Saturday night’s game between the Las Vegas Raiders and the Miami Dolphins couldn’t have been written any better for the viewer. It had everything that the average NFL fan could have asked for. A 26-25 victory for the Dolphins where it was close all the way and an explosive fourth quarter where both offenses traded scores. Tensions were raised after a highly questionable defensive pass interference call was made on cornerback Byron Jones after an incomplete pass intended for Raiders receiver Nelson Agholor set up a Las Vegas field goal to put the Raiders up 25-23 with just 19 seconds to go.
Before all of this, the Dolphins starting quarterback was rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Their No. 5 pick from this spring’s NFL Draft had a solid, yet shaky game, completing 17 of 22 passes for 94 yards and a touchdown through three and a half quarters. Though on his last three drives he took series-ending sacks that all resulted in punts. With just under 10 minutes to go in the game, Miami head coach Brian Flores put in the 15-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to get the Dolphins the win they so desperately needed to hang on to the last remaining seed in the AFC playoffs.
Fitzpatrick immediately gave a spark to the since stagnant Miami offense and quickly led a drive down to the Las Vegas four-yard line after a 31-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki. Although they could not punch it in, Miami scored a field goal to even the game 16 apiece. The Raiders met that with a touchdown drive that ended with a missed point-after try by kicker Daniel Carlson to make the game 22-16. The Dolphins took advantage and scored after Myles Gaskin took a short pass in the flat for a whopping 59-yards to put the Dolphins up 23-22. This then to the Raiders taking the lead with just under 20 seconds left in the game and no timeouts for the Dolphins. They would need a second coming of the Miami Miracle, and that’s exactly what they got. After a blown coverage by the Raiders cornerback Damon Arnette, Dolphins receiver Mack Hollins was able to get wide open down the sideline between Arnette and the safety, and while being grabbed by the facemask, Ryan Fitzpatrick (or shall I say, Fitzmagic?) puts the ball on the money and the pass, along with the penalty, put the Dolphins in position to kick the game-winning field goal. Miami kicker Jason Saunders didn’t miss this one, and the Dolphins took the game 26-25, eliminating the Las Vegas Raiders from playoff contention, and keeping the Dolphins at the seventh seed heading into the final week of the regular season.
Now one might think, “why not just start Fitzpatrick over Tagovailoa, instead of making a mid-game decision?”, it’s certainly unconventional. It’s not often in the NFL you see a change at quarterback in the middle of a competitive game with playoff implications. Especially when said quarterback isn’t playing all that poorly. This wasn’t the first time that Tagovailoa was pulled in a competitive matchup in favor of Fitzpatrick. Back in week 11 against the Broncos this was the case, even though the game was only a 13-point margin in the second half. Even though the rookie was named the starter, the offense didn’t miss a beat when Fitzpatrick came in and took over, in how many other systems could this type of method work? It’s hard to come up with too many.
This is a huge credit to the work Flores has done being a communicator for the quarterback room. Though it also speaks to the maturity of both quarterbacks in question. Despite being the fifth overall pick in the most recent draft, Tagovailoa hasn’t made any sort of scene about being benched and has soaked up every bit of knowledge that the veteran has to offer. As for Fitzpatrick, despite being named backup to the rookie after a dominant 24-0 win over the New York Jets, Fitzpatrick has taken the change of role in stride and has stepped up tremendously when called upon. Flores has both gotten his first-round rookie the necessary reps and experience required to have a meaningful rookie campaign and made sure the team is still in a position to win. It seems effortless when the team transitions between quarterbacks at any point in time.
Could this perhaps be a model for future NFL teams when handling the transition between the bridge quarterback and the future? It certainly won’t be as easy as it looks in Miami. Egos could very well clash, it could just work in Miami because both of these quarterbacks are selfless and are all invested in the same goal of winning. Though it is certainly something more teams should look into when dealing with older quarterbacks. A team probably couldn’t get away with it when they’re league superstars like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. But what about the New York Jets incoming situation? Assuming they’ve already played themselves out of the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes (which they had on lock for an outstanding 13-week winless streak), so they might not have a day one starter on their hands. Though they do have a veteran in Joe Flacco, who isn’t commanding a huge amount of attention from the league. Should the Jets choose to move on from Sam Darnold, platooning somebody like Flacco and say Zach Wilson from BYU could ultimately be the best possible outcome. It takes a strong amount of teamwork and selflessness from all sides, but the Miami Dolphins’ handling of Tagovailoa has proven that it is possible and can work.
Photo Credit; The Sun-Sentinel