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Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa cleared under NFL’s concussion protocols

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa leaves the field during a game against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 25. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was cleared Saturday under the NFL’s concussion protocols and could return to the team’s lineup next weekend.

The Dolphins already have ruled out Tagovailoa from participating in Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings in Miami Gardens, Fla. He is eligible to play Oct. 23 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tagovailoa has been treated and evaluated under the protocols since suffering a concussion, according to the Dolphins, in a Sept. 29 game in Cincinnati, four days after returning to a home game against the Buffalo Bills during which he was evaluated for a possible head injury.

His clearance Saturday morning was confirmed by two people familiar with the situation. According to one, Tagovailoa traveled to be examined and cleared by specialists in Pittsburgh and Detroit, going beyond the requirements of the league’s protocols. Those require him to be cleared by the team physician and an independent neurological consultant approved by the NFL and the NFL Players Association after progressing through a five-step evaluation process.

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Dolphins Coach Mike McDaniel said earlier in the week that Tagovailoa was being evaluated every 12 to 24 hours.

Tagovailoa returned to the practice field this week. The Dolphins listed him as a full participant in Friday’s practice after he participated in Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices on a limited basis. He also was listed as having an ankle injury.

The league and the NFLPA conducted a joint review, initiated by the union, of the level of compliance with the concussion protocols in Tagovailoa’s case. They announced last Saturday that the protocols were followed “as written” but acknowledged that the outcome was “not what was intended.” They modified the protocols to eliminate the exception that allowed Tagovailoa to be cleared to return to the Bills game.

Under the revised protocols, doctors no longer have the leeway to clear a player to reenter a game if he demonstrates abnormal balance, stability or motor coordination. Tagovailoa demonstrated such instability but had reported a back injury to the Dolphins’ medical staff earlier in the game against the Bills, according to the review by the league and union, and doctors allowed him to return to the game in the second half.

He was taken from the field on a stretcher after hitting his head on the turf on a first-half sack during the Sept. 29 game against the Bengals and taken by ambulance to University of Cincinnati Medical Center. He was released from the hospital that night and returned to Miami with the Dolphins on the team plane.

NFL officials defended the protocols and the league’s approach to player safety amid widespread criticism about the handling of the case. The NFLPA exercised its right to dismiss the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant who participated in the decision to clear Tagovailoa during the Sept. 25 game. The NFL said it disagreed with the firing of the independent doctor, given the finding that the protocols were followed.

The NFLPA said during the case that it was focused on the medical judgments that were made, rather than whether the protocols technically were followed. Even after last Saturday’s joint statement that the protocols were followed in the case, the NFLPA’s president, former Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter, wrote on Twitter, “We do not believe this was a meaningful application of the protocols.”

Rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson is scheduled to make his first NFL start Sunday against the Vikings. The seventh-round draft choice from Kansas State finished last Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J., after backup Teddy Bridgewater was removed from the game and placed in the concussion protocols under the newly enacted provision. A spotter determined that Bridgewater stumbled after a hit.

Bridgewater reportedly also was cleared Saturday and is expected to back up Thompson in Sunday’s game against the Vikings.