Tua Tagovailoa Concussion Situation Reminiscent Of Steve Young Sequence In 1999

The Tua Tagovailoa discussion this week had me reminiscing a bit. In Week 2 of the 1999 NFL season, I was an executive with the New Orleans Saints, watching out my office window as our defense practiced an array of new blitzes for our annual visit to San Francisco.

We had lost six straight games to the Niners, and our players were tired of it. On the night before the game, over a drink in the team hotel, our defensive coordinator told me he was going to attack QB Steve Young relentlessly.

And so he did. Our defense sacked Young five times and hit him an astounding 19 times, including a vicious helmet-to-facemask shot by one of our blitzing safeties.

Between plays, Young reeled and staggered. He grabbed his head in pain. His face was anguished. He was “completely out of it” in the huddle, calling formations and plays that didn’t exist, a Niners offensive lineman told one of our players after the game.

Reporters described Young as “battered,” “woozy” and “groggy” when he met media.  

The next week, San Francisco traveled to Arizona for a Monday night game. Just before halftime, Cardinals CB Aeneas Williams came full-speed, untouched on a blind-side blitz that knocked Young unconscious, face down on the turf.  

That was the last play of Young’s Hall of Fame career.

Six Observations On Tua Tagovailoa Concussion Situation

Twenty-three years later, we have a similar two-game sequence involving Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa, but with more scrutiny, more controversy.  After a day of research, I offer these six observations:

• Among experts consulted, there’s general disbelief that Tua’s stumbling and collapsing Sunday, Sept. 25, against Buffalo was related to an ankle or back injury. He clasped his helmet with both hands, just as Steve Young had, and shook his head from side to side as if clearing cobwebs. Those are signs of concussion.  

• The NFL Concussion Protocol which Tua allegedly passed to re-enter that Buffalo game, if fully administered, is fairly rigorous. It involves questions regarding 22 possible symptoms, a balance test, an eye-tracking test and a cognitive/memory test. But in the frenzy of the sideline tent, shortcuts are often taken. These exams are supposed to be recorded on an iPad, so there should be hard evidence for the League’s ongoing investigation.

• Regarding the violent throw-down sack Thursday night in Cincinnati, the medical consensus is concussion, loss of consciousness and a brain-stem reflex that caused Tua’s contorted fingers.  But this “posturing” does not necessarily indicate catastrophic injury.  One scientist suggested Tua may have only a moderate concussion, not severe.  In other words, it may have looked worse than it actually was.

OutKick’s Jason Cole reported Monday that Tua has passed the exam phase of the Protocol.  If true, he would enter the return-to-play period of aerobic exercise and football activity.  If such exertion does not trigger renewed symptoms, there would be no evidence-based reason to keep him sidelined.  He’s already been ruled out of Sunday’s game.  But if he checks all the boxes, how could the League not clear him for Oct. 16?


• There is widespread concern but no settled science on the impact of multiple concussions within a short timeframe. Assuming Tua was concussed vs. Buffalo, his return – whenever it is – will come with the risk of a third episode. For this reason, Dr. Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), has publicly advised Tua to put himself on IR for the remainder of the season.

• Dr. Robert Cantu, the other co-founder of CLF, estimates that within five years we’ll finally see an objective test for concussion based on biomarkers found in blood or urine.  That would eliminate most of the conjecture and human error. 

Until then, the NFL lives with a massive p.r. headache.