Instead of making every time Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa drops back a referendum on his long-term place in the NFL, I’m intrigued to take a step back and watch how new coach Mike McDaniel is using Tagovailoa.
At this point in the year, the way that McDaniel plans to utilize Tagovailoa reveals a lot more about what he has learned about the player than trying to extrapolate his performance metrics (it’s also more important to your fantasy team, since opportunity is king).
One thing that jumps off the page when reviewing quarterbacks on The Edge is that Tagovailoa was 33rd out of our 33 qualifying QBs in terms of shotgun usage (you can find this by clicking the “Play Calling” tab and sorting by shotgun percentage). While his former college teammate Jalen Hurts spent 100% of his dropbacks in shotgun, Tagovailoa was under center 36% of the time.
In a league where shotgun has become the norm, the Dolphins new coaching staff appears to believe that him taking 92% of his dropbacks from shotgun (as he did in 2021) is not the best way to leverage his talent.
If you are confused because you thought that shotgun passing was more efficient than under center, you’re not wrong! In the case of shotgun becoming more prevalent, this is not a case of coaches behaving irrationally (don’t worry, there is still plenty of that). On average, in the NFL, passes from shotgun create more EPA (and more yards for all you stubborn folk!) than passes from under center.
So what is McDaniel doing here?
A quick sorting of The Edge by play action percentage reveals the answer. Tagovailoa led the NFL with 44% of his dropbacks involving play action, another efficiency hack that we see prevalently among Shanahan-tree coaches like McDaniel.
Still, the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan called for play action on only 20% of Trey Lance’s dropbacks, so this is a big number! McDaniel eschewed the shotgun in favor of play action.
And, yes, while it’s true that shotgun passing is more efficient than under center on average, there is a very relevant exception:
— Shotgun is more efficient than under center.
— Play action is more efficient than no play action.
— But play action under center is more efficient than play action from shotgun.
This sort of paradox is actually somewhat intuitive when you think about it from a football standpoint. There is science behind the art, and there is art behind the science.
While we don’t know if it’s a one-game aberration or not (remember last year when the Patriots refused to pass against the Bills?), the Week 1 tendencies at least provide an indication of what the Dolphins focused on installing as they built their offense over the offseason. They clearly spent a lot of time under center and on play action, so we should expect more of it going forward.
As to what types of performances we can expect from Tagovailoa going forward, it looks like McDaniel and company are going to do their best to put him in situations to distribute the ball quickly and accurately to guys who can run after the catch. In Week 1, at times he looked like the efficient, accurate quarterback that “TuAnon” has come to love, but he also had a few head-scratchers that the detractors will point to.
Time will tell if the play action-heavy, under-center approach can help elevate the play of the Miami QB.
Matt Manocherian contributed to this report.