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Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa exits field on stretcher with head injury

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is examined by the team's medical staff during Thursday night's game in Cincinnati. (Jeff Dean/AP)
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Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was taken from the field on a stretcher and transported to a hospital by ambulance after suffering a head injury during Thursday night’s game in Cincinnati.

Dolphins Coach Mike McDaniel said after the game that Tagovailoa had suffered a concussion. Tagovailoa was expected to be released from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and travel back to Miami with the team on its plane, the Dolphins said.

“That was an emotional moment that is not part of the deal that anyone signs up for, even though you know it’s a possibility in football [to] have something that you have to get taken off on a stretcher," McDaniel said during his postgame news conference. "All of his teammates, myself, we were all very concerned. So the best news that we could get is that everything is checked out, that he didn’t have anything more serious than a concussion.”

Tagovailoa’s injury came four days after he was cleared to return to a game Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in Miami Gardens, Fla., after being examined for a possible head injury. Tagovailoa and McDaniel said then that Tagovailoa had suffered a back injury in that game. The NFL and the NFL Players Association are conducting a joint review to determine whether the league’s concussion protocols were followed properly in that case.

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“Player health and safety is at the core of the union’s mission,” the NFLPA said in a statement Thursday night. “Our concern tonight is for Tua and we hope for a full and speedy recovery. Our investigation into the potential protocol violation is ongoing.”

Tagovailoa started the game Thursday night and played most of the first half. He was injured on a sack by Bengals defensive tackle Josh Tupou late in the second quarter. The back of Tagovailoa’s head appeared to hit the turf. He remained on the ground and held his hands in front of his face with some of his fingers bent awkwardly.

Many Dolphins players stood nearby on the field as members of the team’s medical staff examined Tagovailoa before he was placed on a stretcher. The Dolphins originally announced that Tagovailoa had head and neck injuries. The team said during the game that Tagovailoa was conscious and had movement in all his extremities.

McDaniel said he spoke to Tagovailoa on the field and it was “very clear to me” immediately that the quarterback had suffered a concussion. He could tell, McDaniel said, that it “wasn’t the same guy that I’m used to seeing.” He said he initially was concerned about a potential spine injury as well.

“Football is a game," said Teddy Bridgewater, the backup quarterback for the Dolphins who replaced Tagovailoa and finished the game. "But we’re human beings outside of this game.”

The Bengals won, 27-15. But the outcome was inconsequential in comparison to Tagovailoa’s health.

“I think that’s one of the toughest scenes I’ve ever seen. ... That was a scary scene,” former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, once a teammate of Tagovailoa, said on Amazon, which broadcast the game.

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Former NFL cornerback Richard Sherman said on Amazon: “It brings us back to a sense of reality of the violence of this game. ... You hate to see those things.”

Others questioned whether Tagovailoa should have been playing at all.

“That’s a serious injury,” former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe wrote on Twitter. “Tua shouldn’t have been out there with Sunday[-]Thursday turn around. Sometimes players need protecting from themselves. [The] Dolphins failed Tua.”

Chris Nowinski, the founding CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, wrote on Twitter: “This is a disaster. Pray for Tua. Fire the medical staffs and coaches. I predicted this and I hate that I am right.”

McDaniel said Monday that Tagovailoa was not in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Tagovailoa left Sunday’s game against the Bills in the first half after being shoved to the ground during a play by Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano. Tagovailoa got to his feet after the play but stumbled. He left the game and walked off the field with members of the medical staff. But Tagovailoa was cleared and returned to that game to begin the second half. He and McDaniel said afterward that Tagovailoa had injured his back, not his head.

“I don’t think an injury from last week made him fall the same way this week," McDaniel said Thursday night. "I do not have any — like absolutely zero — patience for or will ever put a player in a position for them to be in harm’s way. That is like not what I’m about at all. And no outcome of a game would ever influence me being irresponsible as the head coach of the football team.”

League officials say the concussion protocols are designed to take medical decisions out of the hands of players and coaches and ensure they are made by doctors, including independent experts not associated with teams. McDaniel cited those procedures Thursday and likened the decision to allow Tagovailoa to play in this game to “what goes into every one of those decisions” involving all players with injuries.

“It starts with your medical staff,” McDaniel said. "But then there’s independent specialists that look into it, too. There’s an entire protocol. And you’re talking to the player as well. So probably, I don’t know, five or six different layers of a process in decision-making, like you do with all players.”

The NFLPA exercised its right to initiate a joint review with the NFL as to whether concussion protocols were followed properly Sunday. Those protocols outline a step-by-step process for evaluating a player suspected to have suffered a head injury. A player can return to a game if cleared by the team physician and an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant following several tests.

The protocols say a player may not return to a game if he demonstrates “gross motor instability” that is “determined by [the] team physician, in consultation with the [unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant], to be neurologically caused.”

The league said Wednesday that the review was ongoing but it had “every indication” that the protocols had been followed properly. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, said in a conference call with reporters then that the league welcomed the review.

“We think that upholding the protocol is of great import,” Miller said Wednesday. “Obviously the Players Association does as well. And that usually takes a week or two to make sure that we’ve spent enough time with all of the people who are involved in the protocol and the evaluation to get a sense as to whether it was followed. Every indication from our perspective is that it was. I know the player, the coach and others have spoken to this. And we are engaged in that review now. So we'll come back with a formal answer to that question, something that we want to engage in and make sure all that needs to be done for player protection is done.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was in attendance at Thursday’s game.

The scene was troubling to many who saw it.

“Stop showing the replays. Please,” Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt wrote on Twitter.