Inside Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa’s summer of change

Why Tua’s summer of change featured crash pads, a tattoo sleeve and a few extra pounds.

MIAMI — Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was accidentally knocked backward during a May practice, and he began to backpedal before losing his balance.

If it were any other player, nobody would have noticed. But Tagovailoa isn’t any other player, not after two diagnosed concussions last season and a third hit that prompted the NFL to change its concussion protocol. All three of those hits featured Miami’s potential franchise quarterback hitting the back of his head on the turf.

And on this day, he seemed headed toward a similar tumble.

But Tagovailoa’s offseason has been about change. He changed agents, had his fifth-year option picked up, changed his diet and bulked up, and he even changed the look of his right arm with a full-sleeve tattoo as an homage to his first child. But perhaps most importantly, he changed the way he falls.

Tagovailoa took weekly jiu-jitsu classes at a South Florida gym, and what he learned was evident during that May practice when he turned a potentially scary fall into a backward somersault before springing back to his feet.

“Everything that I did this offseason entailed what would keep me on the field for the entirety of the season,” Tagovailoa said. “We understand that freaky things can happen. It’s football. It’s a physical sport. Not everything that you prepare for is what you’re going to get. So, I did the best that I could to get myself ready and prepped for this season as far as injuries go.”

Tagovailoa was an MVP candidate before his second diagnosed concussion of the season effectively shut him down for Miami’s final three games, including a wild-card loss to the Buffalo Bills. All told, injuries cost Tagovailoa the better part of six games and derailed the Dolphins’ Super Bowl aspirations.

It was such a traumatic turn of events, including a trip to the hospital after his Week 4 hit in Cincinnati, that the 25-year-old briefly considered retirement.

Instead, he dedicated the offseason to changing the narrative from his injuries and prepared for a season that could end with a lucrative extension.

Tagovailoa’s jiu-jitsu coaches, who wish to remain anonymous, said he was coachable and understood right away what they were trying to teach him, and he was able to implement the information quickly.

“He realized, ‘I have a hole in my skill set, which I need to cover and to polish,”’ a coach said. “‘I need to learn this skill.'”

NICK HICKS, TAGOVAILOA’S offseason personal trainer, gauged the potential benefit martial arts could have from a football perspective. He reached out to the jiu-jitsu coaches to collaborate on an 8- to 10-week program essentially designed to teach Tagovailoa how to fall properly.

Falling is more complicated than it seems — controlled falling, at least.

So when Tagovailoa showed up for his first training session in March, he started with the basics — tucking his chin, rolling from a stationary position and landing on his shoulder blades, instead of his back, when he hit the ground.

Once he got a feel for the fundamentals, he moved on to more football-specific scenarios, such as being hit while throwing or while on the run.

Tagovailoa progressed quickly. He went from squatting and falling to the ground to spinning and landing like a “graceful professional judo player,” according to one of the coaches.

The coaches reviewed video of Tagovailoa’s career, but also studied other quarterbacks so they could observe positive and negative examples of breaking a fall. They built their program around those examples.

“We used crash pads to land on first,” Tagovailoa said. “Tucking your chin, that was one of the deals, but it went a lot more into the technique of how to disperse your energy when you fall.

“Kind of like the posture you want to be in, [and] if you’re not presented with that posture, what are other things that you can do to help you disperse the energy when you fall. So, it’s a lot of those things. It’s actually a lot cooler than you think when you hear of learning how to fall.”

Several Dolphins staffers visited the jiu-jitsu academy for these training sessions, including quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell, assistant quarterbacks coach Chandler Henley, and head athletic trainer Kyle Johnston. Initially, they wanted to ensure the training was safe for Tagovailoa.

Eventually, they offered input on what could work in certain scenarios and invited the jiu-jitsu coaches to train the other quarterbacks on the Dolphins’ roster.

Tagovailoa said he’s still growing comfortable with applying his training, and he plans to continue until it’s second nature.

“I would say with the muscle-memory thing of it, it’s not to where it’s something that’s muscle memory yet for me,” he said. “I don’t think that’ll be something that, you know, becomes muscle memory unless I do it for like a year or two years.

“You’re very conscious of it. It’s in the back of your mind when you do end up doing it. But it’s not like, ‘Oh if I’m falling this way, I know exactly how to fall right here.’ So I’ve just got to continue to work on it and practice it.”

DURING THE FOUR days of the week when he wasn’t learning jiu-jitsu, Tagovailoa focused on strengthening his upper and lower body, as well as his neck.

His day began at 8 a.m. with an hour of weight training, then he hit the field for 90 minutes. His daily focus ranged from footwork to long toss and off-platform throwing.

He handled his diet, cooking his own meals while increasing the weight he lifted and reps per set.

“He really took his training on his body seriously this offseason for a multitude of reasons,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. “I’ve seen various things, where he has a little more short-area explosiveness, where you’re able to manipulate yourself in the pocket at a more explosive rate.

“It appears by my layman’s eye that he has more pitches in his arsenal, like he can layer stuff and drive it just with even more command than he’s already pretty adept at, considering his accuracy. So I think it just overall helps him feel prepared and execute a lot of things, and the residuals are apparent and various.”

The dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed by Tagovailoa’s teammates.

“Yeah, we were working out this summer, and he was like, ‘Bro, I’ve got to go to jiu-jitsu,'” receiver Jaylen Waddle said. “I was like, ‘Hey bro, go and rock out, you got it.’

“He’s got some moves. I told him to teach me a little something-something. He’s been working on his craft, but that just shows how much he’s bought in.”

Tagovailoa bulked up to 238 pounds this offseason before cutting down to 225 while keeping his mobility.

“Being able to be around that guy as much as possible, you can tell — the way that he’s taken that next step, it definitely pays off,” fullback Alec Ingold said. “So whenever you see people say, ‘Oh, he’s bulking up,’ just know it’s intentional.

“The dude is working his tail off. As a football player, as a teammate, that’s what you love. You want to be accountable, and that dude is as accountable as anybody.”

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