The moment arrived in last Sunday’s 24-17 win over the New York Jets where Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had a deep-ball opportunity and connected on it for a touchdown.
He stepped up to avoid initial pressure after his first read, Mike Gesicki, was covered and found an open Mack Hollins down the sideline. With the ball traveling 53.1 yards in the air, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and Hollins tip-toeing down the sideline after getting pushed by a Jets defender following the catch, it went for a 65-yard touchdown. That marked Tagovailoa’s longest scoring strike of his career and first of longer than 20 yards this season.
For Tagovailoa, who is often criticized for a lack of arm strength and also recovering from fractures on his ribs and the middle finger on his throwing hand earlier this season, it had to feel like he got the proverbial monkey off his back.
“Yeah, it felt really good,” Tagovailoa said. “We haven’t had much of those last year when I played and then this year too. We haven’t had much of those aside from the throw to Albert [Wilson, a 62-yard catch and run] the game before, the Baltimore game. Those feel really good, especially when it ends in a touchdown too.”
As Tagovailoa got his first touchdown pass of 20-plus yards this season, two quarterbacks in his 2020 draft class he will long be compared to have several more in their sophomore campaigns. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has 11 touchdown passes of 20-plus yards, and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert has six.
Tagovailoa has also missed five starts and most of another game with his injuries to lead to that disparity, but even while it took so long to finally see a deep touchdown come to fruition, the Dolphins (4-7) are confident in Tagovailoa’s ability to connect on those.
“We know he can throw the ball down the field,” coach Brian Flores said Monday. “It’s all about the opportunity to do so in a game. We try to create those opportunities with our play design and play-calling. I think there’s a timing element to it.
“You can get the exact look you’re looking for, get the matchup you’re looking for and get an opportunity to push it down the field, get the protection you need to get it down the field. There’s a lot of things that play into that. That showed up [Sunday], and we were able to connect.”
Hollins’ perspective on Tagovailoa’s deep passing: “It’s 100 percent when it came to me, so I’d say it’s great. The ball was where it needed to be. I was able to tight-rope the sideline because of where the ball kind of turned me in to, so yeah, it went well.”
Now able to connect on open downfield throws against the Jets and the previous week in an upset of the Ravens where Tagovailoa entered in the second half, the hope is he can continue to build on it.
“It starts in practice,” he said. “A lot of the looks that we get in practice, kind of entail us to take shots, but in the game, if it doesn’t present itself, we never want to force it. When it does present itself, we try to take advantage of that.”
The opportunities may be harder to come by this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers (5-6), who have the NFL’s top-ranked passing defense.
As Tagovailoa gets back to health from the finger and rib injuries, he also continues to move further from the November 2019 hip injury that cut his final college season short.
“I would say it helps, but it’s always about the opportunity presenting itself,” Tagovailoa said.
But regardless of how much he’s hurting, or not, or if he’s hitting on deep balls, Tagovailoa’s primary objective is to contribute to victories.
“Nothing really hurts if you win,” he said.
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