Alabama’s football staff starts its day-after-game Sundays at noon local time, meaning that when Tua Tagovailoa took his first snap as an NFL starter—to complete a pretty remarkable comeback from reconstructive hip surgery less than a year ago—Nick Saban was convening his assistants to start grading out a 41–0 win over Mississippi State.
There was symmetry to all this. Tagovailoa’s hip was dislocated against the Bulldogs.
There was convenience, too. The top-ranked Crimson Tide happened to be on their bye week.
But there was also a job for Saban and his coaches to do, and Tagvailoa isn’t exactly his first high-profile alum to make a grand entrance onto the NFL stage. So, no, Saban wasn’t on his couch at home watching, nor did he make a special allowance in the meeting room around lunchtime to flip on Dolphins–Rams for him and his co-workers. Instead, they all went about their Sundays as they normally would.
“We can’t watch pro games on Sunday, that’s a workday for us,” Saban said over the phone, in-between bye-week meetings on Wednesday afternoon. “We start at noon on Sunday as a college staff and we work all day. Basically, what I do is, I get a report on how every guy in the league did and look at it on Monday morning. That’s one of the unfortunate things about being a coach is you never get to see your guys play when they play on Sunday.”
So as sizable parts of South Florida—and Alabama too—fixated on Tagovailoa, decked out in the Dolphins’ all whites and his new No. 1 jersey, Saban was combing through how his next set of future pros played in Tuscaloosa the day before.
But don’t mistake discipline to the job for indifference toward what Tua was pulling off. That Miami–L.A. game was important to Saban, and more so than most other NFL games ever would be. He didn’t need to sit and watch to prove it. The symbolic value of the game, for Saban, after coaching Tagovailoa through his dramatic star turn as a freshman, statistical flourish as a sophomore and cruel end as a junior, was indeed heavy.
And that wasn’t because Tagovailoa had arrived as an NFL starter. It was how he got there.
“Well, it’s probably the most devastating thing, as a coach, that I’ve ever had to go through with a player,” Saban said. “First of all, I had a tremendous amount of respect for him, his family, knowing what his goals and aspirations were, seeing a guy get injured so seriously was very, very difficult for a lot of us here at Alabama. But then to do a great job from a medical standpoint with our medical staff and the people who helped him, and then his attitude towards rehabbing, and the hard work he did to get back to it, I have a great sense of pride that he was able to do it, knowing that’s what he always wanted to accomplish.
“It’s kinda like being a proud father. To see a guy go through that and overcome the adversity, and still put himself in a position to do what he always wanted to do, what his dreams were, which was to be a starting quarterback in the NFL, I’m proud of him.”
Saban is also excited for what’s next. He’s got good reason for that. We’ll explain.
It’s time for the Week 9 GamePlan, and first, a quick programming note: I mentioned in the MMQB we’d do a midseason report this week. Turns out, The MMQB is rolling out all our midseason stuff next week, so I’ll wait until then and you can look for that next Thursday. As for this Thursday, in this week’s column, we’re bringing you …
• The market for Trevor Lawrence.
• The 2021 effect on the 2020 trade deadline.
• Thursday night’s game within a game.
• Power rankings!
But we’re starting with Saban, and his prodigy, and where he sees Miami going from here.
The last time Saban and Tagovailoa talked was just before the rookie was named starter by Dolphins coach Brian Flores, and the conversation was pretty standard, as coach/player conversations go. The main takeaway, as Saban saw it, was the uncertainty ahead for the quarterback and how he’d handle it. Tagovailoa’s answer was just as Saban would’ve drawn it up.
“I asked him—What’s going on there? They gonna give you an opportunity?” Saban recounted. “And he said, I really don’t know for sure what their plan is. I’m just gonna work hard and do what I can and try to take advantage of the opportunity if I get it. And that’s the advice I always give our guys. And he got an opportunity, and they won the game.
“So again, I didn’t see him play. I heard about it—I guess they played pretty well on defense, and he didn’t mess it up on offense. And I’m sure he’s gonna get better and better as time goes on.”
Coming in at halftime against Georgia in the national title game, this was not.
