MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As the voice boomed into the quarterbacks meeting, Tua Tagovailoa looked around.
“A voice from the heavens,” the Miami Dolphins starting quarterback told Yahoo Sports. “Like, ‘Who spoke?’”
This wasn’t the football gods speaking to Tagovailoa (though the parties would have plenty to discuss after last season). This was quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell’s voice arriving from Zoom audio during the first week of August — as Bevell lay face down, as he did for more than 90% of each day for seven straight days.
That’s what the doctor ordered the former offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions. The coach, whom Tagovailoa credits as key to helping him relax and open up to teammates, was instructed to shut down for a week of training camp.
Bevell was watching film around 11 p.m. on July 30 when he realized his vision was impaired. He covered his right eye: no problem seeing tape or the ceiling. He covered his left: His right eye didn’t afford him the same clarity. It was also dry.
Within 36 hours, Bevell was in surgery, needles puncturing his eyeball in order for a doctor to reattach his retina by laser. A gas bubble soon held his reattached retina in place — accompanied by a strict face-down policy to ensure the bubble didn’t spread to the wrong parts of the eye. So Bevell watched practices and Zoomed into meetings from home, alternating between lying on his bed with his head hanging off and using a U-shaped massage table headrest after he no longer needed an eye patch.
Eventually, the Bevells ordered a face pillow with an elevated stand.
“Air was flowing,” Bevell said, “so that helped.”
Tagovailoa watched a YouTube video of the surgery online, describing the procedure as “pretty cool.” He thinks Bevell is pretty cool, too.
Because while Bevell works on an offensive staff led by head coach Mike McDaniel and offensive coordinator Frank Smith, the quarterbacks coach brings a wealth of knowledge from coordinating offenses for Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson and first overall draft selection Matthew Stafford. McDaniel values Bevell’s deep passing game experience as a complement to his own run-heavy coaching upbringing.
“His reputation preceded him,” McDaniel told Yahoo Sports. “I knew I needed someone who had been through the journey with at least one but preferably multiple quarterbacks at a high level, [who] understood the amount of demands that are on the player and then was a human being that connected with him.”
Add in Bevell’s play-calling résumé and two interim head coaching posts, and McDaniel was sold. He hired Bevell as quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator in February 2022.
The result: The Dolphins didn’t just improve from 22nd in points scored to 11th in the staff’s first year. They also jumped from 17th in passing to fourth, while Tagovailoa, who played in 13 games, posted a league-best 105.5 passer rating.
Smith says he can’t sufficiently summarize Bevell’s impact.
“He brings value,” Smith said, “in all areas.”
Sound bites, situational football among Bevell’s strengths
Bevell’s coaching style incorporates lessons from his now 23 years in the NFL, ranging from tips he picked up from Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll — “celebrate the uniqueness of each player” — to the intricacies of how his past quarterbacks executed iterations of the Dolphins’ current concepts.
Bevell reminds Tagovailoa that he’s allowed to float between his uber-competitive, locked-in moments and his looser, freer locker room presence. And Bevell embraces the personalized handshake seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Tyreek Hill taught him as the natural precursor to a conversation about routes. “You ran with speed,” Hill recalled Bevell’s recent advice on a dagger route. “But you could have at least sold the go a little bit more. You could have got one more revolution.”
Bevell is intentional about positioning his advice within the framework of what Smith and McDaniel envision, their backgrounds in sync rather than in conflict. The quarterbacks coach values how McDaniel strategizes to attack defenses in the run game the way many coaches plan to attack in the passing game; how his run-game lens on spacing fueled the Dolphins’ commitment to stockpile a rare collection of speedy weapons who now stretch and stress defenses. Bevell applies those concepts to situational football, especially third downs — where Tagovailoa’s 130.1 passer rating last season trailed only San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy. Tagovailoa’s 112.2 red-zone passer rating ranked first among quarterbacks with at least nine attempts.
“Bev has been great from that standpoint of knowing what the quarterback is capable of doing, what variations or evolutions might fit, and then working through it,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “Just being able to attack the coverage and having answers, he can paint a picture on why we're doing what we're doing, the intent for the quarterback and the intent that they wanted to use.”
