The Tua Tagovailoa/Ryan Fitzpatrick non-controversy has a unique historic precedent

Wondering how the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa / Ryan Fitzpatrick don’t-call-it-a-quarterback-controversy will play out? So is NFL Recap. We don’t have a crystal ball or the ability to peer into head coach Brian Flores’ mind, but we know that football history has a habit of repeating itself. So grab some eggnog, curl up by the fireplace, and enjoy this tale about the strange case of WoodStrock and the early 1980s Dolphins’ starting QBs.

Editor’s note: Mike Tanier’s full NFL Recap will unveil throughout the day as happenings and happenstances occur, culminating with a Monday morning crescendo, bringing all of the NFL action fully into focus. Bookmark us, and we’ll update our front page with each of Tanier’s additions!

David Woodley, Don Strock, and the 1982 Miami Dolphins Super Bowl run

Once upon a time, there was a young quarterback named David Woodley. Woodley was a scrambling eighth-round pick from LSU who replaced fading future Hall-of-Famer Bob Griese in 1980. Woodley was talented but erratic, and head coach Don Shula developed a habit of pulling him in favor of veteran backup Don Strock when things weren’t going well.

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Strock led two fourth-quarter comebacks in relief of Woodley as the Dolphins went 11-4-1. Shula then yanked Woodley after an interception, two sacks, and a fumble in the first quarter of the playoff game against the San Diego Chargers. Strock threw four touchdowns in a back-and-forth game the Chargers ultimately won 41-38, one of the greatest games in NFL history.

Woodley remained the starter in 1982, with Strock as his save specialist. The 1982 season was just nine games long due to a lengthy midseason strike. Strock relieved Woodley in three of his starts, leading late-game comebacks in two of them.

The pattern continues into the playoffs

That season’s playoffs were a 16-team tournament. Woodley played well at the start of the tourney but threw three interceptions in a 14-0 AFC Championship game victory over the New York Jets.

Shula did not pull Woodley in that game. He did, however, insert Strock late in Washington’s 27-17 win in Super Bowl XVII. Woodley had completed just 4-of-14 passes for 97 yards, one touchdown, and one interception before being relieved.

Dan Marino enters the stage

The Dolphins drafted Dan Marino with the 27th overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. How Marino lasted that long is a story in itself. Amazingly, 46 QBs were taken before Marino in that first round. Woodley started the season, but Marino quickly overtook him, and the rest is history (the history books would be aware of his presence on a grand scale).

Sadly, Woodley descended into alcoholism after his NFL career fizzled, and he passed away in 2003. Strock backed up Marino for many years. The Dolphins returned to the Super Bowl in 1984 but lost to the San Francisco 49ers. They remained playoff contenders throughout the 1980s and early 1990s but couldn’t get over the proverbial hump.

What the past can teach us about the current Dolphins starting QB situation between Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick

Starter-reliever platoons at quarterback are unbelievably rare, which is why folks remember WoodStrock 30 years later. The fact that the arrangement lasted from Griese’s decline in 1980 through Marino’s rise in 1983 is also shocking to modern eyes.

The modern context of starting and backup QBs

Nothing like that can happen in this era of free agency and rookie contracts. Both quarterbacks would either demand more money or a chance to go elsewhere. FitzTua will almost certainly be broken up this offseason for a variety of reasons.

Secondly, Strock did not play particularly well in his relief appearances. He threw four interceptions in a 1981 spot start and four more in a relief appearance in 1982 that the Dolphins lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the Chargers playoff effort gave him a Nick Foles reputation that could not have helped Woodley’s confidence.

Circling back to FitzTua

Ryan Fitzpatrick led a wild comeback in Saturday’s 26-25 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, but let’s get real. Myles Gaskin’s fourth-quarter touchdown catch was a mixture of great running and horrible defense after a routine throw. As gutsy as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass to Mack Hollins was while his facemask was being spindled, the Raiders left a receiver wide open.

The “Fitzmagic” storyline casts a long shadow that can hide the fact that — A) he has never, ever been a reliable starter; and B) the Dolphins’ primary objective this season is to develop Tua Tagovailoa, not lose to the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs.

WoodStrock does not detail the current Dolphins starting QB situation

Let’s not make too much of the similarities, however. Tua Tagovailoa is a much better prospect than Woodley was. A few mid-game benchings should not permanently obliterate his confidence. And Shula’s Dolphins proved in 1982 that a team can enjoy some success with a two-QB platoon in an unusual season (and 2020 is quite unusual).

But if Tua begins backsliding because he’s looking over the shoulder after each early-game mistake, Dan Marino won’t walk through the door to bail everyone out. Flores owes it to himself, the Dolphins, and Tua to keep his eyes on the big picture. So far in 2020, he’s taken his eyes off it twice.

What’s next for the Miami Dolphins

Tua Tagovailoa will be the Dolphins starting QB in Week 17 with the playoffs on the line against the Buffalo Bills for “Squish the Fish” week in Orchard Park. Who gets the finish in that game is still TBD.

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