MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Is Tua Tagovailoa coming back too soon?
After one concussion, two ugly falls replayed on social media and national air waves, three weeks of consecutive Miami Dolphins losses, and consultations with four doctors specializing in head injuries, Tagovailoa will start for the Dolphins when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football.
Still, it’s a natural question to ask.
Especially after Tagovailoa’s recollection of the ugly scene in Cincinnati where his head hit the ground, his arms fixed above his head in a fencing response. And of what happened Sept. 29, when he was taken off the field on a stretcher – just four days after he took another fall but was not concussed and returned to beat the Bills on Sept. 25.
The thing is, it’s not much of a recollection.
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“I wouldn’t say it was scary for me at the time because there was a point where I was unconscious – so I couldn’t really tell what was going on,” Tagovailoa said this week in his first news conference since being concussed against the Bengals.
“I remember the entire night up to the point where I got tackled. After I got tackled, I don’t remember much from there. Getting carted off, I don’t remember that,” Tagovailoa added. “But I do remember things that were going on when I was in the ambulance and then when I arrived at the hospital.”
Seeing it unfold was jarring. Hearing Tagovailoa’s words are concerning.
Yet, Tagovailoa’s return to the field will be another primetime spectacle in front of a national audience with plenty at stake.
The Dolphins are trying to get their fourth win of the season. They’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of their undefeated 1972 season. And former Dolphins coach Brian Flores – who didn’t have a strong relationship with Tagovailoa and is suing several teams and the NFL for racial discrimination – returns as a Steelers defensive assistant.
All eyes will be on Tagovailoa every time he’s touched.
And the NFL can’t afford to have another ugly episode unfold for the world, especially after the ugliness we’ve already seen.
Tagovailoa, however, is more focused on the opportunity to play than thinking about the worst possible scenario.
“I mean, it’s prime time. So that’s what excites me,” Tagovailoa said.
“We’ll be the only game on Sunday night. That’s exciting. You dream of being in these kind of games as a kid and we get this opportunity, so it’ll be fun.”
Tagovailoa was cleared by doctors, including one in Detroit and one in Pittsburgh, to return to practice last week. And many of his teammates have been encouraged to see him back to normal, doing what he loves.
Like offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg, who wished he would’ve grabbed Tagovailoa sooner when he stumbled during the Bills game.
“We’re looking forward to having him out there. The leader he is. The way he speaks up,” Eichenberg said of Tagovailoa. “He commands guys, but he also commands respect as well. It’s been great having him as a teammate. I’m excited for this week to get him back out there for him to do his thing.”
And linebacker Duke Riley, who has picked up golf in an evolving friendship with Tagovailoa, and recalled their best time together when Riley sunk a 40-yard putt.
“We celebrated like we just won the Super Bowl. I make the putt, and he’s celebrating like he made it,” Riley said, with a smile from ear to ear. “His energy is contagious. He’s a positive guy. I don’t know, I’m just glad he’s my quarterback.”
And star receiver Tyreek Hill, who helped Tagovailoa reach a new level of confidence as an NFL player with a friendship fostered this offseason.
“Having Tua back is going to be great,” Hill said. “His whole approach to the game, his mentality, just having his energy in the huddle speaks for itself for the guys. He comes into the huddle with his swag, laughing, joking, doing his thing. It’s going to be fun.”
During Tagovailoa’s recovery process, he was interviewed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association as part of an investigation into his evaluations for a concussion during the Bills game. The investigation found independent and team doctors followed the NFL concussion protocols.
Still, the NFL adjusted its protocols to ensure players exhibiting symptoms of ataxia – like poor coordination, difficulty in walking or lack of balance – do not return to action.
And NFL referees have become more liberal with roughing the passer penalties to protect quarterbacks.
So, we’re all good here, right?
That’s certainly the hope here for all parties involved.
The NFL and its players association were reactive, and swift in their action to adjust the protocol and how quarterbacks are officiated during games.
The Dolphins wisely sat Tagovailoa for two games, instead of causing a ruckus by allowing him to return sooner.
Now, all we can do is hope Tagovailoa doesn’t take another blow to the head. Not just Sunday night, but for the rest of the season.
And that’s certainly not guaranteed considering the sport he plays to make a living.
“I’ve seen his love for the game, honestly, in a simple but not simple form,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said of Tagovailoa.
“I’ve seen how much he loves his teammates… I can see that he understands his responsibility as a leader, which he (has) fully embraced and resonates with all the guys. … But I can also tell that he thirsts for the brotherhood, for the camaraderie, for the competition.”
Follow Safid Deen on Twitter @Safid_Deen