MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Two football games 43 days apart in 2019 led to Tua Tagovailoa becoming the quarterback for the Miami Dolphins and Joe Burrow ending up with the Cincinnati Bengals.
One was a clash of two of the best college teams that season and the other a laugher between two of the worst NFL teams: The epic 2019 LSU-Alabama showdown on Nov. 9, 2019 and then the Dolphins-Bengals “Tank Bowl” on Dec. 22 that year.
Three years later, it’s a full-circle moment. Tagovailoa and Burrow are set to face off for the first time since they dueled for a path through the SEC West and to the national title game — if Tagovailoa is able to play through his back injury — when the Dolphins take on the Bengals in an 8:15 p.m. prime-time kickoff on Thursday night at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium.
The trajectory for both the Dolphins and Bengals looks much more promising now than it did when they met on that penultimate Sunday of the 2019 season. Cincinnati is coming off a surprise run to the Super Bowl last season and is certain it has its franchise quarterback in Burrow.
Miami is one of two teams off to a 3-0 start and has defeated some heavyweights to earn that record. Tagovailoa is beginning to answer questions as to whether he can be the long-term solution for the Dolphins. Through three weeks, he’s second in the NFL in passing yards (925), tied for third in passing touchdowns (eight) and fourth among passers who qualify in completion percentage.
In that 2019 late December meeting, the quarterbacks were Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton. The teams were long eliminated from playoff contention, and all that was left was to determine their NFL draft position. The Bengals were 1-13 and the Dolphins 3-11. A Miami loss to Cincinnati could make it so the Dolphins could pick ahead of the Bengals with another loss the following week, coupled with a Cincinnati win to close the season.
It appeared that possibility was completely out of the question when the Dolphins, in Brian Flores’ first of three seasons as coach, took a 35-12 lead early in the fourth quarter. Dalton then threw three touchdown passes in the final 6:11 with two of the scores followed by two-point conversions, the last with time expired in regulation. In overtime, though, a Jason Sanders field goal sealed it for Miami.
The Bengals clinched the No. 1 pick. The Dolphins, winning again in New England to close the regular season, picked fifth, but they still ended up as the second team to select a quarterback in the 2020 draft.
Who those quarterback selections would be was shaped largely by that November afternoon in Tuscaloosa. No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama were both 8-0. The winner had the inside track into the SEC title game, the College Football Playoff and then a national championship.
For much of 2019, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Tagovailoa was the top quarterback prospect for the ensuing draft, but Burrow’s surge that year catapulted him to the top. Burrow, en route to a 46-41 road win and eventually a Heisman Trophy, outdueled Tagovailoa. He was 31 of 39 for 393 yards and three touchdowns. Tagovailoa, playing from behind early, was 21 of 40 for 418 yards and four touchdowns.
The following week, Tagovailoa suffered the hip injury that cut his college career short, but he was nonetheless the second quarterback selected when the Dolphins chose him over Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who went to the Los Angeles Chargers with the No. 6 pick.
Many believe that hip injury was still affecting Tagovailoa’s throwing ability as recently as last season. In that same 2021 campaign, Burrow bounced back from his own devastating injury, to his knee, as a rookie. He led the Bengals to an AFC North crown and playoff wins over the Las Vegas Raiders, Tennessee Titans and powerhouse Kansas City Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl, a loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“He came off an injury and led his team to the Super Bowl,” Tagovailoa said. “I mean, that should tell you a lot about his character, that should tell you a lot about his leadership and the belief that the organization has with him.”
Maybe Tagovailoa could be on a similar path this season with the Dolphins’ unbeaten start.
What impresses Miami coach Mike McDaniel, aside from Burrow’s swag, which he noted first, is that Burrow delivered on the expectations that come with being a top pick.
“That is a burden for some,” said McDaniel, who last postseason, as offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, was one win away from meeting Burrow in the Super Bowl. “It was a blessing for him, and I really respect guys that come out, take all that hype and do justice by it or exceed it.”
McDaniel spoke highly of Burrow’s vision, awareness, mobility, touch and accuracy on his throws and ability to make teammates better. Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer sees a stark competitor with a strong command of the offense.
“When the reads are there, he makes the throws,” Boyer said. “When the reads aren’t there, he can make things happen and improvise and make the throws. If you open up running lanes, he can take those.”
Before Burrow found his true college success at LSU, he was at Ohio State, where he was teammates with Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker. Even then, as Burrow was finding his footing at that level, Baker saw the potential.
“Just his whole personality, the way he goes about his business, it’s kind of hard not to see that,” Baker said. “He will do whatever to win. He plays with swagger. When you just play with him, you can just feel that we’re good. He’s going to get us there.”
The Dolphins on Thursday will have to keep up with Burrow, star receiver Ja’Marr Chase and the rest of the Bengals’ playmakers with a secondary that is still without cornerback Byron Jones (PUP list) and has cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Kader Kohou and safety Brandon Jones dealing with injuries.
The Miami defense, traveling on a short week after playing 92 snaps against the Bills’ high-powered offense on Sunday, will look to get a consistent pass rush on Burrow against an offensive line that’s susceptible to allowing pressure.
McDaniel deemed Tagovailoa questionable on Tuesday for the Thursday night game. Tagovailoa responded, “That’s the plan,” when asked if he is expecting to play through his back and ankle injuries. He was also evaluated in last Sunday’s win over Buffalo for a concussion. If Tagovailoa is unable to play, backup Teddy Bridgewater will lead the offense.
The last time the Dolphins and Bengals met, in 2020, the rookie seasons for Tagovailoa and Burrow, Burrow was injured and didn’t play.
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This story was originally published September 28, 2022 4:50 PM.