Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is nearing his return to the football field.
The team on Tuesday designated Tagovailoa to return to practice, the next step in his recovery from fractured ribs that sidelined him for three games on injured reserve.
Coach Brian Flores on Monday said Tagovailoa had been throwing and expressed optimism that the second-year player would be able to return to practice. The Dolphins will have 21 days to activate Tagovailoa to the 53-man roster, but if all goes well this week and Tagovailoa manages the pain well, he could make this return to the field against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on Sunday.
With Jacoby Brissett leading the offense in Tagovaioa’s stead, the unit hasn’t been able to generate any consistency, ranking at the bottom of the NFL in most major categories. Having Tagovailoa back in the lineup could mean returning to some core tenets of the offense.
Co-offensive coordinator George Godsey acknowledged last week that the offense has had to morph to best fit Brissett’s skill set. With Tagovailoa potentially returning Sunday, the offense built around Tagovailoa in the offseason could start to take shape.
Here are three ways the Dolphins offense could change with Tagovailoa back in the lineup. All stats are courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats unless otherwise stated.
More downfield attempts
The Dolphins’ downfield passing has been a weekly conundrum with Brissett under center. He’s averaging 6.7 intended air yards — how far the ball is being thrown downfield — per attempt, which ranks tied for fourth fewest among the 35 quarterbacks with at least 38 pass attempt this season.
Tagovailoa, albeit with a much smaller sample size, is averaging 8.3 intended air yards, which would rank tied for 17th with the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow. The numbers don’t place him among the likes of the league’s best deep-ball passers but show a greater willingness to push the ball downfield.
Coaches and players have said issues passing the ball have been more of not capitalizing on opportunities, but Tagovailoa’s return will be telling.
Return of RPOs and pistol formation
During training camp, preseason and the Week 1 of the regular season, a staple of the new-look offense under Tagovailoa was the run-pass option, which — as its name suggests — gives the quarterback the option to hand the ball off to a running back or throw to a pass-catcher. Tagovailoa excelled with RPOs during his record-setting season at Alabama. The team has moved away from RPOs with Brissett, opting for more traditional drop back passes. One benefit of the RPOs were that defensive players were forced to wait for a potential run instead of going into their pass rush right at the snap.
The Dolphins also decreased their use of the pistol formation, an alignment from which they ran many of their RPO plays. 6.5 percent of Tagovailoa’s drop backs came out of the pistol formation, as compared to just 1.7 percent for Brissett, entering Week 5.
Coaches and players have said that lining up in the pistol formation can also shroud the direction of a run play, as opposed to the running back lining up to the left or right of the quarterback.
More play action
The Dolphins haven’t had much success running the ball but they also haven’t demonstrated a consistency to doing so either, ranking last in attempts. But with Tagovailoa, the team did operate more play-fakes and give the impression of runs. The Dolphins have used play action on 34.3 percent of Tagovailoa’s drop backs but 15.3 of Brissett’s drop backs.
This deviation could naturally be a byproduct of less use of the RPOs, which initially gives the look of a run play before the quarterback decides to hand the ball off or throw. While the Dolphins haven’t been running the ball well, metrics show that using play action typically leads to a higher completion percentage and increased depth of target, resulting in more downfield attempts and completions.
— The Dolphins signed wide receiver Travis Fulgham to the practice squad and released wide receiver Brandon Powell from the practice squad. Fulgham, a sixth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2019 draft, spent the 2020 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. He caught 38 passes for 539 yards and four touchdowns last season..
— This week, the Dolphins protected practice squad wide receivers Isaiah Ford and Kirk Merritt and cornerback Jamal Perry from being signed to any other team’s active roster.