Tua Tagovailoa’s rookie year wasn’t what he expected — even if nobody truly knew what to expect from him in 2020.
Tagovailoa, who was selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, finished 6-3 as a starter for the Miami Dolphins. He successfully returned from a career-threatening hip injury and helped push the Dolphins from 5-11 in 2019 to 10-6 and the fringe of the AFC playoff picture. He had a pair of 300-yard games and three games with fewer than 100 yards passing, ups and downs that most rookies experience at the position.
So, what did Tagovailoa expect?
“I would say with the hip talk and whatnot — to that there is no excuse for me,” Tagovailoa told Sporting News on Tuesday. “Even with the hip or not the hip, I didn’t play the way I wanted to play.
“For me, I was very comfortable before I stepped foot on the field,” he said. “I just feel like I could have done things a lot different when the season had happened as far as preparation for teams that we were playing.”
Tagovailoa did not make his first appearance until Week 6. He made his first start against the Los Angeles Rams the following week. Tagovailoa won his first three starts. He finished with 1,814 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. He added three rushing TDs.
The numbers were comparable to No. 1 pick Joe Burrow, who missed the last six games of the season after suffering a knee injury.
Tagovailoa might have been a Week 1 starter if he didn’t suffer a dislocated hip with a fracture to the posterior wall in a game against Mississippi State on Nov. 16, 2019. That ended a prolific college career in which he piled up 7,442 yards, 87 TDs and 11 interceptions in three seasons with Alabama.
For Tagovailoa, it was less about coming back from the hip injury and more about meeting the expectations that come with being a starter in the NFL.
“I felt prepared,” he said. “I felt like I was ready to get in the game, and I believe our coaches felt the same way. This past season, it didn’t go the way I expected it to go. It was a good experience. It was a good first year under my belt. I’m just working hard this offseason to achieve what I expected to achieve last year.”
Those high standards were set in college at Alabama. He won the national championship as a freshman and finished second to Kyler Murray in the Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore. The hip injury came the week after a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 showdown with Burrow and LSU.
Tagovailoa handled the big NFL stage well as a rookie. He and Murray starred in a Week 8 shootout that the Dolphins won 34-31. Tagovailoa also passed for 316 yards, two TDs and an interception in a duel with Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs won a 33-27 thriller. As a result, Tagovailoa has maintained that status as one of the league’s most popular players. Tagovailoa’s popularity has carried over from college, as his jersey ranks among the top-five sellers on NFL.com.
“I’d say it did surprise me, but it shows the support the fans in Miami and Dolphins nation have for our team,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s very honorable to say the least that a lot of Dolphins fans want to buy my jersey. At the end of the day, I think popularity falls on the last of my list of things that I want.
“I just want to help my team win games, man,” he said. “If I could give up the whole popularity deal and win a Super Bowl, then I would do that in a heartbeat.”
Tagovailoa also has been the center of trade rumors this offseason on a quarterback carousel that produces more unexpected turns than ever before. He addressed how he handles those rumors during Super Bowl week, and he said the focus remains within this offseason.
“I’d expect more from me — and for any competitor, you’re going to be your biggest critic,” Tagovailoa said. “If you don’t get your team to the big dance and whatnot … I understand we’re playing in the NFL. It’s either that, or you shouldn’t be playing the game.”
That is the goal heading into his second season. Tagovailoa wants to lead the Dolphins to a playoff run and build on the modest success as a rookie coming off the hip injury. That’s the expectation now.
“I can say a lot of the things I want to work on — they have to do with preparation,” Tagovailoa said. “How to do certain things with coming to the line pre-snap, post-snap, identification right off the bat. A lot of those things, I’m working on right now and I don’t want to share too much.”
Tagovailoa, who teamed with USAA, did a virtual meet with Kerry Smith, a Navy veteran who was one of five grand-prize winners in the “Salute to Service” sweepstakes. USAA and the NFL continue to work together to support military members across the country. “I had great time learning about Kerry’s service in the Navy. I always enjoy meeting with our military and veterans. I appreciate the opportunity because I have family members who served in the military. That gives a little bit of a different type of appreciation for it.”