For days, the NFL told us our eyes were lying to us when it came to the health of Tua Tagovailoa’s head.
Regardless of the footage showing Tagovailoa’s helmet slamming against the turf against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday in Miami, or his knees giving out while he collapsed back onto the ground, or teammates supporting the Dolphins quarterback in spite of his buckling legs, the message was unified: Concussion protocols were followed and Tagovailoa passed. The league office was confident in that message within hours of Miami’s win over Buffalo, and again Wednesday, when vice president of communications Jeff Miller reiterated it.
“Every indication from our perspective is that it was [followed],” Miller said of the protocols. “I know that the player, the coach and others have spoken to this.”
Translated more bluntly, this was the league, and the team and even Tagovailoa all saying the same thing: We know what you think you saw, but you’re wrong.
On Thursday, there was little chance for that assertion to exist a second time. Not with Tagovailoa appearing unconscious while lying on the field after a second quarter hit by the Cincinnati Bengals. Not with his arms and fingers flexed into a “fencing response” near his face, a telltale sign of a brain injury. And not with the footage coming on Amazon Prime Video's "Thursday Night Football" prime-time stage, with multiple replays erasing any doubt that something frightening had happened.
I’m not a doctor, but that was a concussion. And I didn’t need hidden-away locker room protocols to tell me that was true, or some NFL public relations statement or Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who relayed the diagnosis to reporters after the Dolphins' 27-15 defeat. Tagovailoa departing the game strapped to a stretcher was enough. The footage of the ambulance taking him to a nearby hospital for an examination was enough.
Now we get to what matters. First comes Tagovailoa’s health, which should always be the primary focus of the team, the player and every other decision maker involved. Once we know he’s safe, we have to turn back to the garbage dump of a mess that continues to be the league’s concussion safety standards.
The confidence in the NFL and team’s decision with Tagovailoa following his on-field collapse last Sunday was already very thin. Now it’s virtually nonexistent, aside from some naysayers who were remarkably quick to suggest that Sunday’s events and Thursday’s events were just a wild coincidence.
There won’t be a lot of people buying that excuse now. Instead, there’s going to be an exploding belief that what happened against the Bills and Tagovailoa’s subsequent clearance wasn’t all it was made out to be. Certainly the NFL Players Association has significant doubts about the veracity of the process in that instance. That suspicion led the union to call for an investigation into the timeline of events and protocols that somehow got Tagovailoa back onto the field when it seemed like a dubious development to so many who watched him stumble around less than 30 minutes earlier.
This isn’t an easy position for the NFLPA to take. It’s in the awkward position of having to protect Tagovailoa (and all players) against the team and themselves. Asking for a probe into how Tagovailoa was handled is, in a way, suggesting that Tagovailoa himself may not have acted in his best long-term interests when he identified his issue against the Bills as a back injury rather than a head injury.
But let’s be real here. The union isn’t flying blind. It knows that players aren’t always going to pick their own health over a team that needs them in a key moment. It knows that players are familiar with concussion protocols and and how to skirt them. It knows that a concussed head can suddenly and wrongly be identified as a “tweaked back."
This is why it’s questionable letting players take a big part in their own medical diagnosis, especially when they look like they’ve been concussed. There’s evidence they will lie. There’s evidence they will obfuscate. There’s evidence they’ll choose to lean into a team that wants them back on the field. And they are smart enough to know how to make that happen when they’re asked to take part in a decision about getting back onto the field.
The union knows all of this from experience. Its knowledge was gained from a history of the NFL and its teams botching the handling of concussions. Not to mention a seemingly inexhaustible omertà among players that some readily admit in their most honest and raw moments. An omertà that says you do what you have to do to stay in the fight. Especially when it’s a meaningful one.
You needed to look no further than Thursday night, when future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth spoke to it in his postgame comments while working the game for Amazon’s NFL crew. Despite it not being the best look for the league when it comes to concussion protocols that may not always work, Whitworth was candid about his experience with a head injury. And it showcases a hole in the league’s medical defense that should be concerning.
“I can literally remember playing the Philadelphia Eagles on a Thursday night football game years ago myself — getting concussed, wobbling around, a referee actually removed me from the game,” Whitworth said. “I go back in the game because you want to play. I was able to get myself through the test, explain that I’m fine, knowing that I had been dinged pretty good. I had a teammate that was like, ‘Man, this guy just is not right and I don’t feel right letting him keep playing.' He actually pulled me out of the game and told the coaches that I need to be removed. And I’m so thankful for that. … This situation just brings back those memories. For us guys that have been on that field, it’s tough, man. We’ve gotta keep these guys uninvolved in it. They shouldn’t feel obligated to do something more than what they need to. It’s just an ugly scene to see.”
This is the kind of thing that cuts through the league's statements that protocols were followed, and assertions by doctors and coaches and even players, that everything was handled just fine. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests limitations in all of this. Especially when it appears to make no sense.
When a player hits his head on the ground, then gets up shaking his helmet and wobbling and collapsing again, that should be one of those signs of “no-go” neurological trouble that teams are expected to identify. And the next step should probably not be asking the player to make a judgement call about explaining what’s happening medically. Especially when that player’s motivation is going to lean into what Whitworth described: Wanting to keep playing.
Time is going to shed light on how the events against Buffalo unfolded and whether or not Tagovailoa’s frightening injury Thursday had roots in his wobbly legs the previous Sunday. Unfortunately, we might never know the incontrovertible truth about the linkage between the two moments. What we do know is what the league, team and everyone else have told us: Tagovailoa called it a back injury and that played a part in the diagnosis becoming a back injury.
Maybe we should listen to Whitworth when he tells us from experience that Tagovailoa should have been “uninvolved” in that medical evaluation. Maybe we should start looking at the player as being a significant hole in the process when it comes to evaluating head injuries. Because that player involvement takes the question of whether Tua Tagovailoa was failed by the protocols and forces us to ask whether or not Tua might have played a part in that failure.
That’s a problem. And after the events of the past few days, it’s clear that it needs to be taken seriously.