Despite concussions, Tua Tagovailoa expected to return as Dolphins’ 2023 starter

David Santiago/

In a three-point loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday that ended the Dolphins’ season, the absence of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa maybe stuck out the most in an afternoon of missed opportunities.

Tagovailoa was inactive for Miami’s wild-card round game against Buffalo, a 34-31 road loss, because of his second diagnosed concussion this season.

And while Tagovailoa’s latest concussion has prompted questions about his future in Miami and beyond, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel confirmed an ESPN report that Tagovailoa is expected to return as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback for the 2023 season.

“Of course. You guys know how I feel about Tua and that hasn’t changed at all,” McDaniel said after the game. “I think we all see him as the leader of this team. When it’s appropriate for him to lead the team, I will jump on that opportunity. He’s a great player with only improvement in front of him as well. We’re talking about a 24-year-old quarterback that I think when I signed up for this job, I spent six months trying to convince people that he was good. ... I’d be a fool to not embrace him when he’s healthy and ready to go and we’ll all be excited for that.”

According to the report, medical professionals expressed confidence that Tagovailoa should be able to resume his NFL career.

Tagovailoa had a breakout season in 2022 under the guidance of McDaniel, a new offensive scheme and the addition of teammate such as wide receiver Tyreek Hill and offensive tackle Terron Armstead. He completed 64.8 percent of his passes for a career-high 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He finished the regular season as the league’s highest-rated passer and was named a first alternate for the Pro Bowl. However, he sustained two concussions this season that forced him to sit out five games, including the Dolphins’ season-ending loss. Tagovailoa also missed four games because of injuries in the 2021 season.

The Dolphins struggled throughout Tagovailoa’s absences, winning only one of the four games in the regular season and averaging 16 points. When Tagovailoa started this season, the Dolphins averaged 25 points and were among the most explosive and efficient offenses in the league. Though Miami put up 31 points against the Bills on Sunday, it was a performance heavily assisted by the efforts of the special teams unit and defense. The defense forced three turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown, and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson Jr. recorded a season-long 50-yard punt in the second quarter.

Backup Teddy Bridgewater’s dislocated pinkie on his right (throwing) hand forced rookie Skylar Thompson to start his third career game and he struggled for much of the afternoon. Thompson completed 18 of 45 passes for 220 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Sunday’s outing resembled many of the others without Tagovailoa, an offense that needed his anticipation and accuracy in the passing game.

McDaniel hasn’t offered much about the status of Tagovailoa, who hasn’t spoken to reporters since the conclusion of a Christmas Day loss to the Green Bay Packers. But he previously said Tagovailoa has not been cleared to resume on-field activities and has been conducting aerobic exercises.

With the Dolphins seemingly set to transition into the offseason with Tagovailoa as their starter, their next decision concerns whether to pick up his fifth-year option. The front office will have until May 1 to exercise the fifth-year option for Tagovailoa, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 Draft. It would extend his contract through the 2024 season, with the final year being worth a projected $22 million, all fully guaranteed. His 2023 salary would also become fully guaranteed. If the Dolphins don’t pick up the option, Tagovailoa would be set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2023 season.

Tagovailoa, as a member of the 2020 draft class, is also eligible to sign a long-term extension. With draftmates Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert also set for new deals, quarterback contracts in the coming months could reset the market at over $50 million per year.

If Tagovailoa can maintain — or elevate — his level of play and remain healthy, his contract will be a bargain over the next two seasons.