Kurt Warner lived what Dolphins are looking to start with Tua Tagovailoa against Rams
The future Hall of Fame quarterback saw it coming, but that did not make it any easier.
In 2004, Kurt Warner had led the New York Giants to an unexpected 5-4 start. A team that was 4-12 the previous season without him was possibly postseason bound.
But the Giants, with an eye toward the future, decided it was time for No. 1 overall draft pick Eli Manning to take over.
“It’s really difficult to handle,” Warner, an NFL Network analyst, said in a phone interview, “but from the same standpoint, you understand the why, and you’ve got to be able to separate yourself from the situation and look at it big picture.”
The Giants went 1-6 the rest of the season as Manning took his lumps. But they were back in the playoffs the next season, and two years later Manning led them to the first of two Super Bowl titles, his biggest achievements in what eventually will be stamped as a Hall of Fame career.
On Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, the Rams are playing a team aiming for a similar long-play scenario.
The Miami Dolphins, off to surprising 3-3 start, demoted veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick during their off week and named rookie Tua Tagovailoa the starter. The No. 5 pick in the draft will be the Dolphins’ 22nd starting quarterback since Hall of Famer Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season.
“We just felt like it was the best move for the team now and moving forward,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores told Los Angeles reporters this week.
Tagovailoa, 22, played five snaps — completing two passes for nine yards — in the Dolphins’ 24-0 victory over the New York Jets on October 18.
Sunday’s game will be his first start since Nov. 16, 2019, when Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending hip injury while playing for Alabama against Mississippi State. During their preparation, the Rams studied Tagovailoa’s Alabama film, which includes two College Football Playoff championship games.
“A lot will be made of his first opportunity, but they wouldn’t be putting him out there if they didn’t feel like he was ready,” Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said.
Tagovailoa, a rare left-handed NFL quarterback, appears unfazed by the mounting “Tua Time” media attention surrounding his first NFL start. Under COVID-19 protocols in Florida, about 18,000 fans could be in 65,000-seat Hard Rock Stadium.
“My leadership plan is just to be the same Tua I’ve always been,” he told Miami reporters this week.
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Rams quarterback Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, played for the first time nine games into his rookie season when he started against the Dolphins. On a rainy night at the Coliseum, Goff completed 17 of 31 passes for 134 yards in a 14-10 defeat, a performance he described this week as “probably cringeworthy” if he were to watch it now.
Tagovailoa’s situation is “a lot different” than his was, Goff said.
“For me, a lot of learning, a lot of figuring it out, a lot of obviously pains and going through some tough times, but I wish him the best,” said Goff, who seemed to benefit from the arrival of coach Sean McVay in his second season and led the Rams to the Super Bowl in his third. “I hope he comes out and plays well, but he’s young and going to learn a lot through his career.”
Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, a two-time NFL defensive player of the year, said he has studied Tagovailoa when he was starring for Alabama. The Rams worked this week during individual drills on finding angles to strip the ball from a left-handed quarterback.
“They’ve got to try and get that young quarterback ready.”
KURT WARNER, ON DOLPHINS DECIDING TO START TO TUA TAGOVAILOA
But Donald, who has eight of the Rams’ 24 sacks, said there was only one way to intimidate Tagovailoa.
“The only way you can do that, is putting pressure on them, getting to him, hitting him, not letting him be comfortable back there,” Donald said. “So, if we do that up front, not just because he’s a rookie quarterback, that’s with any quarterback, you get to him.”
Fitzpatrick, a 37-year-old journeyman, brought a poised, veteran presence to the Dolphins. He passed for 10 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. But Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowl appearances and one title, said that Fitzpatrick cannot be too upset about unfairly losing his job.
“He was playing good football, but this is bigger than that,” Warner said. “This is about an organization trying to prepare to win a championship at some point and what is the best way to do that.”
The Dolphins are playing “much better football right now than anybody expected,” Warner said.
“So when you see that you say to yourself, ‘Whoa, OK, maybe we’re a little bit closer to the end game than we thought we were,’ ” he said. “ ‘And so if we’re a little bit closer to that, the key here [is] to make sure our quarterback is ready when our team is ready. We don’t want to get to the point where our team’s ready and because we played this veteran quarterback for a couple years, or the rest of the season, now our young quarterback isn’t ready to [be] equal [to] the level that our team is at.’ ”
The Rams strengthened their roster Friday by activating defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson from the non-injury reserve list. He could make his team debut Sunday in Miami.
Manning’s early struggles eventually paid dividends for the Giants. Warner went on to sign with the Arizona Cardinals, and led them to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season.
“Eli was ready to take them to that next step, and I truly believe that’s what Miami is looking at and thinking right now,” he said, “and they’ve got to try and get that young quarterback ready.”
On Sunday, Warner anticipates that Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey will give Tagovailoa early opportunities to gain confidence. The Rams will attempt to destroy it.
“Everybody has those moments where you have to convince yourself that you can do this,” Warner said. “No matter what you believe, you have to show yourself that you can — and how quickly does that come for Tua is going to become a big piece to this puzzle with how soon he can settle in and really become the player he’s capable of becoming.”
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