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Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa dilemma and a Patriots pivot: Sando’s Pick Six

You are the Miami Dolphins. You have assembled a star-studded roster that, before losing six key contributors to injury on defense, appeared headed toward securing the AFC’s top seed, carving your only realistic path to the Super Bowl. Instead, your team wilted, and specifically your quarterback wilted, on the road in the cold at Kansas City. Chiefs 26, Dolphins 7.

You soon must decide how to proceed as that quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, enters the final year of his contract. Do you validate the love your coach, Mike McDaniel, has shown Tagovailoa while reviving the quarterback’s confidence and career? Do you let your quarterback play out his deal, turning each game into a referendum on his future? What about making a run at Kirk Cousins or another alternative?

“A Miami team is never going to play well in the cold,” an exec from another NFL team said. “I don’t know whether Tua is the answer regardless of that. But what do you do?”

The Pick Six column joins the discussion there, featuring insights from NFL team executives into what the best path forward might be.

We’ll also dive into the New England Patriots’ plan for a post-Bill Belichick world, invoking a historical parallel suggesting the Patriots could become more like the Dallas Cowboys than most would imagine. Speaking of the Cowboys, they lost in the playoffs — shocker — and there could be ramifications. The full menu:

• Dolphins’ options at quarterback
• Patriots about to be new Cowboys?
• Who really won Rams–Lions trade
• What we learned about Chiefs
• Belichick, Carroll and Tomlin?
• Two-minute drill: Stroud arrives

1. The Dolphins have decisions to make regarding their future at quarterback. They have options.

The problem for Miami is that the AFC is packed with cold-weather teams possessing superior quarterbacks. Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes. Cincinnati with Joe Burrow. Buffalo with Josh Allen. Baltimore with Lamar Jackson.

The Jets with Aaron Rodgers and Cleveland with Deshaun Watson have the potential to be in the mix, while one of the AFC’s indoor teams, Houston, has an emerging star QB in rookie C.J. Stroud. New England picks third in the draft and could plausibly add a quarterback more talented than Tagovailoa. Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence also live in the AFC.

In other words, good luck in the playoffs with Tua, especially on the road.

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Let’s consider three options, ordered from most to least palatable:

Trade Tua, sign Cousins: The equation here is that Cousins and a draft pick (or picks) would be better than continuing with Tagovailoa. The Dolphins do not have third- or fourth-round picks in the upcoming draft, so they could use the capital. Cousins, a free agent in March, would have to prioritize Miami as his preferred landing spot, which seemingly would be easy for him, given what the Dolphins offer in terms of McDaniel’s personality, the scheme and weaponry.

“Your upside with Tua certainly seems limited,” an exec said, “so let’s say you can trade him. I would be exploring, ‘OK, Tua, we can win games with, probably not winning a championship with. Kirk Cousins, we can win games with, probably not winning a championship with. But our resources are better spent on Cousins plus draft picks than they are on just Tua.”

Who would trade for Tagovailoa? NFC teams with indoor stadiums might. Could the Dolphins get a first-round pick? A second- and a third-rounder?

“If you could get a 2 and a 3 for Tua and sign Kirk, I’d want to make sure I felt comfortable about having him for three years from a health standpoint,” a different exec said. “I do think Tua works much better in a domed stadium where you know half your games are played in pristine conditions.”

Put Tagovailoa on the Falcons and Atlanta could have the best quarterback in the division. The Vikings would need a quarterback if Cousins departed. Could the Rams be interested if Matthew Stafford retired? Trading Tagovailoa for Stafford would be even better if the right set of circumstances made it feasible.

McDaniel’s coaching mentor, Kyle Shanahan, has coveted Cousins. McDaniel might feel similarly. The three were together with Washington for Cousins’ first two seasons. Could Cousins be the difference for the Dolphins between securing home-field advantage or not?

“If you like Cousins and you can sign him to a three- or four-year deal and you can trade Tua for a couple of draft picks, that to me is a different type of path forward,” the first exec said. “I don’t know if it is the best one. You really have to be in that building to know, but if you are looking for alternatives, there is a pretty good one.”


