Dave Hyde: Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa has an opening win that supported his months of work
At the very end, all Tua Tagovailoa had to do was kneel down, and after everything that happened in this opener — after everything that happened the previous nine months — it must have felt as he took that knee like all his prayers were answered.
For the first time since going down with another concussion last season, he had a scoreboard to show for all his work. For the first time since returning to work last spring, the story wasn’t about ju-jitsu or why he considered retiring.
For this first Sunday, his smile gleaming at the end and his star never brighter, the Dolphins quarterback showed how he can pick up a game and twirl it on his fingers with some good help from his friends.
What a game. What a start. What a way for the Miami Dolphins to usher in a new season, 36-34 over the Los Angeles Chargers, with the kind of day that balls up all the hope of this offseason and tosses it up like confetti. This opener was worth the long, long wait, wasn’t it?
What a big day by Tagovailoa, perhaps most of all, considering everything that came before it. Sometimes numbers get inflated, or don’t tell the story. His numbers did Sunday: 28-of-45 passing for 466 yards passing and three touchdowns (and an interception).
The Dolphins needed every last one of them, considering his final throw was a 4-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill for the game-winning points with just over two minutes left.
The Dolphins needed a start like this. They needed coach Mike McDaniel to show last year’s middle-clogging scheme by the Chargers had a simple remedy. They needed Hill to pick up where he left last with 11 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns.
They needed the uncertain tackles, Kendall Lamm and Austin Jackson, to have such a strong game you never heard from the Chargers’ big-name rushers, Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack. They needed Tagovailoa …
Wait, was this all about the offense?
Oh, right. The Dolphins defense. The Chargers matched the Dolphins will scoring drives of 94, 75, 75 and 75 yards. Miami got run over, through and around for 234 rushing yards. The question always was how long this defense needed to acclimate to new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s tactics. Answer: More than one game.
So much of Sunday felt like a time travel back to 1988 when Dan Marino’s offense couldn’t be stopped and the Dolphins defense couldn’t stop a runny nose.
Still, when the game was to be won, Fangio dialed up a blitz to flush Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert into a grounding penalty, then to end the day with a couple of sacks of him.
So, this was a game where Tagovailoa outplayed Herbert. Last December, it went the other way. This time, it was Tagovailoa who made the big throws, the best plays and controlled the game-tilting moments right to the end.
Tagovailoa’s best pass? Take your pick. The small-window, over-the-middle one to Hill for 19 yards in the second quarter? The scrambling, third-down pass to Braxton Berrios for a first down in the fourth quarter?
No, come on, the game-winning pass to Hill has to go down as the best considering the time and consequence and the need for a pretty-as-you-please touch to squeeze it in there.
This game had everything, too. Seven lead changes. Non-stop offense. Blunders like a fumbled snap on the Dolphins’ opening possession, a Hall-of-Fame dumb penalty by Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson to gift-wrap a Dolphins field goal before half (the winning points?) and then a missed extra point by the Dolphins’ Jason Sanders at the end to mean the Chargers just needed a field goal to win.
They didn’t get close to one. Tagovailoa then came out to cap the day in the manner it deserved, the very manner his opening day should have ended.
He took a knee. He held up the ball. After nine months of questions, after all the talk of falling properly and protective helmets, he had a scoreboard that supported all his hard work.