Deflating loss shines light on Tua Tagovailoa, state of Dolphins' offense

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle sprinted hard at the seam before breaking toward the sideline in the area between Tennessee Titans safety Amani Hooker and cornerback Kristian Fulton. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa spotted him and dropped the ball into Waddle's waiting hands for a 45-yard gain on Sunday.

It was just the second reception of the game for Waddle, who had the sixth-most catches in the NFL entering Sunday's 34-3 loss to Tennessee; he finished with three catches for 47 yards on seven targets. Outside of tight end Mike Gesicki (four catches, 51 yards), no Dolphins pass-catcher finished with an efficient stat line by any metric.

Even with another game remaining this season against the New England Patriots (10-6) on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), improving its offense is a clear need as Miami (8-8) prepares for another offseason without a playoff appearance.

Tagovailoa turned in his worst performance of the season, completing just 18 of 38 passes for 205 yards and an interception with an off-target throw percentage of 21%, per ESPN Stats & Information. When he plays poorly, Miami simply doesn't have the talent to overcome it -- especially if Waddle is held in check.

"If one person doesn't do what they need to do, then it pretty much screws up the play," Tagovailoa said Sunday. "Whether it's me making a certain throw, the running backs running and finding the right lane with the line blocking a certain way, the receivers’ routes. Everything matters, the little things matter. It was just poor execution on our part."

Tagovailoa had turned in his lowest passer ratings of the Dolphins' seven-game winning streak over the team's previous two games, but they were somewhat overshadowed by running back Duke Johnson's excellent performance on the ground in Week 15 and Waddle's 10-catch performance in Week 16. Johnson was decent Sunday, rushing for 49 yards on seven carries before Miami fell behind by two scores and abandoned the run.

The Dolphins are 1-7 this season when trailing by multiple scores, their lone win coming against the Jets (4-12) in Week 16. But when Tennessee opened a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, the Dolphins turned to Tagovailoa to get them back in the game.

He and the offense failed, which is particularly disappointing considering what was at stake for the team and Tagovailoa.

Miami controlled its own destiny entering the game, needing to win its final two games to break a four-season playoff drought. Instead, it was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention by the time Sunday's games came to a close. Tagovailoa was given the opportunity to elevate Miami's offense in a critical situation -- not unlike last season's regular-season finale, when it needed to beat the Buffalo Bills to clinch a playoff berth. The Dolphins lost that game 56-26, when Tagovailoa threw three interceptions, including a pick-six.

"The question surrounding Tua is, can he be in a position, in a high-level game, to take over the game as a thrower?" ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said before Miami's Week 16 game in New Orleans. "And we don't know that yet, that's something I want to see. ... Because the top players can."

After keeping questions about his future at bay over the past two months, Tagovailoa addressed it once again after the Titans loss.

"I've heard this the entire time I've been here, so at the end of the day, I can control what I can control and that's to be the best version of myself for this team," Tagovailoa said. "We've got to move on to the next game at this point. We'll look at the mistakes that we've made, make some corrections and move on."

Sunday's loss stings a bit more than usual, considering it was Miami's first game in more than a month against a team with a winning record and it managed just 256 yards of offense.

"The Titans are a good team. They had a good plan and we didn't play well enough in any phase," Miami coach Brian Flores said after the game.

But it is conspicuously apparent the Dolphins' focus this offseason must be on building a better support system around Tagovailoa; at his current state, he's incapable of elevating an offense by himself, so until he changes that their best bet is to build as strong of a team around him as possible.

Because with a strong supporting cast, one of two things will happen -- Tagovailoa's play will improve, or the Dolphins will have pieces in place for whoever replaces him.