NFL draft: Tua Tagovailoa injury talk reminds Miami of Drew Brees saga

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during the first half against Tennessee on Oct. 19, 2019 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
(Vasha Hunt / Associated Press)

The deal was so close that Miami general manager Randy Mueller had scribbled the terms on a napkin that he stuffed into his shirt pocket.

It was March 2006, and Drew Brees was ready to sign with the Dolphins.

That pairing never happened, though, and memories of that disappointment in Miami could impact whether the Dolphins roll the dice Thursday night on Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the first round of the NFL draft.

Back to Brees. No one expected the Dolphins doctor to give that quarterback’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder a failing grade, or to suggest Brees might never be the same strong-armed, pinpoint passer he once was.


That diagnosis, which scared the Dolphins into trading for Minnesota Vikings retread Daunte Culpepper instead, didn’t just change the course of two franchises, but the NFL as a whole — and perhaps college football too.

Brees was devastated, and so were the Dolphins.

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“It was more than a gut punch,” Mueller said Wednesday. “It was a kick below the gut, if you know what I mean.”

The New Orleans Saints wound up signing Brees, who not only secured that franchise its only Lombardi Trophy and put together a Hall of Fame career, but also was a key figure in that city’s revival in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So why is it relevant now, 14 years later, as the league prepares to kick off its three-day virtual draft with the first round Thursday night?

Because once again, the Dolphins are charting their future at the most important position, and considering a quarterback in Tagovailoa who has Brees-like overtones and a dicey injury to boot. He missed the final 3½ games of his college career because of a dislocated right hip that required surgery.


Complicating matters, amid the COVID-19 restrictions NFL teams were unable to bring Tagovailoa to their facilities to examine him.

“There are hundreds of players in the draft, but most of the discussions when it comes to injuries have been about one player,” said agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Tagovailoa. “His doctors continue to say that, one, he’s healthy, and, two, there’s not much chance of a recurrence. They have given him a clean bill of health.”

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For Miami, that sets the stage for a gamble. Call it The Decision, Part Tua.

Former Dolphins coach Nick Saban, who left Miami and went on to win five national championships at Alabama, said that NFL franchise could be making a similar mistake if it passes on Tagovailoa.

“It was the same scenario ... our first choice was to take Drew Brees,” Saban said in a recent appearance on “The Dan Patrick Show. “The medical people made that decision relative to Drew Brees’ shoulder, his situation, it was his throwing arm and all that …

“So, this might be the same scenario for whatever team is interested in Tua. It’s, you know, that’s going to be a medical decision, I don’t think it’s going to be a performance issue.”

If there’s a pivot player in this draft, someone who will play a big role in how the opening round unfolds, it’s Tagovailoa. It would be surprising if he were not selected somewhere in the five picks after Cincinnati takes Louisiana State quarterback Joe Burrow first overall.

Quarterback doesn’t top the needs list of the three teams that draft after the Bengals — Washington, Detroit, and the New York Giants — but someone might trade into that range to select Tagovailoa. With three first-round picks, the Dolphins have the ammunition to move up. They might be safe staying at five, however, one pick ahead of the quarterback-needy Chargers.

That too harkens back to the Brees deal that never happened. He was coming from the San Diego Chargers, who had moved on to Philip Rivers at the time. Brees was damaged goods, having suffered a torn labrum when he was hit while trying to recover his fumble in the Chargers’ 2005 season finale against Denver.

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April 21, 2020

Injured shoulder or not, the Dolphins had targeted Brees as their top free agent. They were ready to sign him to a deal that would pay him $10 million his first year, and $12 million his second, a king’s ransom for quarterbacks at the time.

They wined and dined him, too, flying Brees and his wife on a private jet, putting them up at the Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, and throwing a big waterfront dinner for them at Grille 66 & Bar. When Drew was getting his physical and meeting with Dolphins coaches, his wife, Brittany, was on a boat cruise up the intracoastal waterway with Saban’s wife, Terry.

Had the Dolphins signed Brees, Saban almost certainly would have stayed in Miami instead of returning to college football.

It’s a lofty comparison, but some analysts have said that the 6-foot-1 Tagovailoa, when playing at his peak, has some Brees-like qualities. The Alabama quarterback had 87 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in three seasons.

“If [Tagovailoa] were to reach his ceiling, stylistically — and that’s the important word here — he would have to play like a Drew Brees,” said noted quarterback expert Greg Cosell, an NFL Films senior producer. “The kind of quarterback who would drop back, hit his back foot, the ball comes out. Very rhythmic, very timing-based. He’s got very good accuracy when he plays like that.”

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April 1, 2020

So, if Tagovailoa is there when they draft, the Dolphins have a big decision to make. The franchise is on its sixth head coach since Saban, and its third general manager since Mueller. But their current GM, Chris Grier, was a national college scout when the team passed on Brees.

“Desperation does play into how you see the durability and risk with Tua,” Mueller said. “You’re going to have to take a leap of faith there. In New Orleans’ case, they were ready to jump off a cliff, and more power to them.”

And the echoes linger still.

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