Miami Dolphins, Tua and FitzMagic: The Tape Don't Lie, observations from Raiders win

Joe Schad
Palm Beach Post
Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Arden Key (99) commits a roughing the passer penalty on Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) during the second half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

The Dolphins stunned the Raiders, 26-25, on Saturday night. 

Miami will make the playoffs for the second time in 12 years if it wins at Buffalo next Sunday. Or if Baltimore, Indianapolis or Cleveland lose.

Any of those four results, and the Dolphins are in.

Among the players who stood out for Miami: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Myles Gaskin, Mike Gesicki, Andrew Van Ginkel and Xavien Howard.

Ask any coach and he'll likely agree, "The Tape Don't Lie." Here are some things we noticed after watching Miami's come-from-behind victory again:

• It is not excuse-making to note that any evaluation of Tua Tagovailoa must include all the pertinent information. While is it true that Ryan Fitzpatrick has also dealt with a lack of dynamic weapons, sometimes due to injury, he has entered some games, such at Saturday, in unique situations that call for frenzy mode. Tagovailoa has been schooled to avoid frenzy at all costs.

Also, it has been too easily pushed aside that Tagovailoa did not benefit from an on-field spring or rookie camp or any preseason games. Critics will say neither did Justin Herbert and he has shined. Look, every quarterback will develop at their own pace. It is just flat-out wrong to say Tagovailoa has been a major disappointment, taking into consideration his win-loss record of 6-2 as well as his 10-2 touchdown to interception ratio.

• A lot has been made, and will continue to be made, about Tagovailoa failing to complete long passes. In this game, Tagovailoa's longest completions were 14 (Jakeem Grant), 14 (Grant) and 13 yards (Isaiah Ford).

Meanwhile, in one quarter of play, Fitzpatrick completed passes of 59 yards (Myles Gaskin, mostly yards-after-catch), 34 yards (Mack Hollins, the no-look miracle), Mike Gesicki (31 yards) and Gesicki again (17 yards).

Tagovailoa is going to take less chances than Fitzpatrick because that's what in his DNA, and what he's always been coached to do — protect the football.

So on the one hand, it's not terrible that Tagovailoa's interception rate is likely to be much lower than Fitzpatrick's when their careers are over.

In looking at each of Tagovailoa's 22 pass attempts (he completed 77 percent, by the way), a few things jumped out. And they've pretty much jumped out all season.

Tagovailoa is highly accurate on short- and medium-length passes. He's generally accurate when on the move. He places the ball where he intends to place it. 

On the down side, Tagovailoa must continue to work on decoding faster what a defense is trying to accomplish, and computing which lower-percentage chances are worth taking. He has also gotten away with a handful of decisions that should have resulted in interceptions. Let's say at least three more.

Miami's depleted receiving corps is not giving Tagoavailoa consistently-appealing open looks. But there are times when Tua is either not seeing, or bypassing, longer throwing opportunities, and open targets. At times it seems Tua is preferring the shorter options, when all other factors may be equal.

We continue to believe scrambling a bit more will be beneficial to the offense. We continue to believe more shotgun, more empty backfields, more no-huddle and more up-tempo will be utilized in 2021. And they should be.

We're not sure that at Buffalo in January is the time to do what we're about to suggest. But when push comes to shove, he's going to have to convince defensive players and defensive coordinators that he is able to uncork and complete a few deep ones. He's going to have to convince them his arm is a threat and they need to defend all levels of the field.

• Clayton Fejedelem missed a tackle opportunity in punt coverage that led to a long return by Hunter Renfrow. In the fourth quarter, Kamu Grugier-Hill also missed a chance to limit Renfrow prior to a long punt return. Fejedelem would mostly make up for that miss by converting a successful fake punt later in the contest. Fejedelem also ended the game by forcing and recovering a fumble following the final kickoff and play of the game. Hopefully Fejedelem took a game ball home to his wife and newborn son.

On the fake punt, which gained 22 yards up the middle, the safety Fejedelem picked up nice blocking help from linebackers Andrew Van Ginkel, Grugier-Hill and Calvin Munson. The Dolphins were in such an unbalanced formation the Raiders should have realized a trick play was on. In most games this season, Miami special teams coach Danny Crossman has out-performed his peers.

Miami Dolphins safety Clayton Fejedelem #42 is tackled after a fake punt run during the second quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders in an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jeff Bottari)

• Conservative is, in fact, the approach Flores and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey have taken with Tagovailoa under center. And one wonders if it is a bit too conservative at times.

No moment was more glaring than when three consecutive rushes were called after Miami gained momentum near the end of the first half following Fejedelem's successful fake punt. On a second-and-1, Gaskin was dropped for a loss while trying to run behind Jesse Davis, Robert Hunt and Adam Shaheen.