The Dolphins won comfortably, 28–17, and scored in all three phases to get there. A fast start put Miami up 28–7 in the waning moments of the first half, and the two touchdowns it scored on offense came off turnovers, meaning Tagovailoa’s unit had to go just 33 yards on one occasion, and a single yard on the other, to hit paydirt. As a result, the quarterback’s stat line, which Saban alluded to, was pedestrian: 12-of-22 for 92 yards and a touchdown.
But for his development and where he’s going? It was perfect. And that’s where we’ll start in sorting through nuggets from my talk with Saban, on where Tua goes from here.
The situation for Tagovailoa is, as rookie QB situations go, a good one. The truth is, most first-round quarterbacks are either thrown in the fire right away on bad teams, or enter the lineup when a team has lost any hope of contention—which usually means that a bad team figured out it was bad, and put the rookie in on a why not? premise. Which makes what Miami did all the more interesting.
The Dolphins had won two straight. The offense looked competent and the defense was rolling. Instinctively, most coaches wouldn’t touch a thing in that scenario. Instead, Flores and the Dolphins thought counterintuitively—recognizing the opportunity to put Tagovailoa into a good situation, and letting him grow without having the world on his shoulders. Which is what winning a game with 92 passing yards is, by definition.
“That’s always a real positive,” Saban said. “You never want to play a player before he’s ready to play. All players want to play. But as a coach, you always want them to create value for themselves when they play, because when they’re ready to play, they’re confident in what to do, how to do it and why it’s important to do it that way. So I think the situation he’s in was very, very healthy and positive for him.”
Tagovailoa was/is thoroughly prepared for any awkwardness around the switch. The other side of that coin was how Ryan Fitzpatrick fit into the move. Fitzpatrick had thrown for 1,535 yards, 10 touchdowns, seven picks and a 95.0 passer rating through six games. He’s wildly popular in the locker room. He was good to Tagovailoa, to the point that Tua actually wore a Fitz jersey to one of his early media availabilities to show it.
Fitzpatrick was understandably devastated by Flores’s move, and showed it publicly. It also wouldn’t be much of a surprise if some veterans on the team, based on how the season was going, might’ve looked sideways at all this too. But what could buoy Flores and his staff, and what Saban knew all along, was pretty simple: This wasn’t Tua’s first rodeo. He had managed awkwardness before, and did it as a teenager at a college football powerhouse.
“His whole freshman year, he sat behind Jalen Hurts, and eventually, in the championship game, replaced him, and then the next year he played the whole year and Jalen Hurts sat behind him,” Saban said. “So during that experience, he probably learned the value of supporting your teammates, having a good relationship with them, learning from their experience. And then when you become the guy, continuing to support them.
“It’s the exact same situation he had here for two years.”
Tagovailoa’s practice habits probably set this up. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that Flores wouldn’t have made the move to Tagovailoa if he didn’t think he could sell it to his locker room. And part of that had to happen in practice. Saban, for his part, couldn’t say whether or not Tagovailoa blew everyone away, or looked like a rookie, day-to-day with the Dolphins before being named starter, beyond what he’d heard from Tagovailoa himself.
Saban did tell me, along those lines, that Tagovailoa was “really positive” about how he was coming along, and “confident he could go out there and perform well and help his team win.” On top of that, what he did know, for sure, was that the Tua he knows has always been a top-notch practice player—evidenced, in fact, by how he displaced Hurts at Bama.
“He had really good instincts, and really good ability,” Saban said. “Tua was always a good practice player. He was always well-prepared, went out and worked hard with the receivers to get the timing in the pass game and reads right. He was a guy you’d never have an issue with on anything. The guy was just perfect in doing what the coaches wanted you to do, and that goes back to the fact that he respected the people he was around and he respected the fact that he could improve and develop.
“Most people who are very, very good have a good coach, and they take coaching because they have humility. Tua’s always been one of those kinds of guys.”
The stage in the SEC prepared Tagovailoa, too. Let’s just say when you’ve played in the LSU–Bama game, or against Clemson in the playoffs, you aren’t exactly going to be blown away by playing in the 1 p.m. ET slot on CBS. There are, of course, a lot of areas where going from college to the NFL is a leap for Tua. The pressure of the situation he was entering into isn’t one of them.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it—he played in a lot of big games here against very good competition in the SEC, as well as in playoff games,” Saban said. “I think it’s the best you can do to get prepared. There’s no question, if you’re going from high school to college, or college to the NFL, there’s a difference. And I think you have to adjust and adapt to those things.
