Sports

Tua Tagovailoa Is the Best RPO Passer in the League—and That’s All

Do you know which quarterback leads the league in completion percentage since Week 6? It’s Tua Tagovailoa.

Now, that doesn’t really matter too much. Completion percentage is a relatively meaningless statistic, and it’s far more informative to use completion percentage over expectation, a more dynamic stat that accounts for a variety of factors—target depth, tight windows—to help filter out which quarterbacks are boosting their numbers with easy completions. And the league leader in completion percentage over expectation for the past six weeks is …

Oh. Still Tua.

The Dolphins offense has been thriving recently under Tagovailoa, who recorded his second consecutive game with a completion percentage above 80 in the Dolphins’ win over the Panthers this past Sunday. He’s only the fourth quarterback to have back-to-back such games since 1950—and with three total games over 80 percent, Tua needs only one more game to tie the season record.

Now might be a good time for a reminder: Tua has started and finished only six games this season.

This is legitimately impressive. And with three consecutive wins under Tua (and four total), Dolphins fans can finally see a glimmer of what they were promised with the fifth pick back in 2020: a franchise quarterback. But unfortunately, I think the numbers are juiced. Tua has lived and died with everyone’s favorite offensive cheat code this season: the run-pass option, or RPO.

Sports Info Solutions has recorded 43 RPO dropbacks for Tua on the season, which puts him behind only Ben Roethlisberger, Justin Herbert, and Patrick Mahomes—but Mahomes (449), Herbert (438), and Roethlisberger (384) have all attempted over 100 more passes than Tagovailoa (234) has this season, which shows us just how drastic a rate at which Tua is throwing RPO passes. Over 18 percent of Tua’s passing attempts this season have come on RPOs; the next closest number is Colt McCoy at 12.22 percent.

It’s not just that the Dolphins are using RPOs aggressively; they’re also using them as a function of their downfield passing game. Most teams that use RPOs use them as constraint plays—ones that act as a second option to the running game, in that the pass is delivered to a player at or behind the line of scrimmage, with blockers in front of the pass catcher, to act as a quasi run call. As PFF’s Seth Galina points out, this is what the Packers do with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams—not because they can’t throw RPOs on routes that develop downfield, but because that’s the role RPOs play in their offense.

The Dolphins, as we see on the left heat map Galina posted, use RPOs to get into the slant and curl windows: the two red splotches on the right side of the field. It’s peculiar that the Dolphins put these routes on the offense’s right-hand side, given that Tua is a left-handed thrower, but with his quick feet and even quicker eyes, he’s able to work both sides of the field out of the mesh point, and the Dolphins layer in a ton of backfield shenanigans—multiple backs, motion, unblocked defensive players—to create hesitation and conflict, which Tua can read out and exploit.

It should not surprise anyone that Tua is a good RPO passer; that’s exactly what he was at Alabama. It also should not surprise anyone that the Dolphins, in an effort to build their offense around Tua, built an offense with RPOs at the core. And that goes beyond scheme—it also falls on personnel.

Let’s say you wanted to build an entire offense out of RPOs. First, you’d have to decide on one basic personnel grouping to live out of, because you must be able to both run and pass out of that personnel (and the formations that follow from it) without tipping your hand pre-snap. You’d need receivers who are willing to work across the middle of the field, so they have to be able to make tough grabs through contact and take hits from closing safeties. When they make catches in space, they must quickly become runners—and the better runners they are, the more effective the RPOs will be. You’d need a quarterback with a quick release from bad platforms, so he can get from the run fake to the pass before the defense gets wise to the play; and he’d better be laser-accurate, able to hit those receivers in stride between linebackers, to protect the football and maximize receivers’ run-after-catch ability. And finally, however you’re running the football—zone blocking or power blocking, multiple tight ends or spread sets—it had better be effective, so that the first letter of “RPO” still works.

That’s pretty much what the Dolphins have tried to do over the past couple of offseasons. They drafted Jaylen Waddle to use him on in-breaking patterns behind linebackers who’ve been pulled off their spots by run fakes. With tight ends Mike Gesicki, who essentially operates like a big slot receiver, and Durham Smythe, an in-line blocker with trustworthy hands as a possession receiver, the Dolphins spend almost double the time in 12 personnel (61 percent) as the next closest team (Atlanta at 31 percent). And with Tagovailoa, they have a quarterback who proved both in college and in the league that he has the quick release, pinpoint accuracy, and strong decision-making to execute RPOs with consistency. The only thing they don’t really have is the running game, though that’s not for lack of trying: They have early-round draft picks in Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, Michael Dieter, and Liam Eichenberg all peppering a line that continues to underperform. The Dolphins are 30th in rushing offense DVOA, 30th in expected points added per rush, and 30th in success rate on runs.

Because the Dolphins have built around the RPO passing game, they can’t afford to leave their RPO targets for the occasional bubble screen; they have to throw the slant, the curl, and anything deeper that they can get. This is the bread and butter of their passing game, and their commitment to it makes it the NFL’s most effective RPO game. Tua’s 9.3 yards per attempt on RPOs is the best number in the league for passers with more than five RPO passing attempts; his depth of target (5.6) is second only to Josh Allen’s in Buffalo, and his EPA per play is seventh best.

Now, the traits that make Tua a good RPO passer don’t vanish on other plays. His quickness and efficiency in the pocket are maximized on RPOs, but they are present elsewhere, which allows the Dolphins to dip their toes into the water of more traditional offensive games. On this third-and-6 against the Panthers, for example, Tua hits Waddle with great accuracy and timing against tight man coverage.

Or on this play-action dropback with immediate pressure, Tua’s able to get his platform set and get the ball to his checkdown quickly, such that the run-after-catch creates an explosive play.

These traits matter, and they are strong in Tua—strong enough to get him drafted in the top five without a prototypical frame or prototypical arm strength. They’ve served him well in the NFL. Against the Panthers, Next Gen Stats had Tua as 19-for-19 on passes with a time to throw of under 2.5 seconds—what we might anecdotally call quick-game passes—which is the best quick-game performance in the NGS era. Pro Football Focus uses the same cutoff of 2.5 seconds to divide passing attempts, and we can see a season-long trend there. Tua is third fastest in average time to throw at 2.48 seconds, behind only Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady; over 56 percent of his dropbacks have the ball out in under 2.5 seconds, the sixth-highest number in the league. On such dropbacks, his completion percentage is 76.4 percent (10th highest), his yards per attempt is 6.8 (12th highest), and he’s one of three quarterbacks without a turnover-worthy play. Of course, RPOs are included in these plays as well—but because he’s recorded 143 total dropbacks under 2.5 seconds, we can say with confidence that Tua excels in the quick game, both with and without RPOs.

These are all impressive numbers. So what’s the problem? The numbers when Tua is not throwing quick passes reinforce a different reality: that Tua struggles to be much else besides that quick-game passer. On dropbacks of longer than 2.5 seconds, Tua’s average depth of target is 9.8—fifth lowest in the league—and his turnover-worthy play rate is 7.9 percent, which is second worst. He’s still impressively accurate (62.4 completion percentage, tied for ninth best), but the longer dropbacks don’t really help the offense get downfield—Tua’s yards per attempt only jumps from 6.8 to 8.0.

Both of those numbers are lower than Tua’s yards per attempt on RPOs alone, which is 9.3—and that isn’t all. Tua averages only 8.8 yards per attempt on play-action passes, which is below his RPO average—his depth of target of 6.5 yards on play-action is tied for third lowest in the league. Even on straight intermediate targets—any passes that travel from 10 to 19 air yards downfield—Tua’s yards per attempt sits at 8.9. For the Miami Dolphins, if it isn’t a shot play, it doesn’t rip off as much yardage as an RPO does.

This is the problem with Miami’s offensive approach. It’s not that they should have drafted any differently—they did it the right way. It’s not that they should have brought in a different offensive coordinator—they’re building the offense the right way. It’s not that Tua has been uncharacteristically accurate or decisive these past few weeks—this is how he’s always played. It’s that this is all they are, and all they can be. This isn’t the 2017 Eagles, who were running an RPO offense incessantly when no defense could stop it; or the 2018 Chiefs, who ran RPOs on 25 percent of their 2018 dropbacks with Patrick Mahomes at the helm. Those offenses had quarterbacks in Carson Wentz and Mahomes who could do it all, and RPOs were one of the tools in their tool chest. The 2021 Dolphins have only RPOs.

Sure, Tua made this style of offense look explosive and sustainable at Alabama—but it’s easier in college. Offensive linemen are allowed farther downfield, which means the quarterback can hold the ball a little longer, and receivers can release farther downfield. The hashes are wider, which makes spacing more difficult for college defenses to handle on the wide side of the field. And of course, Alabama’s talent comes out head and shoulders above almost any defense, no matter the scheme they’re running.

In the NFL, the margins are thinner, and the Dolphins are discovering that in real time. With a dominant defense and a healthy Tua, they had just enough juice on offense to squeak out wins over AFC contenders the Patriots and Ravens—but those were far from decisive victories. And it’s been hard to keep Tagovailoa healthy in part because of all the shots he takes on these option dropbacks. It’s also hard to rely on dominant defense, week in and week out, in a league rife with talented and explosive offenses.

But this is how it was always supposed to look for Miami; this was the plan, and with a few bumps and bruises along the way (looking at you, offensive line), it’s largely been executed well. The Dolphins made their bed when they drafted Tua; now they’re lying in it, with a 5-7 record and a 9 percent chance to make the playoffs. This is how they wanted their offense to go, and the returns of 2021 might just be enough to justify further investment and development in 2022: better run blockers, more YAC threats. The RPO took the league by storm a few seasons ago—now, Miami’s trying to figure out just how much power that storm has.


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