But then on third-and-2 at Vegas' 20-yard-line, just after the two-minute warning, Tagovailoa went under center with Isaiah Ford as the only available receiver, split wide right. With nine players in the box for Las Vegas, Salvon Ahmed tried to run left, behind a pulling Davis, but was stopped. Miami settled for a field goal.

Ahmed is not a prototypical short-yardage back and Miami doesn't really have one. But perhaps Tagovailoa in shotgun formation with more than one receiving option in that situation would have resulted in a better result. Perhaps. 

• Jakeem Grant's juggle on a third-down catch cost him an opportunity to gain a first down. Grant may never be a natural and consistently-smooth receiver of the ball. But before suffering an ankle injury, he was Tua Tagovailoa's most dangerous weapon. Grant is expected to miss next Sunday's game at Buffalo. One hopes that rookies Malcolm Perry, Noah Igbinoghene and Lynn Bowden are ready to handle any punt and kick returns with an almost-exclusive focus on ball security of a frigid football.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jakeem Grant #19 catches a pass during the first quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders in an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jeff Bottari)

• Darren Waller is really more of a big receiver than a tight end. There were times when Eric Rowe played him really tightly but just had no chance. 

• Elandon Roberts has been pretty strong and tough against inside run. It's going to be interesting to see who gets more playing time after Roberts left this game with a knee injury. Kamu Grugier-Hill, Jerome Baker and Sam Eguaveon are all capable of playing inside snaps but they're also more coverage and speed-oriented, while Roberts was a pure thumper. Safety Brandon Jones is also capable of playing a pseudo-linebacker position.

• Andrew Van Ginkel's first sack came on a bull rush against Vegas' right tackle. This is an example of how much strength he's added since arriving in South Florida. Later in the quarter, Van Ginkel used speed and agility to evade Vegas' left tackle and complete a sack. At worst, Van Ginkel should have a future as a situational rusher on a championship-caliber defense. But maybe he can do even more.

Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, left, and defensive back Nik Needham, right, sack Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) during the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

• The future of the Dolphins' offense may in fact be what we saw from Tagovailoa at the start of the second half. Tua operated a no-huddle offense with an increase in tempo. And he led Miami down the field with rhythm, for his only touchdown drive of the night.

Tagovailoa feels comfortable operating in this fashion. It seems to give defenses less time to adjust to what's coming. And honestly, Miami's offense of the future should be designed entirely around what makes Tagovailoa most comfortable.

Why not do it more? Well, it seems quite obvious Miami's recipe for success in 2020 is rooted in stout defense, strong special teams and protecting the football in a calculated fashion. The thing is, Tagovailoa doesn't seem to make terrible choices when he's operating fast. Something to consider further. And of course, we are sure Miami's coaches are.

• Myles Gaskin is much, much better at breaking tackles than one would imagine, given his size. He broke tackles both on the 10-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter and and the 59-touchdown catch and run in the fourth quarter.

According to Pro Football Reference, Miami's running backs, ranked by broken tackles are: Gaskin (5), Ahmed (4), Breida (2). While looking up that statistic, it occurred to me that Breida did not play an offense snap on Saturday. Remarkable. Says as much about Gaskin as it does Breida.

Gaskin's 59-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty. He showed quickness, toughness and elusiveness to put Miami ahead 23-22. It should be said that Chan Gailey and running backs coach Eric Studesville deserve credit for recognizing Gaskin's growth and potential prior to this season. And also kudos to general manager Chris Grier and Miami's scouting department, which made Gaskin the 25th and final back selected in 2019.

Dec 26, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin (37) runs the ball for a touchdown ahead of Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen (27) during the second half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

• Gaskin was consistent on Saturday, posting runs of: 14, 8 (first quarter), 8, 9 (second quarter), 24, 7 (third quarter) and (8) fourth quarter. Of course, he also added a 59-yard catch and run touchdown in the fourth quarter.

In looking at each of those plays, here are the points we'll award for key blocks: Robert Hunt (3), Adam Shaheen (3), Mike Gesicki (2), Ereck Flowers (2), Jesse Davis (1), Ted Karras (1), Mack Hollins (1), Durham Smythe (1). Hunt really has big upside as a run blocker. Shaheen is a valuable asset.

• How much credit do you have to give Gesicki for playing through what must be a painful shoulder injury? Shame on anyone who ever questioned his toughness. And yes, he's gotten stronger and more physical and tougher (not to mention his tendency to commit aerial acrobatics). Is it me or did it seem like Gesicki's injured shoulder hurt less once Fitzpatrick entered the lineup? It's uncanny how Gesicki responds to Fitzpatrick's presence. 

Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki runs after catching a pass during the fourth quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders. (AP Photo/Jeff Bottari)

• In all the chaos of Saturday night, it's very easy to overlook a key 4th-and-1 tackle made by Zach Sieler on Josh Jacobs in the third quarter. The score was tied at 13. Sieler used power, speed and leverage to dominate Vegas' left tackle. Extending Sieler will turn to be a very shrewd choice by the Fins front office. Van Ginkel said hard work and playmaker are in Sieler's DNA. And that Sieler is hard on himself. Makes sense. Sieler has high standards.