“But I don’t think you could be in a better situation from a college standpoint, in terms of the competition here, the level of competition you play against, the number of guys you play against that you will play against again in the NFL, I do think it prepared him well.”
Then, there’s the second piece of his preparedness, which wasn’t taught—it’s who Tagovailoa is. That was one piece that Saban saw as huge when he pulled the plug on Hurts, and should be again in how Tua handles the elements around him, and his own play.
“It is his personality,” Saban said. “It is a part of his culture to respect other people, to treat other people with respect. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a player that’s done it any better than Tua, but that’s just who he is. If you ask him, How are you doing today, he’ll say, Great, thanks for asking. Most guys like that, at 18 years old, they don’t say, Thanks for asking. It’s who he is.”
And so now, we get to see.
The Dolphins have eight games left and Tagovailoa gets to attack them with a contending team that doesn’t need him to burst out of a phone booth—like he did in overtime in the title game as a true freshman—right now to play well. The hope, of course, is he grows into a quarterback who can. But for now, the Dolphins are asking Tagovailoa to be, well, Tua, and Saban thinks that’ll position everyone well to make this work.
“It’s hard to answer hypothetical questions, but I have a lot of confidence in the guy,” Saban said. “I have a lot of confidence in his ability, his leadership. And if he’s fortunate enough to stay healthy, I think he’ll develop and have a really good career.”
Which, given what it took Tagovailoa to get here, would make Saban proud all over again.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers (7–0): The best team in football’s last three wins came over teams with a combined record of 15–7. The record of their next three opponents? 5–17–1. Pittsburgh’s probably going to be 10–0 when the Ravens come to town on Thanksgiving night.
2) Kansas City Chiefs (7–1): The entire team feels like a quarterback throwing easy gas. Andy Reid’s crew can win different ways and nothing looks particularly hard for the defending champs. The Chiefs get the Panthers, then their bye, then the schedule picks up, with the Raiders, Bucs, Broncos, Dolphins and Saints in a five-week run that may determine where K.C.’s seeded in the AFC playoffs.
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6–2): Monday night’s win over the Giants lacked the sizzle of wins over the Packers and Raiders, but was a good example of a team without its ‘A’ game gutting out a win. And as regular season games go, it set up a very big Sunday night for Tom Brady & Co. Stakes are high for Bucs–Saints 2.0.
4) Seattle Seahawks (6–1): I’m really interested to see Pete Carroll work with his undermanned defense over the back half of the season—getting Carlos Dunlap should help, and the group did show signs of life in Sunday’s win over the Niners.
5) Baltimore Ravens (5–2): This was a close one, between the Ravens and Saints. I just really like how Baltimore’s defense is coming around, and where it could go with Yannick Ngakoue getting his footing. The key, interestingly enough, now seems to be the offense getting closer to its 2019 form.
THE BIG QUESTION
How many teams would throw their quarterbacks overboard for Trevor Lawrence?
I saw our Conor Orr do this about a month ago, and I figured it’d be a good exercise for me to do, with teams that would be in the range to take the Clemson star. I’ve talked to enough scouts about Lawrence the last couple years to know that he is in the once-in-a-decade category, with three other guys from drafts past: John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
As such, I’ve maintained that Lawrence would absolutely prompt a reset at the position for any team in the range of the first pick and, because of that, you absolutely have to be the worst team in the league to get him. Is that true? Well, to double-check, I’m going through the exercise now. We’ll take every team in the league with two or fewer wins, and I’ll give you what I think the likely result of landing the top pick would be.
New York Jets (0–8): I like Sam Darnold. I believe the fact that Darnold would have real value on the trade market proves there’s still a lot to work with there. And I think the Jets would go all-in on finding out where that value is if they get the first pick—and they’d take Lawrence, a move that would also make their coaching position more attractive.
New York Giants (1–7): Daniel Jones might wind up being a good player, but the Giants haven’t seen nearly enough from him to pass on a generational quarterbacking prospect to accommodate his continued development. They’d take Lawrence and trade Jones.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1–6): Easy. They’d take Lawrence.
