Like many NFL players on the eve of a new season, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has personal goals.
And as Tagovailoa spoke to reporters Wednesday, four days before Miami’s season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, he didn’t want to make those ambitions public.
However, the 25-year-old couldn’t help but smile when asked if playing in every regular-season game — a feat he has yet to achieve in his career — is among those objectives.
“I wouldn’t like to. I would love to do that,” he answered when asked if playing all 17 regular-season games is a goal.
The Dolphins’ Week 1 road matchup against the Chargers on Sunday will be Tagovailoa’s first regular-season game since Christmas Day. One day after he threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter of a close loss to the Green Bay Packers, he was placed in concussion protocol for the second time in the 2022 season, effectively ending his season. He missed the final three games, including Miami’s loss to the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round.
In the almost nine months since his last meaningful snap on a football field, Tagovailoa divulged that he contemplated retirement from the NFL — and then made tangible efforts to stay healthy for the duration of a season. He has bulked up, began wearing a new quarterback helmet designed to prevent head injuries and incorporated jiu-jitsu into his offseason training to work on the way he falls.
Another meeting with draftmate Justin Herbert, whom Tagovailoa was selected one pick before in 2020, is sure to reinvigorate questions about the decision to pick the former Alabama star at No. 5 overall instead of a player who was just rewarded with the richest contract in NFL history.
Entering his fourth season, there are few questions remaining about what Tagovailoa can do on the field. He led the NFL in passer rating last season and was the highest-rated passer in the red zone and on third downs. However, the pair of diagnosed concussions that caused him to miss five games reignited concerns about his durability.
On Wednesday, Tagovailoa at times showed a reluctance to rehash thoughts of walking away from the game but expressed gratitude for the chance to continue his NFL career.
“I think being appreciative of being able to continue to play is one thing,” he said. “Yeah, that’s the thing. The thing with that is you can never take it for granted, regardless of the position you’re in. I don’t know how to explain it. Some guys have the luxury of finishing whole seasons and other guys — as myself — I never had that luxury. So definitely cherishing the opportunity to continue to still be able to go out there and lead these guys.”
Tagovailoa’s first regular-season game since Dec. 25 will mark a return to a venue where he had arguably his worst game of the season in 2022. In the 23-17 loss on Dec. 11, Tagovailoa completed 10 of 28 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. Tagovailoa’s completion percentage and passing yards were his lowest in any game he started and finished last season, and he was also sacked twice.
“They had a great game plan for us last year,” he said. “It was tough to get things started in basically the first half and then trying to move on from that and into the game, trying to get a rhythm going offensively. But you’ve got to tip your hats to their coaches, their coaching staff, they’re well coached. They took a lot of things away that we would normally run and things that we felt comfortable doing. So hats off to them. But like I said, really excited. This is going be a good team.”
Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel and offensive players have said they will be better prepared for the Chargers’ game plan to take away the middle-of-the-field throws that the Dolphins prioritize. Tagovailoa and McDaniel said they have had many conversations with defensive assistant Renaldo Hill, who was the Los Angeles defensive coordinator last season. Tagovailoa’s teammates also see a player that continues to develop in his mastery as a quarterback.
“I just see another year of growth for Tua,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “Just confidence, understanding the offensive system and the scheme and taking more command and control of the offense. He just grows every year as a leader. You just see the growth constantly. I feel like he’s always attacking each day ready to improve and I’ve been able to see the results.”
Tagovailoa acknowledged the jitters that come with the first game of the season but said: “I definitely think once you get the first completion, get a drive started, then you sort of get into it.”
And as for the last time he played in a regular-season game and the injury that prematurely ended his year, Tagovailoa said: “It hasn’t been a thought ever since it’s happened. Ever since I’ve been cleared, it’s never been a thought to kind of look back at that.”
In the two preseason games Tagovailoa played, he took multiple hits and appeared to execute many of the jiu-jitsu break-falling techniques he learned during the past month.
But as Tagovailoa has said in the past, football is a naturally violent sport and “freaky things” can happen. His head coach, though, is confident that Tagovailoa has done everything to put himself in the best possible position to play every regular-season game for the first time in his career.
“I think when you go into a situation and you completely cross all the T’s, dot all the I’s on what you can control — if I worried about stuff that could possibly happen or all the different things that can happen in a game of football, I’d be spending a lot of time worrying about something that probably by statistics didn’t happen,” McDaniel said.
“You deal with whatever comes in front of you. I’m very confident because he hasn’t wasted a day in getting ready for the season. That was a huge goal of his. He understands what he means to this football team. And I can tell you, honestly, that he does not take that for granted at all, how much support he has to do what he does. He’s definitely given it back this offseason. He’s really gone after it, so it’s hard not to be confident in that.”