way too literal.”

What McDaniel also tells his team is that adversity is opportunity and this was an opportunity for the Dolphins to prove that they could play with the AFC’s elite, that Tagovailoa could be the equal of a player like Jackson.

The Dolphins’ pass game formula is not hard to figure: Tagovailoa throws mostly short and intermediate passes and Waddle and Hill fly, so much so that before the game, Hill said he wanted to get “drunk off the YAC” like Waddle did last week. Hill, who missed a few plays with cramps, finished with 190 yards and two touchdowns, Waddle with 171 yards and another two touchdowns. But it was not the yards after catch that will get the attention. It was also the well-placed pass to Mike Gesicki. It was the in-stride bombs from Tagovailoa, the kind of throws that some wondered if he could even make. In the fourth quarter, he hit Hill for a 48-yard touchdown, who got open behind the Ravens’ defense. Two and a half minutes later, no Ravens safety was playing deep and Tagovailoa and Hill recognized the Cover 0 defense together. Hill gave Tagovailoa their secret signal — “Yeeyee,” Hill said — which was Hill’s way of telling his quarterback he was going to make a play for him. One heave later, the Dolphins had a 60-yard touchdown and the game was tied.

Still, Jackson had the ball and he had been brilliant, a one-man offense who had already thrown a 75-yard touchdown pass and run for a 79-yard touchdown, who had carried a perfect quarterback rating through much of the game and finished with 119 of the Ravens’ 155 rushing yards. At one point, when the game appeared out of reach, the crowd stood and chanted “M-V-P”. They might still be right about that. But with the game tied, Jackson could get the Ravens only into field goal position and Justin Tucker gave them a fleeting lead.

This, then, would require something different from Tagovailoa and the Dolphins — a more deliberate two-minute drive, something that would net a touchdown but also chew up the clock. Tagovailoa would say later that the last time he played a game like this was in college against LSU. Hill said the offense was riding off a high from how the defense had been limiting the Ravens. There were short passes, with the clock ticking. And on second-and-goal from the 7-yard line, a perfectly placed throw to Waddle for the game-winning touchdown.

Tagovailoa has mostly stayed out of the minute-by-minute critique of his game, even when Hill went out of his way this summer to lavish praise on him. Nobody would have blamed him if he had taken a moment to crow on Sunday. He did not, opting instead to spread the credit — to the running game and offensive line and the team. In the first half, he said, they couldn’t stick to their offensive rhythm. He always wants big plays and eventually they came in the second half.

“I’m always confident in what I can do,” he said. “I think this shows the resiliency of our team. Brings all of our confidence up, our confidence in one another, confidence that if the offense has a turnover, the defense will get it back.”

Later, Tagovailoa added “For me, every game is a big game. I want to do good every time I’m out there.”

Perhaps most importantly, Tagovailoa said that even when things were not clicking, nobody panicked. Which, in hindsight, makes sense when you know you have the firepower to blast out of a hole the way the Dolphins did Sunday.

At halftime, McDaniel challenged his team to say “who cares what the score it,” he said. He wanted them to get something out of the game to feel good about and they’d worry about the score again some time in the fourth quarter. McDaniel said at that point he didn’t even care about the outcome of the game. It was, simply, a huge opportunity to show who the Dolphins are, and once the Dolphins were within two scores, McDaniel felt pretty good about their chances.

Now the whole league knows who the Dolphins can be, something they haven’t been in more than two decades. A team that can craft the biggest fourth-quarter rally on the road in franchise history.

“We’ll never give up,” Hill said. “No matter the score. No matter who we’re playing.”

And they will never be out of it.

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