In returns of Tua Tagovailoa and Brian Flores, Dolphins’ troubles are on display
By Emmanuel Morgan
In the nearly four weeks since Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa last played football, when his head bounced on a field in Cincinnati and he lay motionless for nearly 10 minutes, his team did not win a game, the doctor who evaluated him was fired and the NFL overhauled its concussion protocols.
When Tagovailoa returned Sunday night, he faced Brian Flores, who was the Dolphins’ head coach from 2019 to 2021 and is now a defensive assistant for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Flores sued the NFL this year, accusing the league of racial discrimination.
Two of the NFL’s largest challenges in recent years — player safety and its struggle to diversify its head coaching ranks — resonated heavily in Sunday’s prime-time matchup in South Florida amid the backdrop of a football game. The Dolphins’ 16-10 win over the Steelers served simply as the stage for those subplots.
Tagovailoa threw for 261 yards and a touchdown in his first game back since sustaining a concussion on Sept. 29 against the Cincinnati Bengals, an injury that altered the NFL ecosystem. As a defensive lineman slung him to the ground in the second quarter of that game, the back of Tagovailoa’s head smashed against the field. As he lay on the field, his fingers contorted into the fencing response, which can be a sign of a brain injury.
Tagovailoa said last week that he remembered much of that night until the injury, which rendered him unconscious. He said he did not remember being carted off the field, but recalled being in the ambulance and the hospital. He was discharged that night and flew back to Miami with the team.
That injury happened four days after Tagovailoa hit his head on the turf while being tackled in the second quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills. In that episode, he stumbled while rising to his feet, causing many to believe he sustained a concussion. But he passed all of the concussion tests in the locker room and was allowed to return to play, as doctors concluded a back injury caused his unsteadiness.
The NFL Players Association started a joint investigation with the league into the Dolphins’ handling of Tagovailoa’s evaluation, and later dismissed the unaffiliated neurologist who evaluated him in the locker room. The investigation, which concluded on Oct. 8, found that the concussion protocol was followed, but the league and the players’ union agreed to strengthen it.
Players who show ataxia, a term describing imbalance caused by injury to the brain or nerves, will be barred from returning to play, regardless of the potential orthopedic reason. That mandate affected the Dolphins in their next game, when Tagovailoa’s backup, Teddy Bridgewater, was pulled against the New York Jets after an independent spotter suspected that a head hit after his very first play had caused Bridgewater to stumble. Tagovailoa was cleared to play last week after seeing outside specialists.
In an interview with NBC, Tagovailoa said he appreciated the new protocols but did not want his career to be defined by his affect on them.
“For me, I’m all for player safety, but when I hear guys saying, ‘That’s the Tua rule,’ or ‘This is a rule because of Tua,’ I don’t want to be known as that,” Tagovailoa said. “I don’t want people to label that as something I made.”
Tagovailoa received the loudest applause from fans during pregame introductions, and there were gasps whenever he scrambled outside the pocket. He started strong — completing five of six passes for 60 yards on the first drive and ending with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Raheem Mostert to put Miami ahead, 7-0.
But some of Tagovailoa’s passes sailed high and off target, and defenders dropped at least four potential interceptions. With the Dolphins leading, 16-10, with three minutes remaining, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett fired a pass to Diontae Johnson from the Dolphins’ 30-yard line. But safety Jevon Holland jumped the route and intercepted it, and then celebrated in the end zone with his teammates after being forced out of bounds near midfield.
The Steelers (2-5) held the Dolphins to a punt and attempted another game-winning drive with about a minute left. But Pickett threw a pass toward the end zone that was intercepted by Noah Igbinoghene with 25 seconds left, effectively ending the game.
The Dolphins (4-3), who started the season 3-0, lost the three games that followed Tagovailoa’s concussion, an added controversy for a team with a few of them.
In January, the Dolphins’ owner, Stephen M. Ross, fired Flores after he won eight of his final nine games of the 2021 season. Flores compiled a 24-25 record in three seasons leading Miami.
Flores, who is the son of Black Honduran immigrants, later filed a lawsuit against the NFL and its teams after he was interviewed for multiple coaching vacancies but was not hired. In the suit, he cited text messages he said were sent by his former boss, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, that appeared to congratulate Flores for winning the New York Giants’ job, which he had yet to interview for at that point. Flores responded by asking if Belichick had intended the message for Brian Daboll, who interviewed before Flores’ scheduled meeting.
Flores, in the lawsuit, said he had participated in “sham interviews” conducted by teams simply to fulfill the Rooney Rule, a measure meant to ensure that teams interview racially diverse groups of candidates for head coaching jobs.
In his filing, Flores also alleged that Ross had violated league rules by recruiting quarterback Tom Brady and coach Sean Payton, and that Ross had pressured Flores to intentionally lose games to net a higher draft pick. The league said it found no evidence of “tanking” after concluding an investigation in August, but Ross was fined $1.5 million and suspended 11 weeks for violating the league’s tampering policy for his contact with Brady and Payton. He returned to his role on Oct. 17.
Ross was on the field at halftime Sunday during a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team. But Flores’ discrimination lawsuit remains unsettled as Flores’ lawyers jostle for the case to be heard in open court, while the NFL argues that it should be settled in arbitration.
Many viewed the suit as a probable deterrent for owners to hire Flores, which would end his coaching career. But the Steelers hired Flores in February as a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach.
Two other Black coaches, including the Carolina Panthers’ interim coach, Steve Wilks, have since joined the lawsuit. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, said in an interview that the suit would have implications for future hiring cycles and minority head coaching candidates.
“I thought it was courageous, and I think it’s going to move the needle,” he said.
Flores, dressed in a white long-sleeve shirt and a black vest, stayed close to the Steelers’ sideline during pregame warm-ups. Other than briefly chatting with Holland, Flores did not talk with any other Dolphins players before watching his players finish drills and then going to the coaching booth. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last week in a news conference that he did not think the game carried more significance because of Flores’ return.
“It’s a nonfactor,” Tomlin said. “It’s a nonstory for us. It really is.”