MIAMI -- Tua Tagovailoa should frame the date -- Nov. 22, 2020 -- in his home as a reminder of when he was benched in the fourth quarter of the Miami Dolphins' 20-13 loss to the Denver Broncos. It should be his mission to make sure it never happens again.
Dolphins coach Brian Flores made clear that Tagovailoa is still the starting quarterback and that the benching was a one-quarter move to Ryan Fitzpatrick to create "a spark" for the stagnant offense.
"There's no controversy. This is Tua's team," Fitzpatrick said after the game. "He's going to lead this team."
Tagovailoa added: "It was a great learning experience. I felt like I was holding the ball a little too long."
Fitzpatrick and Tagovailoa said the right things to make this a nonissue moving forward. Flores was direct in explaining the move, citing Fitzpatrick's experience in two-minute drives and the lack of offensive rhythm in Tagovailoa's three quarters. Flores said he doesn't believe this will impact Tagovailoa's confidence and reaffirmed the team's faith in the rookie quarterback.
"This is clearly a very talented player. He's played well. He's a young player. He's a developing player. We've got a lot of confidence in him. That's why he's the starter," Flores said. "He's got my full support. He's got the support of our coaching staff. He's got the support of every player in that locker room.
"I don't want to make too much of this. ... I expect him to bounce back. He's a resilient kid."
Whether or not you like the decision to bench Tagovailoa, Flores has done an excellent job of handling difficult decisions in his nearly two years in Miami, earning the benefit of the doubt.
But privately, Tagovailoa should use this as fuel. He should take this as a message that he isn't good enough yet in certain aspects of his play.
What's to stop him from getting benched again? Improvement in the nuances of the NFL game, including handling pressure, seeing different defensive looks and throwing inside the pocket in tight-window situations.
It was shocking to see Flores pull Tagovailoa for any other reason than injury. It might have been better to see Tagovailoa play through his first significant NFL adversity. The Dolphins should prioritize Tagovailoa's development over all things -- including winning in Denver. But it's hard to argue that Flores was wrong in his belief, at that moment, that Fitzpatrick gave his team a better chance to win.
That in itself should drive Tagovailoa.
Because of that, let's focus on what led to the benching, rather than whether the decision was right.
Tagovailoa's play was bench-worthy, and there was little confidence that he could mount the comeback that Fitzpatrick nearly pulled off.
The offensive line played terribly Sunday. The receivers couldn't consistently separate. The playcalling was questionable at times. The Broncos had a good defensive front that got pressure even when sending four rushers.
But it's worth noting that all of those factors remained the same when Fitzpatrick entered and put together the two longest offensive drives of the game. In Fitzpatrick's 11 minutes of game action, he eclipsed Tagovailoa's production in 49 minutes. Fitzpatrick showed poise and feel in the pocket that Tagovailoa lacked, an ability to quickly find receivers that Tagovailoa did not display and a knack for getting the offense out of its funk.
It seemed like Fitzpatrick's experience helps him perform better than Tagovailoa right now in leading a team with lesser talent and significant offensive holes. The Dolphins have to be realistic -- maybe they thought they were further in the progress of their offensive personnel than they are at this stage of their rebuild.
Too often Sunday, Tagovailoa looked skittish. He played too fast, moving on from his reads too quickly while at the same time holding the ball too long. When he was given opportunities to take shots down the field -- particularly three vertical throws to Jakeem Grant -- he overthrew them.
"For me, a lot of the time, I see guys who are covered, but they're not necessarily covered, if that makes sense," Tagovailoa said. "Just being able to see a lot of what Fitz was doing when he got in, a lot of it was a learning lesson for me. Even when he came to the sideline, I got to ask him questions, too. It was really good."
It's just one game, and Tagovailoa can learn from it. There's little doubt that he will get better at this as he develops, and he has a mentor in Fitzpatrick to help him.
"It's creating a catalog. Even in the games that you win, things aren't going to go right all the time, so what happened in this game? What could I have done differently? They seemed like they were getting some pressure up front, so what are some things that I can do as a quarterback to combat that?" Fitzpatrick said. "My role here -- I learned those things in 16 years -- is to accelerate the things that he's going to learn and make sure that he learns it faster than I did."
Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey can also help by adjusting the scheme for Tagovailoa once chaos happens. The Dolphins desperately need to add a playmaking receiver who can separate next offseason. It's clear that the offensive line is far from a finished product. All of those things can be true, but blame and praise often live with the quarterback.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio provided a template of how to attack Tagovailoa and the Dolphins' offense on Sunday: apply pressure, limit the QB's mobility outside the pocket and send a variety of coverage looks. Now every team Miami faces will try to duplicate that.
The Broncos rushed five or more on 14 of Tagovailoa's 29 dropbacks. When they sent three or four rushers, they still beat the offensive line with stunts and twists, causing problems for the interior offensive line and flustering Tagovailoa. Against Fitzpatrick, the Broncos rushed five or more on just three of 21 dropbacks.
As the Dolphins move forward with Tagovailoa against the New York Jets on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), eyes will be on him to rebound from his first significant NFL adversity. The Dolphins' offense has to have a better plan to handle pressure and get the QB on the move even when defenses scheme against it.
Given what we know about Tagovailoa, what he has overcome and what he can do on the field, the smart bet is that he'll respond to the challenge.