He took the podium without crutches Monday, and you know that was quite purposeful.
Tua Tagovailoa said his goodbye to Alabama and to college football in a noon ET announcement that was among the most intriguing in recent gridiron history. In the process of saying hello to the NFL, he didn’t want to do it with the aid of a crutch. He was sending a signal.
But the next few months will be a muddle of mixed signals, because nobody will know for sure how ready one of the best quarterbacks in college history will be to play pro ball in 2020.
The hip injury Tua suffered in November will hover over the entire draft from now until late April. The amount of unknown is immense. The potential risk and reward of drafting him are both considerable.
Prior to Monday, the last time Tua was in the public eye was on the sidelines of the Crimson Tide’s Citrus Bowl game against Michigan on Dec. 30. He was using one crutch then.
Monday, he used none. But he talked about what will prop him up through his ongoing recovery process.
"These kind of things pretty much boil down to one thing, and I think that's faith,” Tua said, poised and gracious at the podium in the Mal Moore Complex at Alabama. “And coming from a family that has a lot of it, I'm definitely willing to take that challenge.”
Now we’ll see what NFL team is willing to take its own leap of faith.
Can he throw the ball at an NFL level? Absolutely. Can he stay healthy? Nobody knows.
Fact is, Tua has been hurt a lot without being hit a lot. He’s played behind an elite offensive line and is not a frequent runner, which reduces the number of shots he’s had to take—and yet he’s still had several durability issues.
There were the two tightrope procedures he underwent, one on each ankle. There were several other nicks and dings. And then there was the big one, the hip dislocation and posterior wall fracture—the type of injury more commonly seen in major automobile accidents than on a football field.
One orthopedic surgeon I talked to, who has done plenty of work on hips, said Tua’s ability to play football at an elite level again remains very much a guessing game. “He should regain full range of motion and live a normal life,” the surgeon said. “Playing football? That’s a different deal.” For most people, the typical prognosis would be daunting in terms of regaining top-end athleticism—but Tua is not most people.
So while the onus will be on franchises to do their medical homework to the best of their ability, and to get straight answers out of Tua’s team, there simply will be some hoping and guessing come draft time. Missing on a quarterback can kill NFL careers, for both coaches and front-office personnel. But hitting on a potential great one can also extend and enhance careers.
As many as nine NFL franchises could be shopping for quarterbacks in the early rounds of the 2020 draft. Surely one of them will take a player Nick Saban said “had as much impact on our program as any player we’ve ever had.”
But that potential $100 million decision will be fraught with peril. Tua’s decision to go pro, far less so. This is completely the right call.
There wasn’t much to gain by staying at Alabama. His legacy is secure at the school, and within the wider realm of college football.
On his way out, Tua destroys the FBS career pass efficiency mark, set last year by Kyler Murray at 181.3. Tua’s new standard: 199.5. His single-season FBS record for efficiency of 199.4, set last year, could well be broken by LSU’s Joe Burrow—but Tua would have bettered his own mark this season if he had played in enough games. He was at 206.93 at the point of his injury.
So it was time to end the risk of future injury without seven-figure compensation, and to go earn what he can and see how much he can achieve at the highest level.
As for Alabama? The Tide certainly will survive. We’ll see whether they can thrive.
Up to Monday, the annual stay-or-go Alabama scoreboard had been a mixed bag: three players with eligibility remaining announced their departures (receiver Jerry Jeudy, offensive lineman Jedrick Wills and safety Xavier McKinney); two announced they were staying in school (offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood and linebacker Dylan Moses).
Now you can add Tua to the departed list and receiver DeVonta Smith—who caught the first big pass of Tua’s career, the walk-off bomb to beat Georgia for the 2017 national title—to the staying list. So it remains a mixed bag, with a couple more players to hear from.
The good news for the Crimson Tide is that backup quarterback Mac Jones was impressive in emergency relief of Tua. Against Auburn and Michigan, Jones threw for 662 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. The two picks were costly in the Iron Bowl, but he cleaned that up in the bowl game against the Wolverines.
So it seems reasonable to expect Alabama to remain one of the most explosive offenses in America post-Tua. We’ll see whether the Tide can regain the defensive mentality and attention to detail that had always characterized Nick Saban teams, but were noticeably lacking at times in 2018 and ’19. That, more than who is playing quarterback, could be the key to whether Alabama can return to dominance.
In the end, Tua and Alabama were great for each other. He wasn’t going to join Peyton Manning, Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow or Andrew Luck is surprising the nation by playing his senior season—but that shouldn’t have been expected in 2020, especially after the devastating hip injury.
It was time for Tua Tagovailoa to walk away from the Crimson Tide, and college football. And to do so without the assistance of crutches.