McDaniel, right, has helped Tagovailoa thrive, but is it enough? (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Let Tua play out the fifth-year option: This feels like the most logical option in the abstract. Teams with doubts about their quarterbacks should not sign them to long-term deals when they can go year-to-year. Tagovailoa is scheduled to earn $23.2 million in 2024, which is at the bottom of the annual averages for veteran starters, below Jimmy Garoppolo.

“Then you are walking into playing the franchise-tag game, which may be OK in the instance of Tua,” an exec said. “In this case, you aren’t worried about someone putting up two ones and taking Tua away. It is more about the message it sends to your locker room, your organization, your community about what it is that you reward. If Tua is beloved there, they may as well do a deal and try to minimize their risk and keep searching for the next quarterback.”

The past two seasons have shown that Tagovailoa is a good quarterback whose limitations show up resoundingly under the toughest circumstances.

“He is at the level of quarterback that is hard to commit to,” another exec said. “But it becomes really tricky when you start betting against your quarterback like that.”

This is where McDaniel’s authenticity, a trademark of his approach, would be tested.

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“Whatever your reasoning is, you just have to share that with Tua and tell him this is how we see it,” the exec said.

Another exec was more blunt.

“You gotta love who you are with and then move on,” this exec said. “He is your No. 1 quarterback until he is not.”

Extend Tagovailoa’s contract: The Dolphins could ask for structural concessions mitigating the risk with a player who carries injury and performance sustainability concerns. Tagovailoa made it through a full season finally, but his late-season production has suffered. He has a 2-4 starting record against playoff teams under McDaniel.

Would Tagovailoa reward the faith McDaniel has shown in him, recognizing he’s best off in Miami, by taking a deal that gives him financial security while maintaining more team flexibility?

“Not going to be possible,” another exec predicted. “It takes a really mature player who controls the agent to do that, and that is rare.”

Under this scenario, the Dolphins would get healthy on defense, then make another run at the top seed in the AFC. Tagovailoa would be the starting quarterback for the next two seasons, maybe three.

“There is no way I would give him an extension,” this exec added. “You do have to be concerned that your division is going to be a dogfight with Buffalo every year, and you may need to win some of those games in bad conditions late in the season, and you may be playing wild-card games on the road as well.”

2. Are the Patriots about to become the Cowboys, and vice versa?

Rumors suggesting Belichick could become the Cowboys’ next coach might overshadow another possibility. What if the Patriots are about to start operating more like the Cowboys?

To understand, consider the path Cowboys owner Jerry Jones chose nearly three decades ago. His team had won big with Jimmy Johnson as the coach and picker of players. Johnson got the credit. Jones couldn’t stand it, suggesting to reporters at a hotel bar in 1994 that “500 coaches” could win with the Cowboys. The coach-owner relationship was ruined. Johnson was soon out.

Jones surely enjoyed the championship success, but the subsequent decades have shown what is most important to him about owning the team. He loves making the Cowboys his business on and off the field. He’s the face and voice of the organization. We can criticize Jones for complicating his coaches’ efforts to win, but we can’t tell him how to own his team. He has relished the setup.

Whether Dallas’ latest playoff defeat shocks him into handing over power to Belichick is fascinating.

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Now, consider the Patriots under the ownership of Robert Kraft and his son, Jonathan. They have surely loved winning six Super Bowls with Belichick. The Krafts get credit for not screwing it up, but the ownership experience is about so much more than that. Belichick and Tom Brady have gotten nearly all the credit for 24 years. Now that Belichick is out, early signs point to more active ownership.

Promoting Jerod Mayo to replace Belichick gives the Krafts the opposite of a power coach. After decades of appearing indebted to Belichick (and Brady), they now have a coach indebted to them. Reports that the Patriots are in no rush to hire a GM and could wait til after the draft amplify the impression.

“There is one guy who has been doing it for 20 years, and now everyone has got their say, and it has the potential to be Dallas all over again,” a veteran coach said. “The owner has been held back for 20 years. He is going to be involved. His son is going to want to be involved. It will be interesting if they tell the coach it was Bill’s fault with Mac Jones and he can play and we gotta get him right.”

