Do Dolphins have a problem with Tua Tagovailoa?

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By three quarters on Sunday, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins had done enough.

Then, in the fourth quarter, they – and particularly the ball safety – completely imploded.

The same quarterback who entered December with 19 touchdowns to just three interceptions in nine games equaled total volume in a single quarter.

Mistakes, coach Mike McDaniel said after the 26-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers, compounded. And until Tagovailoa and the Dolphins tackle them sufficiently, they threaten to continue to derail a promising season.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s also something every quarterback really goes through,” McDaniel said. “You have to really figure out how to not let mistakes snowball. … You can’t let the past influence the present.

“I think there might be some parts of it that have to do with him kind of snowballing in his own mind.”

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 25: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins walks to the downed side after throwing an interception to De'Vondre Campbell #59 of the Green Bay Packers during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game at the Hard Rock Stadium on December 25, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

Tua Tagovailoa on his disastrous vacation outing that jeopardized Miami’s playoff chances: “You have the opportunity to play on Christmas Day against a really good team, and I go there, unable to do my best.” (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

McDaniel insisted his quarterback is strong and the coach is “confident” he will pull through. But a four-game Dolphins skid continues to erode their postseason viability and even, after Sunday’s loss, their postseason contention.

The Dolphins entered Sunday with an 83% chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff forecast. They left with a 67% chance.

And while McDaniel emphasized that Tagovailoa alone wasn’t to blame for botching this game, the quarterback’s decision-making undoubtedly contributed. He knew it.

“You have the opportunity to play on Christmas Day against a really good team,” said Tagovailoa, “and I go there, unable to do my best.”

‘Communication errors’ and a ‘wrong route’

Dolphins fans may refuse to look back at this far, but it was actually Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who threw the first interception on the next Christmas Day game.

Facing third and 15 less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Rodgers scrambled for receiver Allen Lazard in the end zone. Instead, Dolphins rookie cornerback Kader Kohou registered his first career pick, setting the Dolphins up to break out of a 20-20 tie.

On the first snap, Tagovailoa targeted receiver Tyreek Hill, putting air on the ball in hopes of driving it over a quarterback. He misjudged the air on his shot, the pass going over the heads of both the quarterback and Hill. Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander watched the play unfold, thinking to himself, “Wow, is he actually knocking this down?”

“Oh, man,” Alexander said in his postgame interview with Fox sideline reporter Pam Oliver. “That’s easy.”

Tagovailoa said the pitch “got away” from him.

Three minutes and 15 seconds later, the Packers hit a field goal to go up 23-20 after three leadless quarters.

On the ensuing drive, the Dolphins seemed to settle down. With his team alternating between running and passing, Tagovailoa successfully found three different receivers for a double-digit gain each on the drive. Remnants of the explosive rhythmic play that dominated the first half – Tagovailoa completed 9 of 12 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown before break – seemed to enter.

Until a miscommunication.

Facing the Packers ’30’s second-and-13, Tagovailoa fired almost as soon as he hit the snap. This time Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell got the ball, no Dolphins player in range. Tagovailoa took the blame for what he called “a few miscommunications” on the play, the defender shrugging his shoulders saying he “could have said the wrong play, I’m not really sure”. McDaniel, however, guarded his quarterback on that play.

“There was one of his interceptions that the lead receiver kind of blocked,” McDaniel said. “Ran the wrong route. A concept we’ve run through several times this week. So it’s not just him.

“This is a team failure, not a single person’s failure.”

The Packers again settled for a field goal as they bled the clock. Tagovailoa and teammates returned to the field with 1:56 to go and a chance: they trailed by just 6 points.

Two plays later, it wouldn’t matter. Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas thought of the mantra that turnovers come in groups. “You can choose,” he reasoned, and “more will come.” Tagovailoa dropped back and fired a cross towards the right touchline. Douglas jumped the route intended for tight end Mike Gesicki and effectively sealed the victory for Green Bay.

“It just wasn’t a good ball for my receivers to be able to make a play out of it,” Tagovailoa said, rubbing his neck wearily. “It is hard.”

Green Bay's Rasul Douglas (29) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass during the fourth quarter.  (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

Green Bay’s Rasul Douglas (29) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass during the fourth quarter. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

Does Tagovailoa risk repeating?

McDaniel argued against blaming the Dolphins’ entire four-game streak on Tagovailoa’s ball safety. Tagovailoa conceded three costly second-half turnovers in a Dec. 33-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. But he did not intercept in subsequent losses to the Los Angeles Chargers or Buffalo Bills, his only fumble coming from a strip sack recovered by a teammate.

“So going from zero to four is going to seriously impact the game,” McDaniel said. “If you don’t do the lineups right, you don’t do the football protection right, those are the things that are going to happen. Our young team is having to learn the hard way.”

And Tagovailoa, after Sunday’s dramatic finish, must quickly incorporate lessons for the Dolphins to maintain their dominance this season. The top-notch execution his first-half game against the Packers displayed needs to be extended further. His communication with teammates should be sharper, his shots more judicious. Upcoming opponents will certainly exploit the trends shown in three interceptions, on three straight tackles, to three different defenders.

The Packers already looked to capitalize.

“We knew he was a guy who would anticipate and let the ball go,” said Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. “But if you can read the quarterback right, it also gives you some defensive opportunities. And our guys did a great job on that.”

With two AFC East games rounding out the Dolphins’ regular season roster, the road doesn’t get any easier. The Dolphins face the New England Patriots and then the New York Jets, teams that entered this week ranked eighth and fourth in total defense, respectively. The Patriots’ 16 interceptions also tie for second in the league.

All three teams are vying for wild card berths in the AFC, and the Dolphins’ 8-7 record is just one game better than their peers.

Miami’s first-year head coach pleaded with his team after the game to ensure “these situations manifest themselves… improvement.”

“At some point, if we want to take the next step, we’re going to have to take it or shut up,” McDaniel said. “Nothing comes easy in this game. The only thing I know is that if you can get rid of it, it will benefit you in the next phase of the season. That’s where you don’t want to have a withered game or snowball or anything other than clean football.

Tagovailoa knows he must regroup and recover. McDaniel believes that his teammates and coach must also improve their game.

“What kind of people are we and are we able to really get through this together?” he said. “There is no one else outside the team meeting room who will come to the rescue.

“We have to find out for ourselves.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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