A promising and exciting start to the Dolphins’ 2022 season quickly took a backseat and turned scary Thursday night.
A raucous crowd became mute and concern spread across Paycor Stadium when quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was taken off the field on a stretcher after sustaining a concussion in the team’s 27-15 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The defeat was the first of the season for the Dolphins (3-1), who entered Week 4 as one of two remaining undefeated teams in the NFL.
Tagovailoa was sacked by defensive tackle Josh Tupou with 5:15 remaining in the first half, and his head slammed on the turf. He lay motionless on the ground for several minutes while the medical staff attended to him.
The Dolphins said the third-year quarterback was conscious and had control of all his extremities as he was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, about four miles north of Paycor Stadium. He was later discharged and returned to Miami with the team.
“That was an emotional moment,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. “That is not part of the deal that anyone signs up for even though you know it’s a possibility in football to have something that you have to get taken off in a stretcher. All of his teammates, myself, we’re all very concerned. The best news that we could get is that everything is checked out, that he didn’t have anything more serious than a concussion.”
Tagovailoa’s injury cast a cloud over the night for a Dolphins team that captured the attention of the NFL world with its 3-0 start, including a thrilling win over the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. Tagovailoa, who completed 8 of 14 passes for 110 yards and threw an interception before his injury Thursday, played a big role in that. Entering Week 4, Tagovailoa ranked second in the league with 925 passing yards and was just two weeks removed from his best game in the NFL, a six-touchdown performance in a historic comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens.
However, Tagovailoa’s injury emotionally rocked his teammates, who had to quickly compartmentalize and continue playing.
“It can be tough,” said Teddy Bridgewater, who entered the game at quarterback. “The game alone is tough, and the things that occur throughout the course of the game that happens, especially something like that tonight. It can put you on eggshells, or be mentally stable, and you’ve got a job to do.”
The Dolphins rallied around Bridgewater in the aftermath of Tagovailoa’s injury. Bridgewater led a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive before halftime and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Chase Edmonds. The Dolphins trailed, 14-12, at halftime and led 15-14 late in the third quarter after a 64-yard pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10 catches, 160 yards) set up a 20-yard field goal by Jason Sanders. The Bengals (2-2) then scored 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
Bridgewater, who completed 14 of 23 passes for one touchdown and an interception, brought the Dolphins in position to retake the lead when they trailed 20-15 in the fourth quarter. But he was intercepted by safety Vonn Bell in the red zone with 3:05 remaining.
Two plays later, quarterback Joe Burrow completed a 36-yard pass to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Three plays after that, Burrow completed a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hayden Hurst with 1:52 remaining.
A disjointed offense, a defense allowing big gains and sloppy play across the board contributed to the defeat. Sanders missed an extra point attempt after the team’s lone touchdown drive and his 52-yard attempt after Tagovailoa’s injury was blocked. Cornerback Xavien Howard was in coverage for a 59-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd three plays later that gave the Bengals a 14-6 lead.
Howard exited the game in the third quarter and did not return after re-aggravating a lingering groin injury. His absence placed further strain on a secondary playing without fellow starting cornerback Byron Jones, who is eligible to return from the reserve/PUP list next week. Burrow completed 20 of 31 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked once.
“There was situational football that we had been executing and we did not today,” McDaniel said.
After the game, though, the majority of the questions posed to McDaniel and Bridgewater centered around Tagovailoa’s status and how the team responded at the moment. In the coming days, the Dolphins, who travel to the New York Jets in Week 5, are expected to face further questions about their handling of Tagovailoa after the team announced he sustained a head injury against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday but he later said he injured his back and returned to the game.
The NFL Players’ Association had launched an investigation into how the team addressed Tagovailoa’s injury, which will only face more scrutiny after Tagovailoa’s concussion in a prime-time game.
McDaniel defended the team’s clearance of Tagovailoa in his postgame comments and expressed his confidence that all proper protocols were followed.
“I do not have any, absolutely zero patience for or will ever put a player in position for them to be in harm’s way,” he said. “That’s not what I’m about at all and no outcome of a game would ever influence me being irresponsible as the head coach of the football team.”
Bridgewater said his teammates’ “spirits were lifted” when they found out Tagovailoa would return with them on the flight.
“It’s tough. Injuries are sadly part of the game,” said wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who caught two passes for 39 yards. “To see your captain go down, it’s definitely tough. But we went out there and tried to compete for him.”