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The Price Of Prodigy – Tua Tagovailoa Will Face Unfair Pushback This Winter

  • Kyle Crabbs
  • November 5, 2019
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Too much of anything, even a good thing, can be detrimental. And in the case of Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the hype has gone well past the point of no return -- we reached that point long ago. Tagovailoa has been college football's crown jewel and the coveted savior for long-sorry NFL franchises since he walked off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta after orchestrating a miraculous overtime victory to defeat the Georgia Bulldogs in the CFB Playoff's National Championship as a true freshman. That was January 8, 2018. And in the near two years that have gone by since, Tagovailoa has continued to receive fanfare, adoration and above all else, the expectation that he's an infallible prospect.

There's just one problem.

There's no such thing. Not in the eyes of the NFL and certainly not in the eyes of NFL decision makers. If you're a casual fan of the sport, it seems like a no brainer. Tagovailoa has quarterbacked one of the most explosive offenses in football over the last two seasons and -- sans the National Championship Game in January of 2019 -- has largely been unstoppable. He's smart. He's quick footed and quick-minded. He's accurate. Why in the world would Tagovailoa not be a player NFL teams are scrambling over themselves for, especially after we've heard so much about how good he is for so long? Any other outcome just doesn't make sense.

But if you've been following the NFL Draft for long enough, you can see the writing on the wall of what is to come for Tagovailoa, should he enter the 2020 NFL Draft. All of that hype? All those expectations? The "Tank For Tua" campaign in Miami throughout the media? It all blends together, impacts the perception of Tua and creates the expectation that he's perfect. And once again, he's not. No one is.

So what happens when two years worth of hype and fanfare that could at times be described as "cult-like" hit the blender that is the NFL Draft's evaluation period? There is pushback against the narrative. There's contention against the status quo. And for Tagovailoa as a prospect, that means he's going to be grossly overanalyzed.

Because here are the facts on Tagovailoa: He's an excellent quarterback prospect. He's the most advanced quarterback in this year's draft from a "feel" perspective -- his natural sense of pressure, soft spots in defenses and extending plays will allow him to play at a high level in the pros. Those are the qualities we've seen young players like Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes illustrate while coming into the league and redefining everyone's standards for a franchise quarterback moving ahead into 2020 and beyond. Tagovailoa's arm is more in line with Watson's than Mahomes, but there's some Russell Wilson sprinkled into his game with how he manipulates the pocket, too.

Good quarterbacks do what they're supposed to do. Great ones make it look easy. Everything often looks easy for Tagovailoa. And if your team needs a quarterback, Tagovailoa should be the first to get the call, in my book.

All of that will go out the window when people (NFL decision makers and otherwise) begin combing through his resume and his film. He's left handed. Someone will make a huge fuss about that. He's only 6-foot-1. That will undoubtedly be a problem -- despite Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray both being shorter and being drafted 1st-overall in their respective drafts. His supporting cast is tremendous. That will call into doubt his skills relative to being boosted thanks to the players around him. He's suffered ankle sprains in each of the last two seasons. He'll be called injury prone.

Anything to push back against the idea that Tagovailoa, for all of his merits, is the golden child of football and a can't miss generational talent. Why? Because that's the inevitable and exhaustive part of the NFL Draft process. Finding the "why should we not draft you?" is just as often the goal as finding the "why should we draft you?".

The NFL, when they put Tagovailoa's mastery of the Tide's offense under the microscope, will inevitably quip that it's near impossible to evaluate Tagovailoa on film because the offense has so many quick hitting concepts that allow the team's playmakers to take control of the game in space with speed, relative to making plays happen holding the ball in the pocket and working it down the field through the air. And there in itself lies a cruel irony -- that's what the Tide did last year. The 2018 season for Tua and company was much more geared towards the big play and pushing the ball down the field. In 2018, Tagovailoa threw for 3,353 yards before playing in the CFB Playoff. According to Sports Info Solutions, 47.5% of those yards came through the air. And Tagovailoa averaged 11.4 yards per attempt in games played between September and December. And by the end of the year, Tagovailoa averaged over 12.5 air-yards per attempt to wide receivers.

Tagovailoa's average depth of target was 10.5 yards downfield according to Pro Football Focus -- tied for 18th best in the country. And the critics said then that Tagovailoa looked for too many big plays. Looked to hit too many home runs. Heck, Tagovailoa himself even said it when he spoke with ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit this summer in reflection of the 2019 National Championship Game against Clemson.

"...I just didn't play the way that I'm capable of playing. We had the opportunity, plays right in front of us and we just didn't take advantage of it. And, you know, I feel like for me I let my team down. Should've took what the defense had given me," confessed Tagovailoa.

