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Tua Tagovailoa’s new suit of armor with Miami Dolphins

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.— “Sometimes you’ve just got to open your eyes,” Mike McDaniel said before practice one morning last week. He meant: The quarterback has been getting hurt, and we need him for 17 games, and let’s think. McDaniel, GM Chris Grier and Tua Tagovailoa talked. Working with jiu-jitsu for both a stronger body and a better way to fall was one thing. The new position-specific helmet from VICIS was another thing. And maybe something a bit counterintuitive—some physical contact in the off-season—was a third.

Last year, Miami backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater postulated something to McDaniel. “It’s bizarre that quarterbacks go zero to 60 in terms of how they handle contact,” McDaniel said. “They don’t get touched all offseason until the regular season begins, and then they have defenses come at them full speed. There’s no in-between. So I figured I’m not going to have defenders tackle him, but we can drill stuff that can get him used to taking hits after a follow-through.”

Tagovailoa missed five games last year due to two concussions, including a scary one in Cincinnati. That led to exploring the new position-specific helmet for quarterbacks, the VICIS Zero2 Matrix, which includes slightly more protection when the quarterback falls backward and slams his head on the turf. The helmet actually dents when making hard contact with another helmet or the ground, thus absorbing more of the hit, in theory, when the impact occurs—than the player’s head. The combination of learning a better way to fall and better helmet support when the head hits the ground seems smart. We’ll see if it works.

“On the [NFL’s helmet-information] chart,” Tagovailoa told me, “as we were discussing new helmets and whatnot, they were talking about that it’s 1 percent better than the helmet that I’m in. Now OK, you look at 1 percent. That’s not a drastic change from the helmet that I’m in. But then you look at playing on the field, and I figure that 1 percent better that you got on this play or that play, and eventually it ends up adding up. I’m willing to take my chances with it. I’m definitely going to see what this thing can do.”

Tagovailoa said the new helmet actually feels slightly lighter than his former headgear.

He looks slightly thicker. He’s optimistic that he’s done as much as he can physically do to prepare for the physical realties of a four-month (or five-month) season. “I think the cool thing about the entirety of the offseason is that I feel like I’ve put myself in a situation where I checked the boxes on, like, okay, this is what happened last year. What were some other injuries? I feel like I checked the boxes to prepare myself the best way I can to avoid those this year.”

One other thing interests me in the Miami camp: the McDaniel-Tua relationship. NFL Films last year captured McDaniel on the sidelines against Houston talking to Tagovailoa about what seemed to be random stuff. It was … odd. At one point the coach said to his QB that he scoured YouTube looking for clips of Tagovailoa playing quarterback in high school. “Bro, your technique was trash,” McDaniel said.

This was in the middle of a game. A game, you know, that counts in the standings.

“Well, it’s two-fold,” McDaniel said. “I’m generally pretty intentional, whether that stuff works or not. That’s a backhanded compliment—like, he’s really improved. You cannot forget that these are human beings, not robots. Levity within the chaos can kind of calm people. I say random stuff to people all the time just to get the human element, to get them loose and concentrated on the right stuff because the pressure could encapsulate them, but it doesn’t have to.”

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Levity within the chaos. Hard to imagine Brian Flores inserting levity within the chaos while coaching a football game with Tagovailoa as his quarterback in 2021. Tagovailoa said playing for McDaniel has “heightened the joy of the game” for the players. “We have so much fun,” he said. “If you were to ask me this question two years ago, you probably would’ve never seen our guys get as excited on a sideline because it felt like more of a job.”

I said, “You seem to have done well playing for guys on both ends of the spectrum—Mike and Nick Saban. You think you’re the same in either setting?”

“For myself, I think it’s either/or,” he said. “I’m fine. With Nick, I was able to be myself. Nick was tailored more towards the defense. When we would practice at Alabama, it would be a bad practice if the offense did really good and it would be a great practice if the defense killed the offense. When we made a big play against the defense, we understood how much it would piss him off. It would be like a win for us offensively. We loved it.”

Tagovailoa says he’s fine with either way of coaching. Maybe. He sure seems happier this way. “Mike allows me just to play quarterback,” he said. “I don’t have to be anyone other than Tua.”

Now he just needs to be that guy for 17 weeks, and a few more in the playoffs.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column.