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The first time he sat down with Tua Tagovailoa, Mike McDaniel could feel his quarterback’s shaken confidence from across the desk. Two tumultuous years under Brian Flores — the benchings, the injuries, the losing, the Deshaun Watson chatter — had taken its toll on the former Alabama star and No. 5 pick.
This was winter 2022. McDaniel was a nerdy former wideout from Yale who had climbed the coaching ranks under Kyle Shanahan and been tapped as the Miami Dolphins’ new coach. Tagovailoa was the team’s franchise quarterback in desperate need of a restart.
Sensing his QB could use a fresh outlook, the coach pivoted.
“Do you not understand the player you are?” McDaniel asked him.
At the time, no one — starting with Tagovailoa himself — could have envisioned how dramatically McDaniel was about to remake the Dolphins. But in a lot of ways, it began that afternoon, with the new coach flipping on the film right there in his office, poring through play after play of Tagovailoa’s highlights.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder to the quarterback of just how talented he is.
The Dolphins are the NFL’s best party — and they’ve discovered another star
Nineteen months later, McDaniel and Tagovailoa form arguably the most dynamic coach-quarterback pair in the league outside Kansas City. The Dolphins are torching defenses, week after week. Embarrassing some, too. After Sunday’s ridiculous 70-20 thrashing of the Denver Broncos, it’s not too early to put Tagovailoa’s name in the MVP conversation and McDaniel’s in the coach of the year mix.
Elsewhere across the league, the Chicago Bears’ chaotic week ended in predictable fashion (with another loss), the Cardinals handed the Cowboys their first defeat (really!), the Packers stunned the Saints with 18 unanswered points in the fourth and Taylor Swift made an appearance in Kansas City (sitting next to Donna Kelce!).
With all due respect to Swift, though, the Dolphins are the story of Week 3 in the NFL.
Here’s what stood out from the afternoon slate of games.
NFL’s best and worst Week 3 coaching decisions: Matt LaFleur wisely opts for two
‘Video-game stuff’ in Miami
Again, let this all sink in …
The Dolphins scored 70 points, the most in the NFL since 1966.
They piled up 726 yards, the most since 1951.
And they did so against a Broncos defense that allowed the seventh-fewest yards in football last season.
This is poetry in motion 🤩
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) September 24, 2023
Miami’s 70-20 rout of Denver wasn’t just convincing, it was downright ludicrous. Laughable, even. Tagovailoa tossed a 54-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill on his second throw of the game, and it was on from there. (Extra credit to Tagovailoa for his no-look shovel pass TD to De’Von Achane in the second quarter.) The Dolphins’ box score reads like a Big 12 game: 10 touchdowns, 30 first downs, 726 total yards, 70 points (the third most in NFL history) and four plays that went for 50 yards or more.
No highlight reel could do the performance justice. This was a month’s worth of points for some teams, all crammed into one afternoon.
“Seventy points is crazy,” offered Arcane, who had 203 rushing yards and two touchdowns. “That’s like video game stuff.”
The Broncos, no surprise, saw it differently.
“That was embarrassing and tough to watch,” Denver coach Sean Payton said. His team, after all the offseason conversation surrounding it, is a disappointing 0-3.
Kosmider: If Sean Payton thought the Broncos would be a quick fix, it’s time to adjust
Through three games, the Dolphins — 3-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1994-96 — have piled up 1,651 yards (550 and change per game, most by any team ever) and 130 points (43.3 per game). They won’t keep that up over an entire season, but that makes the start no less impressive.
“This doesn’t compare to anything I’ve seen or been a part of,” Tagovailoa said.
Same goes for the rest of us.
The Bears are (still) a mess
Justin Fields wanted to play less robotic. Matt Eberflus wanted his team to turn a hectic week into a defining moment. And the Bears wanted to quiet the chaos that’s plagued them for far too long.
Chiefs 41, Bears 10.
Chicago is the worst team in football. And with Arizona’s 28-16 upset of Dallas, it’s not particularly close. A year after earning the first pick in the draft (a pick they traded to Carolina), the Bears might have the inside track on the top choice again. This time, they might have to stay put and take a quarterback.
Dating back to last season, Chicago has lost 13 in a row. Sunday’s defeat was its third of 30 or more points since 2021.
Let’s rewind the week that was in Chicago. The Bears lost in Tampa Bay last Sunday. Fields made headlines across the league Wednesday by criticizing his own play and, depending on your viewpoint, the coaching he’s received. A few hours later, defensive coordinator Alan Williams abruptly resigned. Rumors swirled. General manager Ryan Poles addressed the media Thursday, never an encouraging sign when you’re just two games into the season.
On Sunday, they lost by 31 points.
Mahomes pulled early in Chiefs’ rout of Bears
Fields completed just 11 passes for 99 yards, a late touchdown and an interception. He’s yet to make any tangible improvements in this, his third season — a pivotal one for his future in Chicago. His numbers so far: a 58 percent completion rate, more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) and a dismal 67.7 passer rating (per TruMedia).
Next week has to be better, right? The Bears will face the Broncos in a battle of winless teams.
Jets sticking with Zach Wilson, but for how long?
It’s getting harder to see Zach Wilson being the answer in New York this season.
The question, though: How long will the Jets keep trying to convince themselves that he is? Because this isn’t working, and the third-year quarterback hasn’t shown enough through three games to convince anyone that’s going to change.
“Right now, he’s who gives us the best chance to win,” coach Robert Saleh said after another dispiriting loss, 15-10 to the Patriots. Astonishingly, it’s the Jets’ 15th consecutive loss to New England, a division rival it hasn’t beaten since 2015.
