To steal a line from Nora Ephron, everything is copy. Even in the NFL.
That’s the phrase that comes to mind while looking at what’s hanging over Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who by all accounts has done nothing but come into the league, work hard and position himself for a second season that promises improvement. He didn’t ask to be pulled into Miami’s awkward continuing interest in Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, which now has the fan base picking through (and arguing) the word salad offered by head coach Brian Flores in his last media conference. Flores offered praise for Tagovailoa but also didn’t put the dagger into the Watson pursuit.
It’s not the first instance a talented quarterback has been in an organization where he was going to have to keep earning his opportunities one game at a time, maybe all season long. That’s the copy: a familiar, sometimes nondescript feeling that someone important in an organization has a wandering eye for another quarterback, despite being tied to the one who is already leading the first-team offense.
When the season began last year, it was San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan getting antsy about Jimmy Garoppolo. When the season ended, it was Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay losing faith in Jared Goff. And in between, it was a large portion of the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff turning away from Carson Wentz.
That’s three quarterbacks who were given massive (and very recent) contracts to signify their standing as Titanic-sized anchors for the future. And by the end of the 2020 season, all three organizations were sawing through the chain of commitment that was tethering them together. That’s the theme here: NFL teams — and head coaches in particular — have a propensity to run hot and cold with a quarterback. Particularly if they think a better option is within reach.
Unfortunately for Tagovailoa, he’s in the awkward lukewarm middle of that spectrum. Hot enough to have Flores say on Sunday that he’s “very confident” in Tagovailoa, but also cold enough to have Flores keep the door cracked on Watson. And ultimately making clear that Tagovailoa is not safe and likely won’t be until his play forces Flores to say the one thing that can snip this drama off:
“Tua Tagovailoa is our guy and we’re not pursuing — or going to be pursuing — another starting quarterback.”
It’s as simple as that. Flores says that, and he’s locked into a declaration that will have trust and reputation consequences if he reverses it. It’s why Garoppolo, Goff and Wentz never got that kind of confident backing last season, when it was clear their head coaches were keeping their options open.
In reality, only the quarterback can make that happen. In fact, Aaron Rodgers just presented a clinic on it with the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers entered the 2020 season with the creeping feeling that first-round draft pick Jordan Love was a more immediate replacement than general manager Brian Gutekunst was presenting to the public. So he responded the way great quarterbacks respond, by having one of the greatest seasons of his career — winning MVP and then dragging the organization’s warts into the public light this past offseason.
This is where Tagovailoa finds himself. He has work to do when it comes to Flores turning his back on any other future options. And if there is no trade consummated in the next week — which appears unlikely, with Houston and Miami seemingly dug in on the compensation and protections for a Watson deal — it means Tagovailoa is going to have his shot to change the narrative himself. And in the process, he’ll inflate an already swelling number of fans who seem to believe he’s the second coming.
But don’t kid yourself. This is an uphill climb. There’s no other way to read it when Flores is still entertaining the idea of onboarding Watson, whose red flags off the field should have rendered him untradeable this season. That Miami is still eyeing Watson under these circumstances suggests Tagovailoa still has a lot of convincing to do.
That doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. It also doesn’t mean he can’t become everything that Miami hoped for when it took him with the fifth pick in the 2020 draft. It means that he’s pretty much where he was supposed to be in Year 2 of his career — in the process of developing and trying to earn the trust of everyone in the organization.
That’s also the NFL. That’s copy. That’s the fundamental story that has been told and re-told every season and by some of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played in the league. Look no further than Drew Brees, who retired after a 20-year career spent breaking some of the most iconic quarterback records of all time, and who also spent the first five years of his career fighting to prove himself to the San Diego Chargers’ front office.
Brees ultimately lost that fight. Then he went and proved it in New Orleans. That may be how it ultimately goes for Tagovailoa, too. But if he walks out on the field for Miami in Week 1, the familiar story is back in his hands. And what this copy ends up looking like will be entirely up to him.