Thursday night, he didn't return.
Tagovailoa's head and back slammed into the turf at Paycor Stadium, leaving him on his back with the fingers of both hands in a rigid position. Players from both teams gathered at midfield as he was evaluated and ultimately loaded onto the stretcher. He was taken to a Cincinnati-area hospital and ruled out of the game with head and neck injuries, according to the Dolphins.
The team announced shortly after Tagovailoa's departure that "he is conscious and has movement in all his extremities." Following the game, the Dolphins revealed their quarterback was "expected to be discharged from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and will fly home with the team tonight."
"He was asking for me. And when he saw me, I knew that wasn’t the same guy I’m used to seeing," Miami rookie coach Mike McDaniel said following the game while confirming Tagovailoa was in the league's concussion protocol.
McDaniel added he had "absolutely zero patience for or will ever put a player in position for them to be in harm’s way. That’s not what I’m about at all. No outcome of a game would influence me to be irresponsible as a head coach of a football team.”
Tagovailoa, who completed eight of 14 throws for 110 yards and an interception prior to his injury, was replaced by veteran backup Teddy Bridgewater.
"Man, totally scary when somebody goes down like that," Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said on Prime Video's set after the game. "We play a dangerous game.
"Tua's a tough guy. ... It's great news he's flying back with the team."
At halftime, Prime Video analyst Ryan Fitzpatrick, a teammate of Tagovailoa's in 2020, tried to hold back his emotions.
"As an announcer and analyst, I’m having a tough time right now," Fitzpatrick said.
Ryan Fitzpatrick got emotional at halftime talking about what happened to Tua.
“As a player you gotta move on and play the game. As an announcer, an analyst, I’m having a tough time.” pic.twitter.com/6Bg52sYlsM
— Josh Hill (@jdavhill) September 30, 2022
A potentially devastating blow for the previously unbeaten Dolphins in any context, Tagovailoa's latest physical setback will come under further scrutiny after he briefly left Week 3's win against the Buffalo Bills for what appeared to be a head injury but was later characterized by the quarterback and McDaniel as a back injury. The NFL Players Association initiated an investigation into the handling of Tagovailoa's injuries against Buffalo and whether the concussion protocol was properly followed.
The case remains open.
McDaniel forcefully objected to the notion that Tagovailoa's issues against the Bills were a contributing factor to the situation in Cincinnati, saying he shouldn't be a head coach if he was knowingly exposing a compromised player.
However the union weighed in further with a statement Thursday night, which read: "Player health and safety is at the core of the union's mission. Our concern tonight is for Tua and we hope for a full and speedy recovery. Our investigation into the potential protocol violation is ongoing."
DOLPHINS, NFL CRITICIZED: NFL players past and present blast Dolphins, league following Tua Tagovailoa injury
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Dolphins wideout Tyreek Hill praised the club's handling of its franchise quarterback.
"I know as an organization, it's always (about) safety," said Hill on Thursday, "making sure Tua is feeling all right, making sure he's straight."
Heading into the game in Cincinnati, Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft, seemed to be in the midst of a breakout season under McDaniel's guidance. The Alabama product was uncharacteristically challenging defenses deep downfield with speedy wideouts Hill and Jaylen Waddle at his disposal. Tagovailoa threw a franchise record-tying six TD passes in a Week 2 comeback win at Baltimore.
No stranger to injuries, Tagovailoa entered the league while recovering from a fractured hip suffered during his final game at Alabama. He played 23 of a possible 33 games in his first two NFL seasons.
Despite their first loss, the Dolphins retain the AFC's best record at 3-1. The Philadelphia Eagles are now the league's only unbeaten squad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tua Tagovailoa injured during Dolphins' loss to Bengals Thursday night
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