The NFL has been telling us for days that our eyes have been lying to us when it comes to the health of Tua Tagovailoa’s head.
Despite footage showing Tagovailoa’s helmet hitting the turf against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday in Miami, or his knees buckling as he falls back to the ground, or teammates supporting The Dolphins quarterback, despite his wobbly legs, the message was the same: Concussion protocols had been followed, and Tagovailoa had passed. The league office was certain of the message hours after Miami’s win over Buffalo and again on Wednesday when VP of Communications Jeff Miller confirmed it.
“Everything indicates that, from our point of view, it was [followed],” Miller said of the protocols. “I know the player, coach and others have been talking about it.”
In a more direct translation, it was a league, and the team, and even Tagovailoa, said the same thing: We know what you think you saw, but you are wrong..
On Thursday, there was little chance that this assertion would exist a second time. Not with Tagovailoa, unconscious on the field after being hit in the second quarter by the Cincinnati Bengals. Not with his arms and fingers flexed in “reaction to fencingnext to his face is a clear sign of a traumatic brain injury. And not with the footage that plays on the Amazon Prime Video Thursday Night Football stage in prime time, with numerous replays erasing any doubt that something frightening has happened.
I’m not a doctor, but it was a concussion. And I didn’t need secret locker room protocols to tell me it was true, or some NFL public relations statement, or Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who told reporters the diagnosis after the Dolphins lost 27- fifteen. Tagovailoa leaving the game tied to a stretcher was enough. The shot of the ambulance taking him to the nearest hospital for examination was enough.
Now we come to the main thing. First, the health of Tagovailoa, which should always be the focus of the team, the player and any other decision maker. Once we know he’s safe, we have to go back to the garbage dump of the mess that continues to be the league’s standard of concussion safety.
Confidence in the NFL and the team’s decision on Tagovailoa after his loss on the field last Sunday was already very thin. It is now virtually non-existent, except for some skeptics who are surprisingly quick to assume that the events of Sunday and the events of Thursday were just a wild coincidence.
Few buy into that excuse these days. Instead, there will be an explosive belief that what happened against the bills and the subsequent resolution of Tagovailoa was not what was intended. Of course, the NFL Players Association has serious doubts about the credibility of the process in this case. This suspicion prompted the union to call for an investigation into the chronology of events and protocols that somehow got Tagovailoa back on the field, though it seemed like a dubious event to many who saw him stumble less than 30 minutes ago.
This is not an easy position for the NFLPA. He is in the awkward position of having to protect Tagovailoa (and all the players) from the team and himself. The request for an inquiry into what was done to Tagovailoa suggests, in some ways, that Tagovailoa himself may not have been acting in his own long-term interests when he called his problem with the bills a back injury rather than a head injury.
But let’s be real here. The Union does not fly blindly. He knows that players won’t always choose their own health over a team that needs it at a key moment. He knows that players are familiar with concussion protocols and know how to get around them. He knows that a concussion of the head can be sudden and misidentified as a “stretched back.”
That’s why it’s questionable to let players take a big part in their own medical diagnosis, especially when they look like they have a concussion. There is evidence that they will lie. There is evidence that they will confuse. There is evidence that they would rather join a team that wants them back on the field. And they are smart enough to know how to do it when they are asked to take part in the decision to return to the field.
The trade union knows all this from its own experience. His knowledge was drawn from the history of the NFL and its teams that failed to cope with concussions. Not to mention the seemingly inexhaustible omerta among players, which some readily acknowledge in their most honest and rude moments. Omerta who speaks you do what you gotta do stay in the fight. Especially when it makes sense.
You didn’t have to look any further than Thursday night when future Hall of Famer offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth spoke about it in his post-game comments while working on a game for the Amazon NFL team. While not the league’s best option when it comes to concussion protocols that may not always work, Whitworth has been candid about his experience with a head injury. And that shows a hole in the league’s medical defense that should be a concern.
“I literally remember playing the Philadelphia Eagles at a Thursday night football game many years ago — got a concussion, staggered, the referee basically sent me out of the game,” Whitworth said. “I’m back in the game because you want to play. I was able to pass the test, to explain that I was fine, knowing that I had been beaten up quite badly. I had a teammate who said, “Dude, this guy is just not right and I don’t feel good about letting him keep playing.” He actually pulled me out of the game and told the coaches that I needed to be removed. And I’m so grateful for that. … This situation just brings back those memories. For us guys that’s been on this field, it’s tough, man. We need to keep these guys out of the way. They shouldn’t feel compelled to do anything more than they need to. It’s just an ugly scene.”
This is something that contradicts the league’s claims that protocols were followed, claims by doctors, coaches and even players that everything was fine. There is a lot of evidence that suggests limitations in all of this. Especially when it seems like it doesn’t make sense.
When a player hits his head on the ground, then gets up, shakes his helmet, staggers and falls again, this should be one of those signs of neurological problems that teams need to look out for. And the next step probably shouldn’t be asking the player to make a judgment about explaining what’s going on medically. Especially when that player’s motivation will be based on what Whitworth described: the desire to keep playing.
Time will shed light on how events played out against Buffalo and whether Tagovailoa’s frightening injury suffered on Thursday was rooted in his wobbly legs the previous Sunday. Unfortunately, we may never know the undeniable truth about the connection between the two moments. What we do know is what the league, the team and everyone else has told us: Tagovailoa called it a back injury and that played a role in the diagnosis that became a back injury.
Perhaps we should heed Whitworth when he tells us from experience that Tagovailoa should not have been “involved” in this medical examination. Maybe we should start looking at the player as a big hole in the head injury assessment process. Because this player involvement raises the question of whether Tua Tagovailoa failed the protocols and makes us wonder if Tua could have played a role in that failure.
This is problem. And after the events of recent days, it becomes clear that this must be taken seriously.