MIAMI -- Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will prepare this week as the team's starter for Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, coach Mike McDaniel said Monday, marking his return to the football field after spending the past two weeks in concussion protocol.
Tagovailoa began football activities last week and cleared concussion protocol Saturday but was inactive for the Dolphins' loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6. McDaniel said he felt "really good" about getting Tagovailoa back on the practice field and liked how he responded. This will mark his first full week of practice since Week 3, and McDaniel said the impact of his return to the lineup is palpable.
"He's a captain. He's a captain for a reason, and as I've told you guys from the onset, I think he's a very, very good player at that position," McDaniel said. "So very good players, they definitely give people a boost -- not because of what other people aren't but more just because he is who he is. So he's a strong fabric of this team, and that's exciting when you get to go play with one of your brothers, which is why the team will be excited, and it will be exciting."
Tagovailoa hasn't played since Miami's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 29, when he sustained a concussion that resulted in a brief hospitalization after hitting his head on the ground. The play occurred four days after a similar incident against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 25, when Tagovailoa hit his head on the ground and stumbled while trying to return to the huddle.
He was evaluated for a concussion at halftime of that Bills game but passed his examination. Both Tagovailoa and the team later said it was a previously sustained back injury that caused the stumble. However, the incident led the NFL and NFL Players Association to review the application of the concussion protocol and implement an amendment.
The Dolphins lost both games Tagovailoa missed, bringing their record to 3-3 after starting the season with three straight wins. At the time of his injury, Tagovailoa led the NFL in QBR and ranked second in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. He was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week in Week 2 after throwing for 469 yards and 6 touchdowns -- both career-highs -- in a comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens.
McDaniel said he's spoken with Tagovailoa about finding the balance between fighting to keep a play alive and learning when to accept that a given play is not going to work.
"There's risks in this game and you've got to be able to control the controllables," McDaniel said. "One thing for him is you love his competitive nature, but there is a time in a play where you have to kind of concede, and that's where he's kind of been focusing on because it's something that's not natural to him. He wants to break every tackle, and he doesn't like when plays don't work. Well, sometimes they won't.
"So that's something that he's mindful of, and I think that that's a consistency of all the really great quarterbacks that you think of, the guys that you look up to, the guys that kind of set forth the example of how to play the position, they do find ways to be available. And part of that is that concession, but that is -- all things considered, that's probably a good problem to have in terms of a competitor. You just need to be able to understand your importance to the team and how sometimes the best play you can make is a throwaway."
Miami's offense has seen a sharp decline without Tagovailoa on the field. Through the first three weeks of the season, the Dolphins ranked first and second in the league in points per drive and offensive expected points added, respectively. In the time since, they've fallen to 28th in offensive EPA and 29th in points per drive.
Both Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson started games in place of Tagovailoa but both were forced out of their lone starts due to concussion protocol and a thumb injury, respectively. Dolphins offensive lineman Robert Hunt said after Sunday's game that injuries are "part of the business" of the NFL, and added Monday that while getting Tagovailoa back would be galvanizing, they have a job to do no matter who is at quarterback.
"Tua is Tua -- Tua is our leader," Hunt said. "He's the guy who has been running the show and we'll be excited to get him back. But exactly what you said -- if not and it's somebody else back there, we still got to do our job and try to play a game and win a game."