When Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said Monday he welcomed an NFL and NFL Players Association investigation, he was right on one count.
“We have nothing to hide,’ he said.
From the moment quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hit his helmet on the field Sept. 25 against Buffalo, shook his head, collapsed to the ground and needed help getting off the field, the Dolphins followed concussion protocol and what doctors counseled, according to two league sources.
So why the furor? Why are veteran NFL people irate, sound out on national television or talking privately. “What the hell is going on down there?” one former coach said in calling me.
Part was what came after his on-field collapse: Tua didn’t just return to that game but was involved in a scarier scene last Thursday in Cincinnati, when he hit his head again and was taken off the field on a stretcher. Part of the furor, too, was how his staggering off the field was handled — or, as many thought, should be handled differently.
“This is an uncomfortable but a healthy conversation,’’ a league source said. “It’s made everyone think about how to improve this.”
Tua went into the locker room complaining of back pain, even though he hadn’t exhibited any outward signs his back was hurt on the play in question or in staggering off the field. But a couple of plays earlier, his back had been awkwardly bent.
Was the problem just his back? Did it have to be a binary issue of either his head or his back — could it have been both? Might Tagovailoa, like Tampa Bay tight end Cameron Brate complaining of a shoulder problem after being concussed Sunday night, have found an end run to avoid the NFL’s concussion protocol?
“The system is broken,’ Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said on NBC Sunday night in regard to the issues around Brate and Tagovailoa.
The system was followed in Tagovailoa’s case, too, as the investigation is expected to find, the two league sources said.
“There are a lot of questions, but it’s important to know everyone did their job,’ one league source said.
New England coach Bill Belichick is noted for saying, “Do your job.” He says it should be amended to, “Do your job well.” That’s a more difficult question, everyone agreed.
An independent neurologist, called in NFL’s concussion protocol the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, tested Tagovailoa for a concussion in the Dolphins locker room at halftime of the Buffalo game and concluded he could return to play. The scene of Tua shaking his head and collapsing on the field didn’t matter, the independent neurologist said, according to a source. Only the testing did.
That led to the independent doctor being fired by the NFLPA, which pays half his salary, according to the protocol. The NFL, which pays the other half, also did not announce his firing.
The league and players union did offer a joint statement on amending the protocol so any player displaying, “Gross Motor Instability,” like Tagovailoa would be held out of a game. The idea is it’s easier to spot a player shaking his head and wobbling off the field than to be certain of a concussion test during a game.
Tagovailoa played well that game against Buffalo, too, though medical officials shrug at that relevance. There’s anecdotal evidence of concussed players acting fine and performing well. One famous example: Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman doesn’t remember the second half of the 1992 NFC Championship Game. He later realized he still had the affects of a concussion in the Super Bowl that the Cowboys won.
Tagovailoa was tested last week and special care was taken before Thursday’s game at Cincinnati. He passed the tests before an even scarier scene played out in that first half that put all the previous decisions under a microscope. He was spun to the ground by defensive tackle Josh Tupou and hit his head hard on the ground, his arms and hands frozen in a “fencing posture,” of people suffering head trauma.
He was taken off the field on a stretcher. His two games with head trauma were linked, rightly or wrongly, with the medical truth that one concussion makes a person more susceptible to a second one.
The conversation grew to full national volume. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh called it “astonishing,” Tagovailoa returned to play either game. Former NFL coach Rex Ryan said Sunday on ESPN that McDaniel should have kept Tagovailoa off the field against Buffalo. He called the entire situation an, “epic fail, and a fail on the coach, too.”
McDaniel doesn’t deserve that. Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson had the more measured approach on Fox Sports for how a coach handles injuries during a game.
“The procedure is — and this is what I followed — if a player’s injured and taken off the field, you don’t have any more contact with that player,’ he said. “Then your medical team will come up to you and say, ‘Hey, the player’s good to go, you can put him back in,’ or, ‘Hey, we’re going to hold him out of the game.’ … McDaniel has to trust his people, and that’s what he did.”
Bottom-line: Everyone who watched Tagovaila stumble off the field against Buffalo had serious questions about how this was handled. It was handled by the NFL’s book, though, as a veteran NFL coach said, “Sometimes you need common sense to go with the book.”
Tagovailoa has been ruled out Sunday against the New York Jets. Dungy sounds right about the system being broken. An NFL medical official sounds right, saying, “The brain is a mysterious thing.”
A league source sounds right, summing up this loud week in saying, “Don’t forget it’s a violent game.”