• If the Dolphins plan to choose among say the Top 5 receivers in the next NFL draft, I would take the two with the highest drop percentage (whoever they are, I don't care) and cross them off the list. Miami has had too many drops this season it has really hurt Tagovailoa in particular.

He needs a receiver who is not only fast and dynamic, but who has consistently reliable hands. Yes, Miami receivers have failed to get enough separation this season. But even if a receiver is open by five yards, if he's going to drop it too frequently, I don't want him on my roster. Mack Hollins' drop near the Vegas goal line with about four minutes to play was pushed off the radar by all that followed Saturday. To be fair, Hollins redeemed himself a bit not only with the miracle heave reception from Fitzpatrick, but more importantly, a key block to help spring Myles Gaskin on a 59-yard touchdown run.

• I am not suggesting that the Dolphins must use a high draft choice on a tackle in the next draft. But if they were to do that, utilizing Robert Hunt at right guard would obviously strengthen the entire offensive line. Again, Miami could stick with Hunt at right tackle. But if they were to draft an elite tackle, that is an option worth considering. If that draft pick was a left tackle, Austin Jackson could shift to right tackle. Or, that tackle could protect Tagovailoa's blind right side. 

One of Hunt's college coaches told me he believes Hunt would be a Pro Bowl guard. In that scenario, Solomon Kindley would compete with Ereck Flowers at left guard. And Hunt would still provide the versatility to move to tackle in a pinch.

• It seems the Dolphins coaches might want to let go of the reins on Tagovailoa just a bit. Consider that on a 3rd-and-18 from Miami's 12-yard line in the fourth quarter, the call was a draw. Miami is playing is so close-to-the-vest with Tagovailoa and it can be frustrating at times to watch.

But there are reasons why the coaches are doing that. Consider Tagovailoa's last pass attempt before he was pulled for Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa held the ball on a 2nd-and-9 that led to a sack setting up the 3rd-and-18. On the one hand, Tagovailoa passed up a fairly open running back as well as receiver in the flat. In particular, the running back.

But Tua also hesitated, when it seemed he might have had a downfield shot at a streaking Gesicki. And yes, Tagovailoa was under fire fairly quickly as a defensive tackle worked past Ted Karras and Flowers.

Part of Tua is probably hearing "I need to get some downfield plays going," and another part of Tua is probably hearing "Protect the football, take what they give." And when too much is going on in one's head, sometimes you just hold the ball too long and do nothing except take a sack.

Here is the dilemma for Miami coaches — Tagovailoa needs to play in order to produce a better result in the same situation next time. But in this instance, Flores had seen enough. He didn't like the choices Tagovailoa was making, and ascertained, correctly, that Fitzpatrick would make faster, more decisive and effective decisions.

• Jerome Baker now has 7 sacks, which would have led the 2019 Dolphins. Last season, Miami had 23 sacks, 32nd in the league. This season, Miami has 40 sacks, 9th in the league.

• Xavien Howard nearly had his 10th interception on a pass that was batted into the air and fell just out of his reach. Howard also broke up a deep pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Howard leads the NFL in interceptions and pass breakups. 

Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones (24) commits a pass interference penalty on Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Nelson Agholor (15) during the second half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

• The decision to not call offensive pass interference on Nelson Agholor on his 85-yard touchdown catch while defended by Byron Jones was understandable, in my opinion. Let them play. The problem of course, is that officials did not let Jones play on a long pass interference call while again defending Agholor, later in the game. I can understand why it may have looked worse than it really was to the official, based on how he was positioned. But let that one go, man. Penalties are down this season and the game is better for it. Let them play. Jones should not have been flagged.

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Arden Key (99) is called for a facemask penalty against Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) in the final minute at Allegiant Stadium. The Dolphins defeated the Raiders 26-25.

• Call Ryan Fitzpatrick a journeyman. Call him a gunslinger. The best description, of course, is probably just fearless. Sometimes it works against him. But it's almost always a thrilling ride. And yes, Fitzpatrick's improbable, no-look completion to Mack Hollins, with his facemask yanked and his head turned sideways inside his helmet, will go down as one of the most memorable plays in Dolphins history. Kudos to Fitzpatrick for his intelligence, savvy, poise, moxie and yes — fearlessness. It's quite a way to live.

The Dolphins celebrate the game winning field goal by kicker Jason Sanders (7) against the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday in Paradise, Nevada.

• It's a good thing the Dolphins have a kicker who is absolutely expected to make a 44-yard game-winner at the gun. Some teams, believe it or not, don't have that. Incidentally, in his career Sanders has made 80 percent of his kicks from 50+ yards and 74 percent of his kicks from 40-49 yards. He's also 1-for-1 on field goals and 5-for-5 on extra points in two career games at Buffalo.