FLORIDA’S MIAMI GARDENS — Tua Tagovailoa, a quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, hasn’t played football in over four weeks. After his head bounced on a field in Cincinnati and he lay motionless for about 10 minutes, the N.F.L. changed its concussion protocols, and his team failed to win a game.
The Dolphins’ head coach from 2019 through 2021, Brian Flores, who is currently a defensive assistant for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the opponent when Tagovailoa made his comeback on Sunday night. This year, Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL, charging it with racial discrimination.
Player safety and the N.F.L.’s ongoing battle to diversify its head coaching ranks reverberated strongly during Sunday’s prime-time matchup in South Florida against the backdrop of a football game. The Steelers’ 16-10 loss to the Dolphins served only as the backdrop for those side stories.
In his first game back after suffering a concussion against the Cincinnati Bengals on September 29, Tagovailoa passed for 261 yards and a touchdown. This injury changed the N.F.L. ecosystem. In the second quarter of that game, a defensive lineman threw Tagovailoa on the ground, and the back of his head hit the turf. His fingers twisted into the fencing reaction as he lay on the ground, which can be an indication of a brain damage.
Last week, Tagovailoa stated that he remembered much of that night up to the injury, which caused him to lose consciousness. He claimed that while he remembered being in the ambulance and the hospital, he did not remember being carried off the field. He was released that evening and took the team’s flight back to Miami.
Four days prior, in the second quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa was tackled and suffered a head injury on the ground. He stumbled when getting to his feet during the incident, leading many to think he had a concussion. However, he passed every concussion test performed in the locker room and was cleared to play again after an examination revealed a back ailment was to blame for his unsteadiness.
The NFLPA launched an investigation into how the Dolphins handled Tagovailoa’s evaluation in conjunction with the league, and eventually fired the independent neurologist who examined him in the locker room. The concussion protocol was followed, according to the investigation, which was completed on October 8. However, the league and the players’ union agreed to make it stronger.
Players who exhibit ataxia, a condition in which imbalance results from damage to the brain or nerves, will not be permitted to play again, regardless of any potential orthopedic cause. The Dolphins were impacted by this rule in their subsequent game against the Jets when Teddy Bridgewater, Tagovailoa’s backup, was benched after an unofficial spotter felt a head hit had caused Bridgewater to stumble after his very first play. After consulting with other experts last week, Tagovailoa received the go-ahead to play.
Tagovailoa expressed his appreciation for the new protocols in an interview with NBC, but he did not want his career to be characterized by how he affected them.
When I hear players say, “That’s the Tua rule” or “This is a rule because of Tua,” I don’t want to be recognized as that, Tagovailoa said. “For me, I’m all for player safety,” he added. I don’t want people to assume that was my creation.
During pregame introductions, Tagovailoa earned the loudest cheers from the crowd, and there were audible gasps everytime he scrambled outside the pocket. He had a terrific first drive, finishing with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Raheem Mostert to give Miami a 7-0 lead after completing five of six passes for 60 yards.
However, some of Tagovailoa’s passes were high and off-target, and at least four possible interceptions were lost by defenders. With three minutes left, the Dolphins were up 16-10 when Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett connected with Diontae Johnson from the Dolphins’ 30-yard line. However, safety Jevon Holland jumped the route and intercepted it. After being pushed out of bounds close to midfield, he subsequently joined his teammates in the end zone to celebrate.
With about a minute left, the Steelers (2-5) forced the Dolphins to a punt and launched another game-winning drive. With only 25 seconds left, though, Pickett attempted a ball toward the end zone that was intercepted by Noah Igbinoghene, ultimately ending the game.
The Dolphins (4-3) lost the three games that followed Tagovailoa’s concussion, adding further controversy to a squad that already had a few of them. The Dolphins were 3-0 to open the season.
Stephen M. Ross, the owner of the Dolphins, sacked Flores in January after he won eight of his final nine games of the 2021 campaign. Flores captained Miami for three seasons with a 24–25 record.
The N.F.L. and its franchises were sued by Flores, the son of Black immigrants from Honduras, after he applied for and was rejected from various coaching positions. In the lawsuit, he included texts that he said were sent by his old employer, Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots. The texts appeared to congratulate Flores on landing the Giants job, which he had not yet had an interview for at the time. In response, Flores questioned whether Belichick had meant the message for Brian Daboll, who had an interview before to Flores’ scheduled meeting.
In the case, Flores claimed that he had taken part in “fake interviews” held by clubs solely to comply with the Rooney Rule, a requirement that teams evaluate candidates from a variety of racial backgrounds for head coaching positions.
Flores further claimed that Ross had recruited quarterback Tom Brady and coach Sean Payton in violation of league regulations and that Ross had put pressure on Flores to purposefully lose games in order to get a better draft pick. Despite the fact that the league’s investigation, which was completed in August, revealed no evidence of “tanking,” Ross was nevertheless fined $1.5 million and given an 11-week suspension for his interactions with Brady and Payton. On October 17, he went back to work.
During a ceremony on Sunday for the 50th anniversary of the Dolphins’ perfect 1972 squad, Ross was on the field during halftime. The N.F.L. contends that the case should be resolved through arbitration, while Flores’ attorneys fight to have the case heard in open court. As a result, Flores’ discrimination claim is still pending.
Many believed that the lawsuit would likely prevent owners from hiring Flores, therefore ending his coaching career. However, the Steelers signed Flores as their senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach in February.
Since then, the case has been joined by two other Black coaches, including Steve Wilks, the interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers. The lawsuit will have an impact on future hiring processes and minority head coaching prospects, according to Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
He declared, “I thought it was brave, and I think it’s going to shift the needle.”
Flores remained near to the Steelers sideline for pregame warm-ups while wearing a white long-sleeve shirt and a black vest. Prior to watching his players complete workouts and entering the coaching booth, Flores did not speak with any other Dolphins players other than a brief exchange with Holland. In a news conference last week, Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin stated that he did not believe Flores’ comeback made the game more important.
It’s a nonfactor, according to Tomlin. It’s irrelevant to us. It truly is.