Say good-bye to touch football. Tuesday the Miami Dolphins welcome back a version of football that more closely resembles what we’ll see every game day this NFL season.
Tuesday the Dolphins put on their pads for the first time in training camp and turn up the physical setting of the sport to a steady simmer.
That helps the development of the offensive line.
And the defensive line.
And the coaches, whose job it is to evaluate the offensive and defensive linemen.
And, without doubt, it will help us see what the Dolphins have at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa.
Because this is the next step in the progression for Miami’s second-year quarterback. Because there are a lot of quarterbacks that do great things when they’re competing against air or basically playing touch football.
But then they shrink when pass-rushers get closer and the game becomes more physical.
(To be clear, the Dolphins will not be hitting their quarterback today or any day in training camp. But the natural uptick in the physical nature of the practice because the pads are on will reverberate to every player -- including the quarterback.)
So this is the next step for the Dolphins all-around.
And that’s good because, according to every evaluation, so far so good.
In Tagovailoa the Dolphins see a significant jump in attitude and performance the first five days of this training camp.
“He’s always had accuracy. That was never a problem,” defensive back Eric Rowe said Monday. “He’s always had accuracy, he’s always had the zip, he’s always had power. I just believe it’s that year-two jump everybody needs to make from their rookie year. Obviously, the type of offense.
“Last year, I even noticed his playbook was condensed to slants and bubbles. They really wouldn’t let him show his arm and now seeing in training camp, he’s got a lot more deep routes, they’re allowing him the opportunity to throw it deep. That’s what we need.”
Tagovailoa has thrown -- and connected -- on more deep passes the first five practices of this training camp than he probably did through half or even three quarters of last year’s camp.
He has found Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant consistently on deep posts, deep go-routes, deep sideline throws, and flag patterns.
He has also been building something of a rapport with tight end Mike Gesicki on intermediate routes -- until Gesicki missed the last two practices, ostensibly because of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols.
Tagovailoa has just, well, looked better. He’s seemed more confident in himself and in his teammates.
“Tua , I think he’s making that jump,” Rowe added. “I see each day he’s getting better from the first day, so now opposing defenses can’t just double one guy and be like, ‘OK, everyone else is going to be covered.’ Now we got [Jaylen] Waddle with the speed, Albert, DeVante, Preston, Mike (Gesicki). Pick who you want.”
Interestingly, the Dolphins have only had DeVante Parker and Will Fuller for one practice. Preston Williams hasn’t practiced at all because he’s on the physically unable to perform list. And, as you just read, Gesicki has missed two of five days.
But working with the remaining group, Tagovailoa has performed with few obvious missteps such as interceptions, missed throws or missed reads. Again, that second group is practically all new to the quarterback -- including rookie Jaylen Waddle and Albert Wilson, who opted out last year.
“I think he’s gotten off to a good start,” coach Brian Flores said of his starting quarterback. “There’s still a long way to go. It’s still very early.”
But despite the caveat, Tagovailoa’s performance has been good and even Flores must admit that.
“Good command of the offense, his techniques, his QB mechanics, fundamentals, trying to work those every day and get them where they need to be so that his footwork, his timing, that all kind of plays into his accuracy as a passer, also ball-handling with the backs and things of that nature,” the coach said.
“I think he’s off to a solid start. It’s still very early. It’s still so early. We’ve got a long way to go. We just need to continue to string good days together. That’s always my message to the team. One meeting, one walk-through, one practice, one play at a time. He’s taken that approach. We’re seeing small improvements on a daily basis and hopefully that continues.”
The next step in the continuation is doing it in much more physical practices.
That will test both the offensive and defensive line. And Tagovailoa’s confidence in his blockers up front.
“Yeah, I love that,” tight end Durham Smythe said. “That’s real football to me. This is kind of what I look forward to, starting back in April. I’m not a big ‘Rah-rah’ guy so I’m not into the whole ‘day before pads speech’ or anything like that.
“But I think it’s a big opportunity for this team. We need to be more physical than we have the last two years and establish a really efficient running game. So I think this is a big day for us and a big week coming up right here; and like I said, finally real football so we’re excited.”
The Dolphins need to be more physical because their running game was terrible last season. The club was 29th in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt. No, 3.9 yards per attempt is not good.
That needs to improve starting in these upcoming padded practice. It needs to improve to support Tagovailoa’s passing. It needs to improve to give the quarterback more confidence in his offensive line.
Not that Tagovailoa’s confidence has been lagging so far. It’s actually been a source of conversation among the team.
“That’s a big thing from Year 1 to Year 2 players,” Smythe said. “He understands the offense. He’s got a great arm. Everyone says that and everyone knows that. But, I think confidence from Year 1 to Year 2, that’s big.
“And if he continues to develop that and grow on that, then the sky’s the limit.”