Zach Wilson’s message to #Jets fans: “Keep believing. I truly believe we’ve got the guys. We understand the frustration … we’re doing everything we can to get better.”
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) September 24, 2023
Pressed further by reporters about the residual effects of sticking with Wilson, Saleh said he isn’t “worried about the locker room.”
Sure, the Jets are only 1-2, and Wilson wasn’t the primary reason the team lost in Dallas last week, but the evidence is mounting. Wilson has thrown just two touchdowns in three games — and one came only because Garrett Wilson made a spectacular grab on a bad ball in the end zone against the Bills.
The Jets are 3-for-24 on third down in their last two games. Wilson’s completion percentage is 52, his passer rating is 57.0, and the Jets have scored a total of 20 points in his two starts. Predictably, the boos started to rain down Sunday from the fans at MetLife Stadium. That’s likely to become a common occurrence this fall in the Meadowlands.
Furthermore, the bubbling frustrations within the building are starting to show. During the loss to the Patriots, running back Michael Carter lit into his position coach on the sideline, and even Garrett Wilson was seen raising his voice at his quarterback.
It’s not a stretch to say the Jets’ season died four snaps in, when Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles. Still, with reported interest from a pair of available, veteran quarterbacks (Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan), how long of a leash does Wilson have?
Say this for him: Since stepping in for Rodgers, he’s faced three excellent defenses in Buffalo, Dallas and New England. Unfortunately for Wilson and the Jets, the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs are up next.
NFL Week 3 takeaways: Jets, Zach Wilson struggle again; Dolphins explode for 70 vs. Broncos
Surprise early leader in the AFC South
The stormy soap opera that stole headlines in Indianapolis throughout training camp — the bitter back-and-forth between the team and its star running back, Jonathan Taylor — overshadowed the challenge facing Shane Steichen, the first-year coach who was hired to restart a franchise still reeling from an embarrassing 2022.
Three games in, the Colts are in a spot no one predicted: atop the AFC South. With wins in back-to-back weeks, Indianapolis is 2-1, a game ahead of everyone else in the division (the Jaguars, Texans and Titans are all 1-2).
What’s most impressive is how Steichen’s done it — minus Taylor (who’s out through at least next week’s game against the Rams) and largely without the fourth pick in the draft, Anthony Richardson, who’s been on the field for only five quarters and hasn’t finished either of his two starts. On top of those absences Sunday in Baltimore, the Colts were also without starting center Ryan Kelly.
But behind gutsy performances from backup QB Gardner Minshew, running back Zack Moss and wideout Michael Pittman Jr. — plus a historic afternoon from kicker Matt Gay — the Colts escaped with a 22-19 overtime victory. Gay drilled a pair of 53-yarders in the fourth quarter, then another 53-yarder in the extra period to win it. He finished 5-for-5 and became the first kicker in league history to make four field goals from 50-plus yards in the same game.
MATT GA-ME WINNER.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) September 24, 2023
“He was on fire,” Steichen said.
Lamar Jackson had two rushing touchdowns for the 2-1 Ravens, who were missing seven starters themselves (Ronnie Stanley, Tyler Linderbaum and Odell Beckham Jr. among them). Baltimore coughed up two fumbles and couldn’t give Justin Tucker a shot at a winning kick in overtime, despite starting a drive on the Colts’ 47.
Don’t sleep on …
• Jim Schwartz’s defense in Cleveland: The Browns are allowing fewer than 11 points a game this season. On Sunday, they dominated the Titans 27-3 — Tennessee mustered just six first downs and 94 total yards. Through three games, if you omit kneeldowns at the end of a half, Schwartz’s defense has limited opponents to just one touchdown on 34 drives. That’s incredible.
• Jordan Love and the Packers: Facing a 17-0 fourth-quarter hole, Love helped the Packers storm back to stun the Saints 18-17. Not bad for your first start at Lambeau Field, especially when you consider the key pieces the Packers were playing without (RB Aaron Jones, left tackle David Bakhtiari and wideout Christian Watson, among others).
Derek Carr pushed the Saints in front before leaving with a shoulder injury; he was replaced by Jameis Winston. But the Packers didn’t get on the board until 11 minutes remained. In the fourth quarter alone, Love led three scoring drives, converted a two-point try and ran in a touchdown.
“Never a doubt, right?” coach Matt LeFleur said. “It was like a nightmare that went to a dream.”
How the Packers, down 17-0 in the fourth quarter, pulled off a miraculous comeback
• The questionable decision-making of Chargers coach Brandon Staley: Staley made an utterly bizarre call late in Los Angeles’ win against the Vikings. Leading 28-24 with 1:51 left, facing a fourth-and-1 from his own 24, Staley elected to … go for it. It was an egregiously aggressive move, even in the analytics age. The handoff went nowhere, and the Vikings took over on downs — already 4 yards from the red zone.
Staley and the Chargers avoided disaster, though. Despite running eight plays and advancing down to the Los Angeles 6-yard line, Minnesota couldn’t convert.
The Chargers earned their first win while the Vikings dropped to 0-3. After going 11-0 in one-score games last season, Minnesota has dropped three in a row to open the year.
• The remaining unbeatens: The Dolphins, 49ers, Eagles and Bucs (Tampa hosts Philadelphia on Monday night).
Those still without a win? The Bears, Broncos, Vikings, Panthers and Bengals (Cincinnati hosts the Rams on Monday night).
NFL Power Rankings: Dolphins, 49ers are 1-2, plus QB confidence ratings
(Photo of Tua Tagovailoa: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.