EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins’ third-year quarterback, did not travel with his team for Sunday’s game as he recovered from a concussion that rocked the NFL ecosystem.
As he convalesced, the league and the players’ union revised how players’ brain injuries are assessed, a change to the health protocols after he was carted off the field to be treated for a head injury during a game on Sept. 29. It was the second game in five days in which a tackle caused Tagovailoa to hit his head on the ground.
On the Dolphins’ first offensive play Sunday, Tagovailoa’s backup, Teddy Bridgewater, banged his head in a similar fashion and was removed from the game, in accordance with the new concussions protocol.
Jets cornerback Ahmad Gardner hits Bridgewater, and the side of Bridgewater’s helmet hits the field in the end zone. He exited the game with head and elbow injuries, forcing the third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson, a rookie, to finish the game, which the Jets won, 40-17.
The Dolphins (3-2) entered the game with the Jets (3-2) under intense scrutiny for their handling of Tagovailoa’s concussion, and Bridgewater’s injury will test the implementation of the NFL’s new concussion protocols, which the league and players’ union agreed to Saturday.
The amended protocol, which took effect Sunday, prohibits a player from returning to play if he shows ataxia, a term describing impaired balance or coordination caused by damage to the brain or nerves. Under the previous protocol, a player with “gross motor instability” — difficulty getting up or walking, for example — could return to play if doctors decided there was an orthopedic reason for his unsteadiness.
According to a team spokesperson, Bridgewater passed concussion tests in the locker room, but was ruled out because an independent head injury spotter saw Bridgewater stumble after the play and attributed it to ataxia. Mike McDaniel, the first-year Dolphins coach, said in a news conference that Bridgewater showed no concussion-like symptoms and that he “believed” the quarterback could travel home with the team.
Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill declined to speculate after the game about whether Bridgewater should have been removed.
“Obviously, I would want Teddy out there, but if somebody sees something, I want to be cautious,” said Hill, who caught all seven of his targets for 47 yards. “That’s their job to watch stuff like that.”
The protocols changed because of a joint review initiated by the NFL Players Association after Tagovailoa’s head hit the field after a tackle Sept. 25 against the Buffalo Bills. He slowly rose to his feet, shook his head and then stumbled after taking a few steps. He was evaluated in the locker room for a concussion, but did not show symptoms, and Tagovailoa was cleared to return after doctors concluded he had aggravated a back injury.
Four days later, against the Cincinnati Bengals, Tagovailoa’s head bounced again against the field after a tackle, causing him to lie on the ground for nearly 10 minutes. He was briefly hospitalized and discharged that night, but he was diagnosed with a concussion. He must complete a five-step recovery process before returning to play.
The league and the players’ union said Saturday that the investigation found that the protocols were followed regarding Tagovailoa’s injury against the Bills. But both parties agreed to add an extra layer of caution before allowing potentially concussed players back into games.
“You can write that ‘they’re abandoning the protocol and improving the protocol,’ but really we’re building on better, more precise language, like, ‘ataxia,’ without exception, as a way to protect the player,” Dr Thom Mayer, the union’s medical director, said Friday in an interview.
McDaniel said he agreed with the new protocols and the investigation’s findings.
“I’m happy that there’s some policy that the medical experts deem is safer for the players collectively,” McDaniel said. “As far as the determination that things were followed appropriately, that didn’t surprise me. That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning.”
In the past two weeks, discourse — and consequences — around head trauma injuries spiked. The union dismissed the unaffiliated neurologist who evaluated Tagovailoa at the Bills game. Tony Dungy, a former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, was critical of the league after Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate was allowed to return against Kansas City on Oct. 2 after his head collided with a teammate’s torso.
Without Tagovailoa or Bridgewater, the Dolphins managed to compete early, trailing, 19-17, with just over six minutes remaining in the third quarter. But the Jets pulled away in the fourth, scoring a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Michael Carter to end a 56-yard drive with about nine minutes remaining in the game, then quickly scoring again after Thompson fumbled during the next drive at Miami’s 17- yard line. Jet defensive tackle Quinnen Williams returned the fumble to the 5-yard line.
Replacing Bridgewater, Thompson threw for 166 yards and an interception, and struggled to push the ball downfield. The Dolphins instead relied on 113 rushing yards on 18 carries from Raheem Mostert and reverses thrown or handed off to receivers.
Thompson said the game was a good first experience for live-action playing time, but he did not like the circumstances.
“To see Tua go down the way he did and to see Teddy go down the way he did, it’s never something you would wish on anybody,” Thompson said. “You hate to see it because it hurts. I care about those guys and want to see them do well.”
The Jets’ second-year quarterback, Zach Wilson, threw for 210 yards on 14-for-21 passing and no scores while running backs Breece Hall and Carter combined for 118 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Tagovailoa’s concussion dampened excitement around the team after an off-season of flashy player signings and the team’s 3-0 start. Aided by Hill and left tackle Terron Armstead — perennial Pro Bowl players the Dolphins added in March — and the second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa ranked second in the NFL in passing yards (925) and tied for third in touchdowns (eight) through Week 3. The team has now lost two consecutive games.
Bridgewater’s head injury adds fresh scrutiny to an organization embroiled in scandals. Brian Flores, who was fired as coach in January, claimed in a lawsuit against the NFL that he was racially discriminated against as he sought a new head coaching job and that the Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross pressured him to intentionally lose games to position the team to get a higher draft pick. The NFL in August concluded an investigation and said it found no evidence of “tanking.”
But the NFL fined Ross $1.5 million and Miami must forfeit two future draft picks for violating the league’s tampering policy after he attempted to lure quarterback Tom Brady and Sean Payton, formerly the coach of the New Orleans Saints, to the Dolphins while they were under contract with other teams.