Mayo was with Jones the past three seasons as a Belichick assistant, so he’ll have his own evaluation. The Patriots hold the third pick in the draft and could select a quarterback then.

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Whatever happens, the power dynamic has shifted so completely in New England that we can finally study the Krafts’ ownership without thinking Belichick was responsible for every last football detail.

“I don’t think Robert Kraft wants to be Jerry Jones,” an exec said. “I think Robert Kraft wants to show up on Sundays and watch the team. Jonathan might want to be a little more involved. You have to give Robert Kraft credit because he was smart enough to not mess with a good thing. Think of Tiger Woods’ golf swing. He had a good thing and then he started messing with it. That is what these owners tend to do.”

3. The ultimate win-win trade, and McVay’s one pitfall

Three years after the Detroit Lions traded Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for two first-round picks and Jared Goff, we have a winner: everyone.

If the trade somehow could have stipulated that Stafford would win a Super Bowl with the Rams, in exchange for the Lions claiming their first playoff victory since the 1991 season, Detroit might have asked for only a couple more things.

Claiming that playoff victory at home, in front of a long-starved Lions fanbase, would have been non-negotiable. Requesting that the home playoff victory also come against the Stafford-led Rams? Well, that might have seemed a bit excessive at the time, but it sure seemed right Sunday.

The Lions’ 24-23 victory showcased Stafford’s incredible toughness, resolve and talent. He’s a throwback to a time when the game was rougher, the risks were higher (and more frequently ignored) and tapping out wasn’t an option.

Was there some sort of grandfather clause activated Sunday allowing Stafford to play under the rules as they existed when he entered the league 15 years ago? Because if he wasn’t concussed after two Lions defenders slammed his head to the ground, it’s some sort of miracle. Hand bloodied, ribs damaged, shoulder stepped on, head planted in the turf, Stafford completed laser after laser, passing for 367 yards and two touchdowns.

On the other side, Lions coach Dan Campbell allowed Goff to pass twice for first downs in the final 3:24 as the Lions ran out the clock. The faith a coach shows in his quarterback can mean so much. We’ve seen it with McDaniel and Tagovailoa in Miami, with Carroll and Geno Smith in Seattle, with Campbell and Goff in Detroit. Faith alone is not enough. Those teams also have talented supporting casts. But when talented players know their coaches believe in them, life can change for them.

Beyond those things, I was again struck by an elite offensive-minded head coach discarding timeouts as if he could simply purchase more later in the game. Sean McVay’s timeout heading into third-and-11 with 13:30 left in the third quarter was the latest example. The Rams punted after another play and would later need that timeout badly.

The table below shows the teams and coaches since 2017 that have used the highest percentage of their timeouts with at least 5:00 remaining in the second half, counting playoffs. Sixteen of the 21 coaches are offensive play callers, some of them very good ones. These coaches love calling plays so much that they sacrifice timeouts when play clocks run low, figuring the time will help them dial up the perfect plays. Some of the timeouts surely were justified, but timeouts like the one McVay called Sunday carry outsized value in end-of-game scenarios.

’17-23 % Timeouts Called Above 5:00 4Q

Rank Team (Season) Coach TO Use %

1

Sean Payton

27%

2

Matt LaFleur

25%

3

Sean Payton

24%

4

Mike McCarthy

20%

5

Sean Payton

20%

6

Sean McDermott

19%

7

Kliff Kingsbury

19%

8

Sean McVay

19%

9

Matt LaFleur

18%

10

Matt Nagy

18%

11

Zac Taylor

18%

12

Jon Gruden

18%

13

Mike Tomlin

18%

14

Sean McVay

18%

15

John Harbaugh

17%

15

Kyle Shanahan

17%

17

Pete Carroll

17%

18

Kliff Kingsbury

17%

19

Zac Taylor

16%

20

Pete Carroll

16%

20

Sean McVay

16%

This Rams team has accomplished so much by embracing young players, putting out maximum effort each week and scheming with great skill. This team never would have even reached the playoffs if McVay weren’t an elite coach. Some tightening up on the game-management front, specifically regarding timeout usage, could make the difference with a season on the line.

