The 2021 NFL season is getting close to its halfway point and the Miami Dolphins are a team that can’t get out of their own way.
On the field, they turn the ball over at terrible moments, make costly special teams blunders and lose close games in every way imaginable.
Off the field, they’ve botched NFL Draft picks and free-agency decisions, and are in the center of the league’s biggest circus as Deshaun Watson trade rumors swirl.
The result is a bad team that seems to be getting worse. A 30-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday was the Dolphins’ second straight last-second loss to one of the league’s worst teams and has them planted in the cellar of their division with the New York Jets.
Here are 10 more thoughts on another ugly day in Miami Gardens:
1. Watson isn’t saving this team. The issues run much deeper than just the quarterback, although he wasn’t exactly the solution Sunday, either.
Watson doesn’t help stop the Falcons when they go 62 yards on six plays in 28 seconds for a field goal at the end of the first half. He isn’t doing anything to keep Atlanta wide receiver Russell Gage from burning defensive backs Jevon Holland and Xavien Howard for a 49-yard touchdown. He’s not doing anything to bolster the front seven that combined for one sack and two tackles for loss Sunday. Maybe he gets a little bit more out of rookie wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who had 83 yards on seven catches Sunday and continues to look like an underutilized weapon, but this team needs to win nine of its last 10 games just to get to double-digit wins this year.
Right now, this team has about 1 1/2 legitimate, Pro Bowl-caliber players with Howard and maybe fellow cornerback Byron Jones. Watson would give them two. It still wouldn’t be enough to really compete in the American Football Conference and the Dolphins (1-6) are deluding themselves — and their fans — if they actually think they’re one future-mortgaging, blockbuster trade away.
2. There’s the elephant in the room, too. Watson is also the subject of 22 civil suits, which accuse of him of coercive and lewd sexual behavior, including two alleging sexual assault. He’s not suspended right now, but there’s a good reason the Houston Texans just make him inactive every week and why so few teams are actively pursuing an elite talent.
3. Tagovailoa still doesn’t look like the obvious answer, though. Watson certainly makes this team better because, if he’s playing, he’s one of the five best quarterbacks in the league. Tagovailoa isn’t one of the five best in the conference and it’s because of plays like the two interceptions he threw Sunday.
Tagovailoa finished 32 of 40 for 291 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, and the two picks were both inexcusable players and potentially 10-point swings.
On the first, he had Miami in the red zone at the end of the first half, and tried to squeeze a throw between a double team to tight end Durham Smythe and couldn’t. Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins picked off Tagovailoa to keep Atlanta (3-3) ahead 10-7, then the Falcons drove 62 yards in 28 seconds to kick a field goal and go up 13-7 with four seconds left in the half.
On the second, Howard gave the Dolphins new life when he pulled the ball out of Atlanta wide receiver Calvin Ridley’s hands for an interception at the Falcons’ 32-yard line with 14:09 left, then Tagovailoa made a horribly ill-advised throw over the middle. Falcons middle linebacker Foyesade Oluokun picked off Tagovailoa and returned it to Miami’s 14, setting up a touchdown to put Atlanta ahead 27-14.
4. It’s not time to label Tagovailoa a bust, either. Busts don’t lead potential game-winning drives like the one Tagovailoa did in the fourth quarter. Busts don’t bounce back from ugly interceptions with near-flawless touchdown drives.
Tagovailoa is far from perfect, but he also made only the 13th start of his career Sunday and only the 10th when he went from start to finish without getting hurt or benched. His last two have been two of his best, too, albeit against two of the worst teams in the league.
Last week in London, Tagovailoa completed more than 70 percent of his passes for 329 yard, two touchdowns and one awful interception. On Sunday, he followed it up by throwing for a career-high four touchdowns, including a go-ahead score with 2:27 remaining.
He started his final drive at the Falcons’ 40, although he quickly got pushed back into a first-and-19 from the 49 because of back-to-back penalties and he converted. A few plays later, Miami faced a third-and-15 and Tagovailoa again converted by throwing a 16-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki, then he found wide receiver Mack Hollins for a 4-yard touchdown to put the Dolphins ahead 28-27.
His two interceptions — and a blocked field goal — left plenty of points on the board, but Miami still had a chance to win because Tagovailoa went 9 of 10 for 110 yards and two touchdowns on his final two drives.
5. Where do the Dolphins go from here? Sunday was defined as much by rumors and reports as it was results.
On Fox NFL Sunday, Jay Glazer reported Miami is the team to beat in the Watson sweepstakes. The Carolina Panthers, after beinching quarterback Sam Darnold, are expected to join the race, too, The Athletic reported.
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) October 24, 2021
Watson would help and potentially stabilize the quarterback position in a way the Dolphins haven’t had since Dan Marino. He would hopefully let Miami open up the offense more — the Dolphins have had one play longer than 40 yards all season — and get the most out of Waddle. He would ideally turn these 28-point days into 35-point performances by erasing those mistakes plaguing Tagovailoa.
It might be enough to further secure coach Brian Flores’ and general manager Chris Grier’s jobs, and create a foundation for the future. It wouldn’t make Miami anything more than a long shot this year, though. One move, no matter how big, can’t paper over all the mistakes of the past and those have already caught up to the Dolphins.