On Halloween night, the Miami Dolphins sat at just 1-7 after losing their previous seven games. There were talks about whether Tua Tagovailoa should be their franchise quarterback, and rumors about Deshaun Watson being traded to Miami were swirling. To think that they would end up being one of the hottest teams in football and in the hunt for the playoffs just seven weeks later appeared nearly impossible; yet, that is where they sit currently coming off a 6-game winning streak.
After beating New England in Week 1 by just one point, the Dolphins skidded until Week 8, losing all seven of these matchups while being outscored 217 to 121. Following their Week 8 beatdown in Buffalo, many criticized Miami for their struggles. Hall of Fame Dolphin Larry Csonka even took to Twitter to say, “it seems obvious it’s time to get back to basics and revisit the drawing board.”
Coach Rip Scherer, who has coached in the NFL and NCAA for more than forty years, recruited Tagovailoa during his time at UCLA. Scherer sees parallels between the Dolphins’ up-and-down streaks and the streaky play from Tagovailoa. Coach Scherer “thinks of him as a ‘hot hand’ QB; when he gets on a roll, he feeds off of his own success.”
This hot hand came into effect as Miami began to salvage their season against the Texans, with both teams entering the game at 1-7. However, they started this run with Jacoby Brissett at the helm due to a Tagovailoa finger injury. After Miami outlasted Houston in an ugly 9-turnover game, Brissett had to exit a Thursday affair with the Ravens due to a knee injury. Tagovailoa was able to suit up as the backup despite his injury, stepping in to relieve Brissett in the second half and starting each game since. Here are the keys to Miami’s success across that time:
Key No. 1
Although he hasn’t played every snap throughout this six-game winning streak, Tagovailoa’s improved play has been a key component to this monumental shift. Throughout the first eight weeks of the season, Miami had an adjusted completion percentage of 75.4%, the 17th-highest in the league. Across their winning streak, they have vaulted to 77.9%, good for 5th in the NFL. Even more impressive, Tagovailoa has an adjusted completion percentage of 81.3% during this time, the best in the league among players with 100 pass attempts.
Key No. 2
The Dolphins have increased their passer rating as well, catapulting from 27th in the league through Week 8 up to 13th following their losing streak. Tagovailoa’s passing rating sits at 103.3 since Week 9, the 5th-highest in the NFL. This has been facilitated primarily by a better offensive balance and a more effective passing attack.
Key No. 3
During their first eight games, the Dolphins ran the ball 61 times on 2nd down, 19th in the league. Since their winning streak began, Miami has 64 of such rush attempts, the 6th-most during this stretch. Despite only scoring four times on the ground through Week 8, the Dolphins have seven rushing touchdowns during their barrage of wins, ranking 7th in the NFL.
Key No. 4
One key reason for their success on the ground has also been their increased passing threat. During the first two months of the season, Miami could only muster 6.1 passing yards per attempt, 2nd-worst in the NFL ahead of only Chicago. In the time since, they rank 13th with 7.1 passing yards per attempt, a sizable jump.
Key No. 5
Although the Dolphins’ average depth of target only increased from 7.4 yards to 7.6 yards during these two segments of the season, their percentage of passing yards coming from yards after the catch increased from 43% to 45.4%. One reason for this is because of Jaylen Waddle’s excellent play. The rookie’s yards per reception has leaped from 8.6 yards in the first eight weeks to 11.5 yards since then.
Key No. 6
From the first eight weeks versus the following seven weeks, Tagovailoa has been more effective while throwing both short and deep passes. On passes that have gone three yards past the line of scrimmage or short, or twenty or more yards past the line of scrimmage, the southpaw has bumped his passing yards per attempt from 7 yards up to 8 yards, the latter good for 15th in the league.
Key No. 7
The improvement to both their passing and rushing games also could be somewhat attributed to their use of play action passes. In their first eight weeks, they utilized play action on 29.1% of their passes. Since, 42.5% of their pass attempts have incorporated play action, the highest clip in the NFL.
Key No. 8
The Miami defense has also taken a huge step forward in their previous seven games, allowing less than 12 points per contest and more than 10 points just twice, both to the New York Jets. In the first eight games, the Dolphins accumulated 11 sacks, the second-fewest in the league. Since Week 9, they lead the league in sacks with 24. This likely is due to the frequency in which they are blitzing. During their winning streak, they have blitzed 120 times and 45.8% of the time, both of which lead the NFL throughout this span. In this same time frame, Miami has led the league in the number of total pressures and pressure percentage. Additionally, the Dolphins have the most batted passes in the NFL with 14, four more than the team with the second-most.
Riding the back of Tua Tagovailoa, Miami has thrusted itself in the heart of the AFC playoff race. Many thought on that Halloween night the Dolphins should take a deep look at their roster and front office staff, calling for new faces to spark a streak. However, their spark was found within. In the words of Coach Scherer, “it was obvious from the get-go that you better never count Tagovailoa out… I never doubted that it was a matter of if he would work through the difficult span he was in; but it was just a matter of when. I knew Tagovailoa would find a way.”
A way Tagovailoa certainly did find, but will it be enough for Miami to find its way into the postseason?
All information taken from PFF, ESPN, and Pro-Football-Reference