4. Last week, we asked whether Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ pass offense could suddenly come to life in the playoffs. Update: Yes.

Mahomes averaged a career-low 3.1 pass EPA per game during the regular season. He and the Chiefs quadrupled that against the Dolphins, with rookie receiver Rashee Rice accounting for a career-high 9.8 of that total on his 12 targets.

It’s not the first time an NFL team with a great quarterback got its passing game going in the playoffs after a relatively poor regular season. The chart below compares Mahomes’ jump this season to the ones Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees pulled off after what were down regular seasons for them.

Miami’s defensive injuries were complicit Saturday. Still, this was a Chiefs offense that averaged 4.1 yards per pass attempt with a 71.6 rating and minus-12.3 pass EPA against Philadelphia’s cratering defense in Week 11, so we’ll count this performance as encouraging.

Something similar happened with Kansas City in 2021. Mahomes averaged 5.1 pass EPA per game for the first 13 weeks of the season. That spiked to 13.7 per game for Weeks 14-18 and held at 13.4 per game through the playoffs as Kansas City won it all. The team still had Tyreek Hill on its roster then. Rice is no Hill, but he is emerging. Could this be a case of the Chiefs finally focusing in when it matters?

Rice averaged only 3.6 air yards per catch during the regular season. That ranked last among 466 wide receivers with at least 900 yards in a season since at least 2006, the first year such data is available through TruMedia. The minuscule average reflected a lack of explosiveness in the Chiefs’ offense.

Rice is starting to get downfield just in time to possibly save Kansas City in the playoffs. He set a career high in Week 17 against Cincinnati with a 7.6-yard average depth per reception and backed it up with a 6.9-yard average in the Chiefs’ 26-7 rout of the Dolphins in the wild-card round.

Rice caught three passes against the Dolphins on passes thrown farther than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. He made only nine such catches during the regular season.

The chart below splits Rice’s game-by-game receiving yardage into before and after the catch.

Rice’s 130 yards against the Dolphins were 3 more than the career high he set against Cincinnati in Week 17. The 130 figure included 55 air yards, up from his previous career high of 38.

The timing could not be better for the Chiefs.

5. Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll separated from their teams for reasons that could apply to Mike Tomlin as well. These long-term relationships can be difficult to maintain. Is it business as usual in Pittsburgh?

In December, The Athletic’s Dianna Russini reported that the Steelers could be open to trading Tomlin. More recently, ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Fox’s Jay Glazer suggested Tomlin had job security but could consider taking a break from coaching, similar to Sean Payton.

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These are the sorts of reports that usually suggest currents are moving beneath the surface.

The situation bears monitoring after Belichick and Carroll left their teams, leaving Tomlin as the NFL’s longest-tenured current coach. The landscape in Pittsburgh has changed dramatically since the Steelers last won a playoff game following the 2016 season. Owner Dan Rooney died in 2017. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger retired after the 2021 season. General manager Kevin Colbert retired after the 2022 draft. Many of the things that have made the Steelers the Steelers during Tomlin’s tenure have changed.

The things we are hearing about Tomlin’s future are not things we were hearing as much in the past. Why?

The Belichick and Carroll situations could be instructive as the Steelers potentially make decisions regarding their quarterback situation and coaching staff.

The longer a head coach spends in one place, the harder it is for him to maintain a strong staff. Eventually, the coach can find himself surrounded by a close confidant or two, but by then, sometimes the most upwardly mobile assistants have taken promotions elsewhere or simply aged out.

Awkward conversations between management and coach can ensue, leading to divorce. The veteran coach doesn’t like it when “non-football” people tell him how to operate. Carroll implicated what he called “not-football” people for his firing from the Seahawks in a conversation with Seattle Sports radio Friday. Similar feelings from Belichick regarding the Krafts permeated coverage following his firing.

If the Steelers lose their playoff game at Buffalo, they will be 3-9 in their past 12 playoff games under Tomlin. What conversations might await regarding staff changes and the like?

“Yeah, I’ve heard rumblings,” an exec said. “I don’t know what it is. It’s hard to be at the same place for 10 years. Belichick, if you break up his time with the Patriots, it is multiple 10-year runs. He basically reinvented everything after 10 years, became an offense-oriented team. I have no idea about Carroll or Tomlin, but sometimes things become stale and an organization needs a new voice.”

