DAVIE, Fla. -- When healthy, Tua Tagovailoa is the Miami Dolphins' starting quarterback. It's a simple statement coach Brian Flores made clear Sunday, closing the chapter, he hopes, on the yearlong question of whether Tagovailoa or Ryan Fitzpatrick gives the Dolphins the better chance to win.
"Yeah, if he's healthy, he's the guy. I don't know how many different ways we have to continue to say that," Flores said of Tagovailoa. "We'll see how he does in practice over the course of the week. He's a tough kid. It was very close to him being able to go, but we have to make good decisions for him as well."
It's become clear no matter the quarterback, it will be the defense that determines whether the Dolphins (7-4) can make a successful playoff push. But once Tagovailoa's left thumb heals enough to return, he will receive an invaluable stretch of December games that will help his development and allow him to play through expected adversity.
Despite the statistical success of likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers) and 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals), Tagovailoa is the only rookie starting quarterback who will be playing meaningful games in December. That gives him a head start in at least one department, and it will certainly expedite his improvement in areas where he has struggled.
Let's highlight three areas where Tagovailoa needs to improve while leading his team through the most difficult stretch of the season.
Better balance of risk vs. reward
Despite having six passing touchdowns to zero interceptions this season, Tagovailoa admitted he has got to throw the ball more when he doesn't see players as "open."
A clear difference in a Fitzpatrick-led offense is the veteran rarely hesitates when firing the ball to his big targets, such as wide receiver DeVante Parker and tight end Mike Gesicki. Tagovailoa is more judicious on tight-window throws and thrives more when he sees a receiver separate. Problem is, Dolphins wideouts have struggled all season to separate.
"It's not me playing like I'm scared or anything. It's me trusting what I see. If I don't see the guy open, I'm not going to throw it and that's really how it's been in the games and also in practice, too," Tagovailoa said. "It's one of those things where you've just got to practice. You see it, you practice, get throws with guys in tight coverages and tight windows and then you kind of dictate how you felt through that and if you didn't like it, then it won't happen in the game."
Fitzpatrick often takes too many risks, which lead to interceptions like the one he threw to end the Dolphins' comeback drive in Denver in Week 11. So Tagovailoa doesn't need to completely adopt Fitzpatrick's style, but he can find a happy medium and take more chances.
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Evaluating progressions, defenses quicker
After riding high on a 3-0 start to his NFL career, Tagovailoa hit an abrupt wall when Vic Fangio's Broncos defense mixed coverage, upped the pressure with stunts and forced Tagovailoa to stay inside the pocket while locating his second and third reads. It provided somewhat of a template for how defenses might attack Tagovailoa going forward.
One New York Jets starter told ESPN they preferred to play Tagovailoa because he showed some struggles in quickly identifying complex pressure and coverage schemes. This is all to be expected for a rookie, but it's also a reason why sometimes Miami's offense flows better with Fitzpatrick.
"The biggest thing for me is I need to be better at if it's not there, trying to extend plays and our guys trying to get open and try to find holes to where we can get better with our scramble drills, if that makes sense," Tagovailoa said.
Again, this is something Tagovailoa -- four starts into his pro career -- should improve upon dramatically.
Adjusting to his personnel
Before the Dolphins' first touchdown Sunday in Week 12, Fitzpatrick told Gesicki: "It's coming to you regardless." He skyrocketed a ball toward the end zone and Gesicki (6-foot-6) boxed out a defender he had six inches on and came down with it. It was the quintessential Fitzpatrick pass -- a risky 50-50 ball and he bet on his guy.
"[Fitzpatrick] knows what's going to happen before it happens and he's going to take chances. And a lot of people want to talk about, 'Oh, he takes chances and that's why he throws interceptions, this, that and the other thing.' He's been pretty damn good when he's been taking chances -- at least wearing the Dolphins uniform," Gesicki said.
Gesicki was speaking about Fitzpatrick, but his words could also apply to Tagovailoa. It has been an adjustment for Tagovailoa coming from Alabama, where most of his receivers were speedsters creating consistent separation, to a Dolphins crew that struggles to separate and works best on 50-50 balls and tight-window throws.
The Dolphins should make it a priority this offseason to get more speedy playmakers who can separate and get yards after the catch. But in the meantime, Tagovailoa is working on adjusting to his personnel. He'll get a better grasp in time, and this December run will give him plenty of opportunities.