Impressive start amid injuries keeps Tua Tagovailoa under NFL spotlight

Tua Tagovailoa celebrates the week 3 victory over the Buffalo Bills. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dolphins)

Perhaps no other NFL player has been in the spotlight more than Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa this season.

Between his injuries, his recovery from injuries, how his team handled the injuries and how the league has changed protocols around his injuries, there hasn’t been a trendier name than his.

That’s nothing new for Tagovailoa, who is expected to start Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers after a three-week layoff. His rise to stardom dates back to his high school days in his home state of Hawaii. The now 24-year-old dominated the football scene from a young age and quickly made a name for himself amongst the top quarterbacks in the nation. His success did not go unnoticed, as he landed 17 scholarship offers from some of the top schools around the country as a four-star recruit. 

The Honolulu native ultimately sided with the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, a year removed from a national title win for the school.

“For me to come from Hawaii and go to Alabama, it says a lot about Nick Saban’s recruiting, coming this far,” Tagovailoa told reporters after committing. “I know he’s serious because he wouldn’t come this far — 4,000 miles off the mainland — just to offer somebody like me.”

Tagovailoa’s impact on the program came sooner than many expected. The 6-foot-1 quarterback entered the 2017 season as a true freshman slated to backup sophomore Jalen Hurts, the current quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. Even so, Alabama’s ability to dominate its opponents allowed for the then 19-year-old to see the field on several occasions in blowout wins. 

Alabama ultimately made it back to the College Football Playoff National Championship during Tagovailoa’s freshman year where they faced the Georgia Bulldogs. After a full season of observing the freshman, Coach Saban gained enough trust to throw him into the fire on the biggest stage in college football. With Hurts struggling, and the Crimson Tide down 13-0 at the half, Tagovailoa entered and shocked the world. 

“We’ve got great skill guys on offense and we’re not utilizing them at all,” Saban recalled before making the decision. “If we’re going to have a chance to win this game, we need to give this guy a chance…”

Tagovailoa completed the comeback in overtime throwing a game-winning touchdown to another true freshman, Devonta Smith.

From this moment on, everyone in the football world who wasn’t aware of the Hawaiian quarterback at Alabama was made aware. His performance in the second half of the National Championship game got him the starting job his sophomore year over Hurts. Tagovailoa finished second in Heisman Trophy voting and appeared in the CFP National Championship game against Clemson. 

Unfortunately, Tagovailoa could not replicate the success from the year prior. The Crimson Tide lost 44-16 in a game that the sophomore quarterback claimed, “Just didn’t go the way we wanted to.”

“I just think we came out, and we were killing ourselves,” Tagovailoa proclaimed following the loss. “We shot ourselves in the foot by me throwing that interception and not finishing drives the way we wanted to.” 

In Tagovailoa’s third and final year at Alabama, the 21-year-old quarterback faced several significant injuries that kept him sidelined at different points during the season. In January 2020, the future Miami Dolphin announced he would be entering the 2020 NFL Draft.

The Dolphins selected Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick, four spots lower than he was expected to go before his injuries. Despite Tagovailoa’s college success, there was uncertainty surrounding this pick amongst both fans and members of the team. 

Tagovailoa failed to obtain the starting job for most of his rookie season, but got his shot in Week 8. Unfortunately, head coach Brian Flores kept a short leash on the rookie and pulled him only three games later.

For the remainder of his rookie season, Tagovailoa shared time with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the Dolphins finished 10-6, but failed to make the playoffs. Despite their team’s winning record, fans had become restless with the team’s inability to make a postseason run.

Following the conclusion of the 2020 season, Flores and general manager Chris Grier gave their final remarks.

“He’s our starting quarterback,” Grier told the media when asked about Tagovailoa. “Very happy with him and looking forward to watching him progress with an offseason here and going into next year.”

In his second season with the team, Tagovailoa was plagued with injuries once again. After winning the first game of the season, the Dolphins went go on to lose seven straight games as the young quarterback battled back from a rib injury. In what turned out to be a statement game against the Baltimore Ravens, Tagovailoa came off the bench to lead his team to a 22-10 victory.

From that moment on, Miami went on to win seven straight games with Tagovailoa at the helm. Still, the Dolphins failed to make the playoffs after an embarrassing Week 17 loss to the Tennessee Titans, 34-3.

Despite Tagovailoa and the team’s ability to turn around the season, missing the playoff for a fifth consecutive season put the fanbase into a frenzy.

Following the conclusion of the season, Flores was fired and drama ensued.

Reports emerged that Flores was against selecting Tagovailoa in 2020, preferring Justin Herbert, who was picked sixth overall. Additionally, several sources also confirmed that the quarterback and head coach had constant disagreements and “heavy discussions” between them.

With his second season in the books, the fan base was torn in regard to Tagovailoa and his future. Some saw him as the team’s franchise quarterback and believed the departure of Flores would allow him to flourish. Others argued his inability to get the team to the playoffs was indicative of his skill level and believed he wasn’t quite there with the top guys in the league.

Everyone knew Tagovailoa’s third season would be a make-or-break year. Miami hired new head coach Mike McDaniel, an “offensive guru” who was praised for his involvement in the San Francisco 49ers’ success over the last few seasons.

“The biggest thing for me with Tua is that I want him to come in and work every day and I’m very confident that he will,” McDaniel told the press during his introductory press conference. “I want to provide teachers that can develop him. I’m very confident in the people we’re discussing this week and the plan we have for that.”

The McDaniel Era began with a perfect start in the 2022 season. Tagovailoa and the new explosive offense showed everything fans were waiting for after he was drafted in 2020. The team won three straight, but then in the week four match-up with the Cincinnati Bengals, defensive tackle Josh Topou slammed him to the ground. Close-up photos show him suffering classic concussions and the stream came under fire for allowing him to even suit up.

He sat out the next three weeks as the team suffered three losses, but is expected to return on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. This game may be the biggest test of all.

Anthony Blanco is a senior majoring in Digital Journalism with hopes of pursuing a career in sports journalism. Anthony is passionate about covering sports and hopes to one day make his passion his profession.