Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was carted off the field on a stretcher after he appeared to experience his second head injury in less than a week when he was thrown to the ground, hitting his head on the turf, on Thursday night.
Midway through the second quarter, Tagovailoa dropped back to pass around midfield. Bengals defensive tackle Josh Tupou grabbed Tagovailoa, spun him around and threw him to the ground. Tagovailoa’s elbow hit the ground first, and then the back of his helmet.
Tagovailoa immediately raised his hands with his fingers splayed, a gesture that can be a sign of brain injury called a “fencing response.” Dolphins trainers ran onto the field and after several minutes, put Tagovailoa on a stretcher and wheeled him off the field.
A few minutes later, the broadcasters announced that Tagovailoa had sustained head and neck injuries, was conscious and had been taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel told a sideline reporter that the injury was a “scary moment.”
Chris Nowinski, the chief executive of the Concussion Legacy Foundation who has often criticized the league’s handling of concussions, was unsparing on Thursday night.
“This is a disaster,” he wrote on Twitter soon after Tagovailoa was wheeled off the field. “Pray for Tua. Fire the medical staffs and coaches. I predicted this and I hate that I am right.”
But Tagovailoa’s injury raised fresh questions about the Dolphins’ handling of the league’s concussion protocol, which first arose because of the team’s decision to allow him to re-enter a game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday after a hit in which he appeared to slam his head on the turf left him wobbly.
In the second quarter of that game in Miami, Tagovailoa was pushed to the ground, hit his head, grabbed the sides of his helmet, staggered to his feet and after taking a few steps, fell to his knees. He walked off the field and spent the rest of the first half in the locker room, but returned to play in the second half.
His return to the game prompted the N.F.L. Players Association to begin an inquiry into the team’s handling of the injury, an option added to the collective bargaining agreement in 2020. The process includes reviewing video and interviewing team and league doctors who diagnosed Tagovailoa. The process can take weeks.
On Wednesday, the N.F.L. said that it welcomed the inquiry into the handling of this incident on Sunday. On a conference call with reporters, Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy said that “every indication” was that the league protocols were followed.
The Dolphins listed Tagovailoa as “questionable” on the team’s injury report ahead of Thursday’s game with a “back/ankle” issue.
After Tagovailoa’s exit from a second game, the league’s confidence in its concussion protocols will be questioned anew. His injury in a prime time N.F.L. game followed that of Bills cornerback Dane Jackson, who was also carted off the field during a Monday night game on Sept. 19 after he inadvertently collided with teammate Tremaine Edmunds. The hit caused Jackson’s head and neck to snap back. He was released from Erie County Medical Center the following day after being cleared by a CT scan.
“It brings us back to the reality of the violence of the game, and I hope it gives people perspective,” said veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, a commentator for Amazon, which broadcast Thursday’s game. “These are human beings and they have families and they have futures and they’re putting it all out on the line to entertain people.”