6. Two-minute drill: Your move, Jerry

The Cowboys are now 4-10 in the playoffs this century, including 2-4 straight up when favored by more than three points. The 4-10 record includes 1-2 with Wade Phillips, 1-3 with Mike McCarthy, 2-3 with Jason Garrett and 0-2 with Bill Parcells. Jones and his culture are the common denominator.

Losing 48-32 at home to the Packers as a 7.5-point favorite should leave little doubt. The Packers are the opposite of the Cowboys. Their organization has no singular owner. Their town is all about the Packers. McCarthy himself has called the culture in Green Bay a version of football utopia. He used to tell his coaches there to appreciate the fact that they had no stressors — it was up to them to get the job done.

The Packers have endured their share of playoff pratfalls, to be sure, and we could blame the football culture to whatever extent having elite quarterbacks and offensive-minded coaches affected the defense or special teams. But no one can question whether the focus was on the football product in Green Bay.

Jones, by contrast, is a businessman first. He’s a promoter. His players and coaches must create their own culture within the broader business culture to have any shot at keeping their focus where it belongs. I don’t think McCarthy or Dak Prescott or CeeDee Lamb or Micah Parsons or Tyron Smith are inherently choke artists. They certainly do bear responsibility for what happens on a play, in a game and during a season. But when these types of results persist in the biggest games, year after year, coach after coach, despite obviously strong talent, it’s more than that.

Rumors suggesting Belichick could be in play for the Cowboys make no sense on the surface. Would Belichick suddenly be fine with his team’s owner pontificating weekly regarding all aspects of the team, ramping up expectations and influencing personnel decisions? Why would a six-time Super Bowl winner such as Belichick suddenly relinquish control of the things that have been most important to him? It doesn’t make sense to me.

C.J. Stroud has arrived and we can’t find a more impressive rookie season

Dan Marino started only nine regular-season games as a rookie. While impressive, his 1983 Miami Dolphins suffered a wild-card playoff loss as a heavy home favorite against Seattle. The team Marino joined was in the Super Bowl a year earlier. Don Shula was the coach.

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So, as great as Marino was early in his career, his rookie season doesn’t compare to what the Houston Texans’ C.J. Stroud is pulling off.

Brock Purdy, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger impressed as rookies, too. But again, none match up to Stroud.

Top 10 Rookie QB Playoff Passer Ratings

I’ll be interested to see how many Tier 1 votes Stroud commands from coaches and executives when it’s time to produce 2024 Quarterback Tiers.

Rookies do not appear in the survey, so this will be the first evaluation for Stroud.

No second-year quarterback has cracked Tier 1 since I began the annual survey in 2014. Justin Herbert debuted solidly in Tier 2 entering his second season, after tossing 31 touchdown passes with 10 interceptions while going 6-9 as a rookie starter. Four of the 50 voters placed him in Tier 1, with 37 more placing him in Tier 2. Prescott debuted at the top of Tier 3 following his rookie season.

“Who will make him a 2, just someone who did not give him a good draft grade?” a veteran coach joked of Stroud.

Browns defenseless: Credit Stroud, but the Browns turned in one of the most disappointing defensive performances in playoff memory, based on how well they performed in the regular season. Their minus-10.4 EPA on defense ranks 403rd out of 526 team defensive performances in the playoffs since 2000, per TruMedia. Houston’s ability to exploit the Browns’ issues at safety helped make this game a rout.

Houston’s defense, meanwhile, finished with 21.4 EPA, which ranks 18th among those 526 playoff performances since 2000. No. 1 on that list: the 2000 Ravens against the Giants in Super Bowl 35.

Picks update: So far, so lucky on my picks against the spread from the latest Football GM podcast via The Athletic Football Show. I had Kansas City (-4), the Rams (+3), the Packers (+7) and, regrettably, the Browns (-2). I’ve got Buffalo (-9.5) and Tampa Bay (+3) on Monday.

(Top photo: David Eulitt / Getty Images)


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