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NFL protocols couldn’t protect Tua Tagovailoa from careless humans

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is taken off the field after being injured in Cincinnati. (Jeff Dean/AP)

Never assume an NFL team will protect its players. Never assume infallible protocols are in place. Never assume a doctor is independent enough or a front office is savvy enough or a head coach is concerned enough to ensure we won’t see the ghastly malpractice from Thursday night again.

Four days after being allowed to play through concussion symptoms, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa lay motionless and concussed at Paycor Stadium. The Cincinnati crowd went silent. The Miami players and staff formed a half circle near Tagovailoa, who was at midfield for about 10 minutes before being carted away and taken to a nearby trauma center. The image of his hands, frozen and splayed above his face, should haunt the entire 2022 season and intensify scrutiny of the NFL’s concussion policies for years.

Such a scary incident could happen on any play. However, Tagovailoa shouldn’t have been the victim on this particular night because he shouldn’t have been allowed on the field. On Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa was slammed to the turf in the second quarter. Afterward, he shook his head repeatedly. He stumbled as he tried to walk. He left the game to be evaluated because he exhibited what is listed as “gross motor instability” in the current NFL concussion safety playbook. Somehow, he was cleared to return — a process that includes a neurotrauma consultant not on the team’s payroll — and finished that game.

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The Dolphins won, 21-19, over a Buffalo squad that might be the league’s most dominant team. Although the Dolphins initially said Tagovailoa suffered a head injury, both the organization and the quarterback called it a back problem afterward. His helmet appeared to crash into the ground against the Bills, and he was clearly wobbly, but Tagovailoa had declared he “hyperextended” his back.

Never assume that anyone sees the big picture.

It all added up to a complete institutional failure, for the Dolphins and the entire league. The fallout began Saturday, with the NFL Players Association exercising its right to fire the independent doctor who was part of the decision to clear Tagovailova to return last Sunday.

While it’s easy to lump this incident into all of Miami’s recent dysfunction, the truth is that any of the 32 teams could have messed up similarly. Their priority will always be winning, no matter what they say. The culture of football will always lead players to toughen up and keep their mouths shut unless they’re trying to persuade the team they’re okay to take more punishment.

Russell Wilson once banged his head in an NFC championship game against Green Bay, kept playing and later explained that drinking water with “nanobubbles” protected his brain. In 2021, Patrick Mahomes left a playoff game with a concussion, but he made a suspiciously swift recovery to play in the AFC championship game the next week. The sport has a disturbing number of former players — recent ones — who open up about playing through concussions. And the brain studies of many deceased players keep leading to diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The NFL has safety guardrails to protect the team and players from their nature, and in many cases, they may work. But in a game as violent as football, it is insufficient and life-threatening to settle for being pretty good most of the time. Tagovailoa is fortunate to be responding fairly well after the vicious incident. He needs to take as much time as he needs to recover, and more importantly, the Dolphins need to force him to do so.

The league should be humble about this breakdown, not defensive. Layers of protocols exist so that mistakes can be caught. Common sense must prevail when there’s video evidence of a player looking like he absorbed a knockout punch.

It’s not an acceptable defense to look at Tagovailoa’s case and conclude, hey, things happen. This can’t happen, not four days after the man had trouble staying upright for a spell. The league and players union must quickly finalize their new protocol revision to trigger mandatory rest and a more stringent evaluation period when something so obviously alarming occurs.

Yet it seems every person complicit wants to seek absolution rather than take responsibility. In his role as face of the franchise, rookie coach Mike McDaniel embarrassed himself after the game when he said, in trying to express relief, “The best news we can give is that everything is checked out, that he didn’t have anything more serious than a concussion.”

Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's concussion "was a scary moment" after the game against the Bengals on Sept. 29. (Video: Miami Dolphins)

McDaniel didn’t intend to dismiss the seriousness of a concussion, but that’s what he did. Those words wouldn’t have seemed so callous if the Dolphins had been more careful after Tagovailoa’s injury against Buffalo. Every player on the 53-man roster deserves diligent medical care, but the quarterback is the most essential component of the team. Miami’s negligence with Tagovailoa makes you wonder how the team looks after linemen, linebackers and tight ends who engage in jarring collisions nearly every play.

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The Dolphins chose Tagovailoa with the No. 5 pick of the 2020 draft. During the offseason, they committed to building around him by trading for the speedy Tyreek Hill and making him a $30 million-a-year receiver. They also hired McDaniel to upgrade their offensive system. If their plan goes well, the Dolphins won’t hesitate to make Tagovailoa one of the game’s top-paid quarterbacks in the near future. He is their potential franchise player — if they don’t ruin him by being shortsighted.

McDaniel, however, doesn’t regret the decision to play the quarterback Thursday night.

“That would be irresponsible in the first place, and I shouldn’t be in this position,” he said. “I do not have any — absolutely zero — patience for or will ever put a player in position to be in harm’s way. That is not what I’m about at all, and no outcome of a game will ever influence me being irresponsible as the head coach of the football team.”

It wouldn’t be naive to trust his intentions, but McDaniel has done nothing to earn blind faith. And how could McDaniel — who surely re-watched every second of the Buffalo game, including Tagovailoa’s stumble — not question whether it was prudent for Tagovailoa to be cleared to play? Every football game puts players in harm’s way, but rarely does the harm feel as avoidable as it did Thursday night.

Is the goal player protection or deniability? It’s a question that many should ponder within the Dolphins organization, at the league office and throughout the entire sport. What happened Thursday night was not inevitable. It was preventable. It was not just a random moment of football brutality. It was the terrifying result of carelessness. The culprits are many, and all of them should be full of remorse.