This one was (mostly) on Tua, and he knew it.
“No one really to blame but myself,” Tua Tagovailoa said after he misfired early and often in the Miami Dolphins’ 33-17 loss Sunday at San Francisco. “It sucks that we didn’t come out and do what we wanted to do collectively. Obviously, it starts with me offensively.”
This was prime example of why a franchise quarterback is so essential to rise to the top in the modern NFL.
It’s what distinguishes the rare breed that can make everything right when everything is going wrong.
Like when your defense is getting picked apart by a third-string rookie quarterback who entered the league as Mr. Irrelevant. And when you’re sophisticated zone-blocking running game is getting schooled by the one it was modeled after. And you’re facing the top-rated defense in the league without your best offensive lineman.
That’s what the Dolphins needed against the 49ers and Tagovailoa failed to deliver in the first big test of the late-season playoff push.
The frustrating part is that it was within his reach. There were ample opportunities that were missed, particularly in the first half. Receivers were open for significant gains. Pass protection was often better than may have been expected in the absence of cornerstone left tackle Terron Armstead.
Time and again Tua missed the open man. Badly.
Tagovailoa uncharacteristically inaccurate
The familiar Tua touch got misplaced somewhere on the way to Santa Clara. Several throws were too high for leaping receivers. Others fell short or off line.
It was so glaring that you started to wonder, who kidnapped Tua?
Particularly in the first half when he completed only 8 of 18 for 162 yards.
Tagovailoa came into the game second in the NFL in completion percentage 71 percent (on pace for a Dolphins season record). He finished Sunday completing just 54.6 percent of his attempts (18 of 33).
There were also interceptions on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter. The first came when intended target Jeff Wilson Jr. fell and ended Tua’s string of 193 passes without a pick.
His very next pass was also intercepted. The picks led to a pair of 49ers field goals.
“I missed guys. There is also some miscommunication of where guys should be breaking. But a poor performance on my part,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s hard to win a game when you’re not on your P’s and Q’s and you’re not dialed in.”
Tua has not played a Defense like this all season! If you wondered whether the @49ers Defense was for real well…. You tell me
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) December 4, 2022
Third-string rookie Purdy golden for 49ers
For whatever reason, he wasn’t the accurate, efficient Tua we’re accustomed to seeing. Maybe he was rushing his throws in anticipation of the 49ers relentless pass rush.
Understandable with Nick Bosa bringing the heat all day. Bosa, the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for November, got a great start on December with three sacks, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble and two tackles for loss.
The NFL is a test of adversity, and the 49ers handled theirs much better with Brock Purdy, the final pick in the 2022 draft, stepping in after Jimmy Garoppolo exited on a cart with a season-ending foot injury and outshining would-be MVP candidate Tagovailoa.
Purdy had a huge conversion on under pressure on third-and 10 on touchdown drive just before the half that put San Francisco ahead to stay.
Brock Purdy uncorked this throw on 3rd and 10 in a two minute drill to keep the drive going at the end of the first half. They capped off the drive with a TD to take the lead, and never gave it back.
Easy to see why Kyle likes him so much. Remarkable poise here. pic.twitter.com/RlDJuHrdZu
— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) December 5, 2022
Games tend to turn on pivotal moments. Even with so much going awry for the Dolphins, the tide seemed to be swinging in their favor when they forced a punt on the first possession of the second half and an unsportsmanlike penalty on the return set up them up in 49ers territory. They advanced farther on a roughing-the-passer call against Bosa and then Raheem Mostert went 18 yards on what would have been Miami’s longest run of the game. But a phantom holding call on Robert Hunt negated it. Tua threw the first interception on the next play.
Loss not devastating to Dolphins’ playoff chances
The result certainly wasn’t all on Tagovailoa. He finished with 295 yards and two touchdowns, including a 45-yard toss to Tyreek Hill that pulled the Dolphins within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t the elite-level performance the Dolphins needed against an opponent like the 49ers.
It happens to the best of them. Patrick Mahomes fell short of his standards Sunday in the Chiefs’ loss to the Bengals.
TUA WITH A BOMB TO HILL pic.twitter.com/KvtI48hti5
— josh houtz (@houtz) December 4, 2022
Tua looked like a franchise QB in the early season comeback against the Ravens and in some dazzling efforts against lesser opponents.
The Dolphins need him to produce as that level in the vital games ahead, starting next Sunday night against the Justin Herbert and the Chargers. A win would enable the Dolphins to regain command of the AFC East the following week at Buffalo against Josh Allen and the Bills.
A very tall order indeed, made more difficult by the game being moved up a day to Saturday, Dec. 17.
It’s the sort of challenge that separates a franchise quarterback from a pretender.
Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns