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Surprise MVP contender Tua Tagovailoa drives Dolphins with accountability, field vision

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Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa totaled 18 touchdown passes and just three interceptions through his first eight starts this season. File Photo by Mark Black/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/c73c02d9052c293ba6a58cb73c36343a/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa totaled 18 touchdown passes and just three interceptions through his first eight starts this season. File Photo by Mark Black/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Tua Tagovailoa says he never envisioned being serenaded by MVP chants midway through his third season, but he has warranted that with an impressive leap from near castoff to one of the NFL's elite passers.

Injury, a carousel of coaches, underperformance, lack of premium protection and strong surrounding talent led the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to fly under the radar and prompted a make-or-break 2022 campaign.

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Tagovailoa, who has one guaranteed year remaining on his rookie contract, stood on ground as sure as quicksand this off-season amid reports of the Dolphins' interest in other quarterbacks. Such an acquisition likely would have resulted in his exit from the franchise.

But the quarterback, who started 2022 outside the Top 20 in MVP odds, now trails just Patrick Mahomes as a favorite for the honor. He also captains the most potent pass offense in the league and appears in line for a big-time off-season payday.

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"You're just in the moment and you're just enjoying that and you don't necessarily think outside of any of that," Tagovailoa said when asked about MVP prospects after he led the Dolphins to a 39-17 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday in Miami Gardens, Fla.

"I'm really proud of our team."

Tagovailoa averaged 199.7 passing yards and 1.2 passing touchdowns per game through the Dolphins' first 10 games of 2021. They went 3-7 over that span.

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This year's Dolphins are 7-3 through 10 games. Tagovailoa is averaging nearly 84 more yards and one more touchdown pass per appearance.

He has a league-best 118.4 passer rating, which also ranks third-best in the NFL over the past decade. He is the first player in NFL history to post a passer rating of at least 135 in three consecutive games.

Criticism shadowed Tagovailoa before he entered the league. A season-ending hip injury in college led some front offices to question his durability.

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He also was criticized for being too small and for his lack of deep throws throughout his first two seasons. Off-season strength training, the Dolphins' addition of several offensive playmakers and what first-year head coach Mike McDaniel calls a "jump in accountability" contributed to his strong start in 2022.

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"The biggest thing for me with Tua specifically would be impossible to see on game tape, but the whole team in the last month has taken an unbelievable jump in accountability, how they prepare and how they just go about doing their jobs. He is one of the main reasons that that is occurring," McDaniel said.

"He has really come into his own skin in regard to being a leader at the quarterback position. Guys are rallying around him. He is demanding a standard and holding himself to a tremendous high standard."

Tagovailoa said after a recent practice that he honed in on the "mental part" of leading the offense during his brief hiatus from football in October, when he missed two games while in the concussion protocol.

He said he even uses walkthrough practices -- sessions without pads or physical contact -- as a chance to challenge his teammates' focus.

"That doesn't give us an opportunity to kind of slack off," Tagovailoa said. "It more so challenges us mentally, understanding where to line up, knowing where to go with the ball in certain coverages and then making quick decisions."

Tagovailoa said he used his recent time off the field to pore over game film. It was in those cramming sessions that he noticed gaps for targets he could have hit while checking through his reads in previous games.

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"Seeing it from the outside and not being in the game, there are things now that we've seen that we could hit that we have," Tagovailoa said. "Other than that, I'm just coming back in and doing my best to try and work hard to get back in rhythm with the guys."

McDaniel said he is impressed by Tagovailoa's improved ability to check off top targets Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and find others. On Sunday, Tagovailoa connected with eight separate pass catchers. He also targeted eight players in weeks 8 and 9. He targeted roughly nine different players per appearance in each of the seven games he started and finished this season.

Split seconds after snaps, he maintains a serene demeanor while getting heat from fierce NFL pass rushers, flicking his eyes from sideline to sideline and calculating the risk and reward of each toss.

He is a mathematician, an architect-athlete, who uses his left arm to conduct the Dolphins into an offensive rhythm with almost musical precision and beauty.

"I think sometimes, with how fast he is playing and processing, you cut the tape on it and it looks like he might be throwing to No. 1 or 2 [his first or second option in a play], but he is progressing through eligible [receiver] Nos. 1 through 5 in his progression with lightning speed," McDaniel said.

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"That's really making it frustrating for a defensive front. You're in pass rush mode and you can't get to them; that can wear on you. So he is doing a lot of things visually, manipulating defenders, making really good throws and getting the ball out."

McDaniel also praised the quarterback's "outstanding ball placement," thereby reducing turnovers.

Tagovailoa, who tied for 28th in completions of at least 20 yards last season, ranks sixth in that category and leads the league with 9.13 yards per attempt and 12.9 yards per completion. He also is 7-1 as a starter and has an 18-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He averaged one touchdown per every 7.3 pass attempts, the best ratio in the league.

Tagovailoa threw three touchdown passes in each of his last three games without logging a turnover. The blend of ball security, scanning through progressions, accurate throws into tight windows and getting the ball into the hands of speedy playmakers make the Dolphins' offense must-see entertainment.

"It's phenomenal to watch him commit to the process," said McDaniel, who was hired in February. "It's the third game in a row where I didn't feel a high or a low from him. He was just trying to execute each and every play."

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McDaniel came to the Dolphins with the reputation as a running game guru. That prior experience as the San Francisco 49ers run game coordinator/offensive coordinator didn't lead to immediate success through his first month as Miami's head coach, with the Dolphins averaging 69.2 rushing yards per game in September.

The Dolphins have since leaned on Jeff Wilson Jr. and Raheem Mostert in a two-headed running back attack. That combination helped them total a season-high 195 rushing yards in Week 10. The Dolphins ran for at least 100 yards in four of their past six games, are on a four-game winning streak and in sit in first place in the AFC East.

Tagovailoa and the Dolphins are on bye in Week 11. They will return in Week 12 and host the Houston Texans on Nov. 27 in Miami Gardens.

This week in the National Football League

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes escapes from the grasp of Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Arden Key at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Sunday. The Chiefs defeated the Jaguars 27-17. Photo by Jon Robichaud/UPI | License Photo

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