Bevell helps his quarterbacks distill a more verbose system than most are accustomed to, the Dolphins’ movements and condensed formations deepening play-call complexity.
“He'll say: ‘Hey, what's the sound bite?’ So then we'll say the progression, the drop in progression,” third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson told Yahoo Sports. “So like a three-step to high-low backside or high-low China or whatever the case may be for that play. He's helped simplify the game to where when we hear a play, it's like, ‘Oh, I just know I'm down-up-backside here.’
“That kind of helps slow the game down.”
What’s next for Tua, Dolphins QBs
Entering their second year in Miami, Bevell and his colleagues on McDaniel’s coaching staff delight in potential. Will raw speed and deep targets again flash when the Dolphins kick off the regular season Sunday at the Los Angeles Chargers? Likely. But expect presentations and applications to shift.
“Mike is ever evolving in our core principles,” Smith said. “What we do one year will not be what we do the next.”
McDaniel says he thinks “it’s hilarious when people talk about the Dolphins' offense as one stagnant entity.” Defenses will game-plan differently for the Dolphins now that they have a year's worth of tape to consider. The Dolphins will employ their own chess moves.
"Trying to attack defenses where they’re vulnerable," McDaniel said. "They kind of have a hand in that by the hand they play. And so you have to be able to take advantage of their overplay to one particular phase or the other. So I’ll always be changing."
Bevell's extensive experience informs the adaptation process.
Take his front-row seat to Favre's evolution, first in six years together with the Green Bay Packers and later for two years as Bevell coordinated Favre's Vikings offense. On one hand, Bevell doesn't shy away from cueing up clips of a gun-slinging Favre modeling dropbacks and progressions, like in their joint year when Favre led the league with 32 touchdown passes. Bevell worked with Favre twice when he led the league in interceptions, and a third year when no quarterback threw interceptions less often than Favre’s 1.3% rate. Bevell told his current Dolphins players about Favre explaining an interception by citing the game a decade earlier when the Pittsburgh Steelers had presented an identical coverage. The diagnosis Favre had drawn from the 1990s no longer applied. Bevell’s lesson: Each play stands on its own merit.
“It doesn't matter what happened last time on this play or it doesn't matter if two plays in a row we had protection issues,” Bevell tells his quarterbacks. “You have to assume that you're gonna be protected on this one.”
Bevell grounds Tagovailoa, in particular, with the phrase: “Be where your feet are.”
It’s a fitting rallying cry after a year in which Tagovailoa’s potential was on full display but so too was the fragility of its execution. After he suffered three head collisions, including two diagnosed concussions last season, Tagovailoa’s availability is the biggest question facing the 2023 Dolphins. The Dolphins hope his offseason weight gain and jiu-jitsu study are the answer. Rather than worry excessively, Tagovailoa reminds himself: Be where your feet are.
And when Tagovailoa is healthy? Bevell believes his starting quarterback’s 15.4-point passer rating jump last season reflects Tagovailoa’s accuracy, anticipation and elite vision to process an entire field. The Dolphins will need that even more as they compete in a loaded AFC East against the perennially contending Buffalo Bills, the offseason champion New York Jets and Aaron Rodgers, and Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots.
“That’s the quarterback position: trying to simplify things within the chaos,” Tagovailoa said.
The position is clarifying for Tagovailoa thanks to several people, including Bevell, who’s enjoying his own reclaimed clarity as well.
Bevell returned to practice, and to vertical statures, Aug. 8. He’s now able to fly with the team again after 17-hour drives to and from Houston for the Dolphins-Texans joint practices and preseason game. Bevell’s voice is no longer disembodied in meetings — though McDaniel did show a picture of his position coach, head hanging off the bed above a sideways laptop, to the whole team.
The head coach’s message?
“First of all, I wanted him to wake up,” McDaniel said in his trademark deadpan. “This is a meeting and he shouldn't be laying down.”
More seriously, McDaniel wanted his players to produce encouraging film when Bevell could do little more than watch. And to appreciate Bevell’s commitment to their growth.
“We all get so caught up in our own stories and circumstances and just another glimmer of another person's scope who is just happy to be able to watch practice and cannot wait to get another work day in,” McDaniel said. “I think that's a powerful message.”