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Tuesday, November 8, 2022

By: Lance Tominaga

Both were standout quarterbacks at Saint Louis School in Honolulu, leading the football Crusaders to state championships. Both became household names in the college game – one won the Heisman Trophy, the other captured a national title. Both faced lofty expectations as high first-round draft picks. Both have had their NFL careers hampered by injuries.

And both have heard the indictments whispered by their detractors around the league: “This guy is a bust.”

They are Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa, and this is the tale of two Hawaii QBs.

Tagovailoa’s first two seasons with the Miami Dolphins were marked by three common elements: flashes of potential, bouts of inconsistency and the inability to stay healthy. Much more was expected from the Dolphins organization, which had lacked a true franchise QB since Dan Marino retired in 1999. Critics suggested that the young QB was not the same player who brought the Alabama Crimson Tide the 2017 national title.

It didn’t help that Tagovailoa was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and that the QB picked at No. 6 – Justin Herbert – wound up being the league’s “Offensive Rookie of the Year.”

Many NFL observers called 2022 Tagovailoa’s “make or break”  season. Even receiver Tyreek Hill, Miami’s prized free agent acquisition, said in a preseason podcast: “In the NFL they only give you like two or three years to be a successful quarterback, especially if you’re a first-round draft pick. And if you don’t succeed after those years, then it’s ‘Kick rocks, man.’ So this is basically [Tua’s] last year just to show people what he’s got.”

It turns out he has plenty.

This season, Tagovailoa is on pace for 4,252 passing yards (282.9 per game), 32 TDs and just under seven INTs – all would easily be career bests. His Quarterback Rating is currently 79.9. That’s tops in the league, even ahead of Patrick Mahomes (75.4), Josh Allen (74.2) and Joe Burrow (55.0).

More importantly, the Dolphins are 6-3 and tied for first place in the AFC East.

His value to the Dolphins is no longer in question. Tagovailoa missed two games this season after suffering a much-publicized concussion, and Miami lost both contests. Upon his return to the lineup on Oct. 23, the Dolphins have won three straight games. Overall, Tagovailoa is 6-1 as a starter in 2022.

NFL observers are no longer suggesting that Tagovailoa might be a graft bust. In fact…

“Without Tua, the Dolphins are a below average team and with him they are a Super Bowl contender,” wrote Marty Mush of Barstool Sports. “Tua is for real and currently your NFL MVP.

While Tagovailoa is seeking redemption, his predecessor at Saint Louis was just looking for a chance to start over.

Mariota’s 2015 NFL debut was the stuff of legend, as he became the first QB to pass for four TDs in the first half in his first league start. He was also the first player to attain a perfect passer rating (158.3) in his first start. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Mariota led the Tennessee Titans to a 42-14 season-opening road win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Two years later, Mariota guided the Titans to their first postseason berth since 2008. With Mariota passing for 205 yards and two TDs, the Titans beat the Kansas City Chiefs for their first playoff victory since 2004.

Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. Injuries and inconsistency curtailed much of Mariota’s next two seasons. In Week 6 of the 2019 campaign, he was benched in favor of Ryan Tannehill. Behind Tannehill, Tennessee reached the playoffs and Mariota was in search of another team.

Mariota signed with the Las Vegas Raiders to serve as Derek Carr’s primary backup. He played sparingly with the Raiders, making spot appearances in 11 games in two seasons.

His time with the Silver and Black, however, was not wasted. Mariota healed up, rebuilt his confidence and made sure he was ready for his next opportunity.

That opportunity came in March of this year, when the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner inked a deal with the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons had previously traded longtime starter Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts.

So far, so good.

With Mariota entrenched as the starter, Atlanta is currently 4-5 and tied for first place in the NFC South. Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Falcons 2022 win total at 4.5, so the team is exceeding expectations.

Mariota’s passing numbers aren’t spectacular – 1,561 yards, 10 TDs and six INTs (59.9 QBR) – but he’s getting results. What’s more, at the age of 29, he’s showcasing his dual-threat capabilities. Mariota already has 304 rushing yards. His career high in rushing attempts in a season is 64 (in 2018). With eight games remaining this season, Mariota has already ran the ball on 60 occasions. He’s on track for 113 carries on the year.

Mariota is grateful for his stint with the Falcons.

“You look across the league and there are a lot of guys in my situation that don’t get a second chance,” Mariota recently told reporters. “For Atlanta to call me in and give me this opportunity to be part of a young team means the world to me.”