"We were just big play oriented, we just wanted the big plays right away because that is what we were so used to. Coach always used to say 'you never go broke making a profit' and that is so true still."

This year, Tagovailoa is taking the profits as they come. His average depth of target is down more than 2 full yards per attempt (8.28) and he's getting the ball out nearly two tenths of a second faster in 2019 than he did in 2018 (2.34s versus 2.50s) and that quick decision making has seen his yards after catch percentage skyrocket from 53.5% in 2018 to 65.4% in 2019. And it's being spun as a bad thing. So let's be clear -- Tagovailoa's approach as a passer was too big play oriented in 2018 and now it's too dink and dunk in 2019. The mental gymnastics have already begun.

Part of Tagovailoa's evolution as a passer in 2019 has been impacted courtesy of the reinsertion of Steve Sarkisian as the Tide's offensive coordinator ahead of the 2019 National Championship. Such a change in the lull between the SEC Championship Game and the Playoff didn't help the Tide, but it's evident in watching Tagovailoa play now that the impact has helped provide him with some more pro-ready qualities. Sarkisian's WCO influence has put Alabama in a great position to have Tagovailoa making sight adjustments and reads at the line of scrimmage. Sarkisian's offense puts pass pattern tags on the back of their runs (meaning the receivers run routes during run plays and the Quarterback can decide where to go with the ball based on the pre-snap look) -- a staple seen weekly in the Tide's offense and one that constantly puts the opposition in a bind. But Sarkisian also has Tagovailoa running "back to the basket" play action fakes, mesh concepts and rhythm passing. The ball is out on time, the ball is accurate and the Tide are scoring points. Ultimately, he's executing his second consecutive offensive system to near perfection -- that is up to this point in the year. With a date against LSU on the books this weekend, a date with Auburn in the Iron Bowl, potentially an SEC Championship Game and whatever else the future holds for the Tide in the postseason, eyes will be glued on how Tagovailoa responds. Expect him to perform favorably, provided his injured ankle cooperates.

Which is another hurdle Tagovailoa will have to clear in the Draft process -- and it now has layers. Because when Tagovailoa missed the Arkansas contest, the raw stats suggested back-up QB Mac Jones kept the offense right on schedule. 41 first half points, 18-22 passing for 235 yards and 3 touchdowns -- "are we sure Tagovailoa isn't thriving courtesy of this system and support cast?", they'll ask. The answer is simple to some degree. Of course he is, but that doesn't diminish all that he does well and all the areas where he's a difference maker in a positive way. And for all the worry about his ankles, Tagovailoa has missed 6 quarters of football in two years due to injury to this point in his career.

But this is the exhaustive treatment you get when you're praised as a franchise savior from the age of 19. Everyone will look at every little quality and attempt to poke the holes into the hype machine. And that will extend beyond the supporting cast and the stat sheet, too. It will look at team success. If the Tide fail to secure a National Championship, someone will undoubtedly reference Tagovailoa's inability to win big games. Which is, of course, laughable. Because the Tide won their last championship courtesy of Tagovailoa's left arm and legs back in 2018. And they've been excellent all around with him at the helm.

Lest we not forget, Peyton Manning went 2-6 at Tennessee against Top-10 ranked opponents. Brett Favre went 3-7 against ranked opponents at Southern Mississippi. Drew Brees lost both of his New Year's Day bowls and went 3-5 against Top-10 ranked opponents in college. Tagovailoa's record against top-10 teams holds up just fine relative to his competition.

In summary, Tagovailoa's resume is primed to be challenged head on by the NFL this winter -- should he decide to make the leap from the college ranks and into professional football. He'll have his offensive system, his support cast, his health/durability, his pedigree, his size, his left-handedness and everything else under the sun criticized, largely by anonymous area scouts who have only watched select clips of Tagovailoa, or aren't responsible for taking the deep dive into his tape to dig through all the easy reps to find the ones that will help define him as a prospect.

This is the price of prodigy. And at the end of the day, some NFL teams are inevitably going to gravitate towards other prospects as their preferred quarterback target. LSU's Joe Burrow has exploded onto the scene in a way we've seen players do in their final season to capitalize and make the leap as a top player. Kyler Murray did so last year. Baker Mayfield was widely considered a Day 3 prospect entering his final season at Oklahoma. Mitch Trubisky was a one year starter who sold the Bears on him so well that they passed on Watson and Mahomes to draft him 2nd overall in 2017. Three straight years of a dark horse rising to the occasion and becoming the Draft's top picked quarterback. Don't be surprised if it happens to Tagovailoa courtesy of Burrow -- depending on which team lands the top selection.

There's no such thing as a perfect prospect, Tua included. And there's no shame in that. No shame at all. Don't let anyone, even the NFL, tell you differently in the months to come.

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Kyle Crabbs