Miami Dolphins, who own the first-rounder of the Houston Texans (1–6): This one’s interesting. I think they’d go with Lawrence and deal off Tagovailoa, despite everything positive written about Tua above. Call it an educated guess.
Atlanta Falcons (2–6): Matt Ryan’s been an awesome player and face for the Falcons franchise, going back to how he landed in Mike Vick’s old spot. But he’ll be 36 in May. Atlanta would bring the area native home, and then either hang on to Ryan for a year as a placeholder/mentor, or try and trade him in the spring.
Dallas Cowboys (2–6): After all the contract issues, and with Dak Prescott coming off a very significant injury, I believe Dallas would swallow hard, tag Prescott, try to trade him and also take Lawrence.
New England Patriots (2–5): This one, shockingly, would be as simple as Jacksonville’s call.
Minnesota Vikings (2–5): I don’t know if they’d be able to trade Kirk Cousins’s contract. I do know they’d have to take Lawrence and figure out the rest later—which wouldn’t be easy with how much Cousins’s deal is essentially guaranteed.
Washington Football Team (2–5): The Dwayne Haskins situation makes this one academic. They’d take Lawrence.
Los Angeles Chargers (2–5): This is a tough one. Justin Herbert looks awesome. But losing enough to pick first would likely mean he leveled off. So I’d lean toward the Chargers trading him and taking Lawrence.
Cincinnati Bengals (2–5–1): I’d lean the other way on this one. They’re smitten with Joe Burrow, so my instinct tells me they’d consider dealing the pick.
So that’s not as cut-and-dried as maybe I thought—two of the 11 teams I really struggled with, and a couple others I didn’t have 100% certainty on. The good news is, we still have plenty of time to sort all of this out.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
How 2021 roster construction is already affecting the NFL.
The cap could sink to $175 million next year. And while that’s been known for some time, what few people have considered is how the ramifications of that reality might be felt in the here and now.
But there’s no question they have been. The lukewarm pace of the trade market early this week, and the difficulty sellers had in offloading big veteran contracts is proof positive.
“I [saw that] for sure,” texted one AFC exec on Thursday morning. “Even a step further than that is that the chance for having credits to apply for next year—every dollar you can save against the cap now, you get to roll over.”
“100%,” agreed another AFC exec. “Also, more teams can get in the playoffs now, so less teams are selling. The cap’s down next year so you have to be mindful how much salary you take on if a guy has multiple years left.”
“I think it played a part, yes,” texted a third AFC exec. “But on the flip side, considering there’s an additional playoff team in each conference, I thought there may be one or two significant deals to augment a team’s roster for the stretch run. For instance, Cleveland, who hasn’t been in the playoffs for a while, and has assets for next year [picks, cap space], could’ve made a move.”
To me, the Packers’ failure to get Will Fuller out of Houston was a prime example of what’s going on. Green Bay has more than $178 million in cap commitments for next year and around $7.7 million in cap space now. So that cap space would be valuable going forward, particularly if the cap does fall all the way to $175 million.
That’s why the Packers asked the Texans to eat some of the $5.38 million on Fuller’s deal to facilitate a trade. Based on the math, taking Fuller’s contract on could well have cost the Packers a player or two in 2021, and that had to be part of the equation. So in the end, the Texans’ unwillingness to eat salary was a big part of the deal being left undone. On the flip side, why wouldn’t Houston pay for the pick? Well, their commitments for ’21 are over $190 million.
And that’s just one example of how messy this is and will be. Once we get to March, and teams have to get cap compliant, there could be a bloodletting of veteran players, and a saturated free agent market that could keep prices down. That affected the deadline too, in that if teams couldn’t count on players on expiring contracts getting paid, they can’t count on getting high-end comp picks for them either (since money’s part of the equation).
So, in summary, this is all just starting, and will sure keep going as 2020 becomes 2021.
THE FINAL WORD
One aspect on Thursday night’s game I excited to watch, amid the M*A*S*H units the Niners and Packers will roll out there: Kyle Shanahan vs. Matt LaFleur, Part III.
Last year, Shanahan owned his old right-hand man, with the Niners scoring 37–8 and 37–20 wins in the regular season and playoffs, respectively, that weren’t really as close as even those scores would indicate. Time for LaFleur to strike back? Based on the amount of guys San Francisco is missing, you’d think so.