Trent Dilfer wasn’t looking for the Rocky IV metaphor he made three months ago to come back into focus in quite the way that it did, but it popped back into his mind in the middle of last week, with options for his prodigy’s pro day dwindling. Parks and fields in Nashville were shut down, and Dilfer’s facility—which Tua Tagovailoa planned to use for a workout he’d been building to, really, since November—had also just been forced to close amid the COVID-19 crisis.
What was left? A patch of turf in an indoor facility half the length and half the width of a normal football field, under a roof that, by Dilfer’s estimation, couldn’t have been more than 30 feet high.
Maybe it wasn’t exactly Rocky Balboa’s secluded cabin in Siberia.
And when Dilfer addressed the team of agents, trainers, nutritionists and chefs that had been assembled for Tagovailoa’s pre-draft run-up back in January, this certainly wasn’t what he meant. Instead, what he was trying to emphasize at the time was the concept of closing off the Alabama quarterback from the outside world, shutting down his social media and focusing on the work and attacking his rehab, like Balboa dove into training to topple Russian titan Ivan Drago.
But, really, this worked too. Throwing in that closed environment was actually a little like the Italian Stallion doing pullups in the rickety barn, in that coach and quarterback had to improvise.
“Bro, this is like Rocky!” Tagovailoa said to Dilfer, just before the workout.
And the goal in working around so many obstacles was to give scouts and coaches every last thing that they needed to see before making a decision on Tagovailoa. To be sure, some teams will be scared off by his medical status and history, and some will be O.K. with it. The idea here wasn’t necessarily to convert those in the first group. More so, it was to give those in the second one more look at what they’ll be working with if they draft him.
“I spent 10 hours trying to script this thing out,” Dilfer said. “One, I cared. But two, I didn’t want to create this thing where it was confusing to the scouts. I don’t care about the public, who sees it in the public. I couldn’t care less about that. It was built for the 32 teams. I wanted those 32 GMs, owners, coaches, scouts, to have it make sense—Why are they doing that? …
“It took a lot of thought to create a glorified workout to show them the things they needed to see.”
Tagovailoa’s workout was on Thursday. By Friday, when ESPN’s Chris Mortensen posted video clips from it, the two-time All-SEC quarterback was driving back to Alabama, his draft process mostly now complete. He remains the first round’s biggest wild card.
That said, the hay’s now in the barn. And teams have a decision to make on him.
Fun column this week, and I’m excited for you guys to dive into it. If you scroll down, you’ll find…
• Nuggets from a great Easter morning conversation with ex-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who may soon pull a very rare feat, in having coached the top three picks in a single class.
• Ten things about the 2020 draft that I’ve gathered over the last week.
• RIP, XFL.
• The Brandin Cooks oddity.
And, of course, a whole lot more. But we’re starting with the Tagovailoa workout, how it came together, what it proved and what it might mean going forward.
Dilfer first met Tagovailoa in the spring of 2016, just before the quarterback’s senior year at Honolulu’s St. Louis High, at an Elite 11 camp. The two saw each other again a month later at the Elite 11 finals, and then again at The Opening in Oregon, and Dilfer estimates now that they were probably together for 11 or 12 days over that time. They casually stayed in touch afterward, through a handful of phone calls over Tua’s three years at Bama.
So even if the relationship was more friendly than familial, Dilfer was well aware of the talent he was entrusted with when Tagovailoa picked him to run the show for these last few months.
But because Tagovailoa was coming off reconstructive hip surgery, this one would have to be different than any pre-draft process that Dilfer had ever been a part of. And while the Rocky analogy encapsulated the idea, the one thing it didn’t capture is the primary goals that were set. The first was to emphasize healing in every facet of the operation. The second was, with that caution, to get Tua ready to throw on Sundays.
“I tried not to be an idiot,” Dilfer said. “I told him early on, I can get you ready for a throwing thing in seven days. So we don’t need months and months and months. I was always the one slowing it up, I never wanted to put his health at risk, knowing that it’s still the underwear Olympics. What I wanted was to give him to his team as a better product than he was before his injuries. To me, that was a different way of thinking about it.
“One, we’re not getting you ready for a pro day, we’re not getting you ready for combine, we’re not getting you ready for workouts, for visits. We’re getting you ready for hopefully a 15-year Hall of Fame career. Well, for that to happen, I gotta hand you over to a team so they can do their work with you, and you’re a better product for them. That’s always been the goal. It was a value add, a bonus, that we were able to do what we did [Thursday].”
And there was a lot of detail in how it was set up. The first piece, while Tagovailoa was still too debilitated to even soft toss, was to get him mentally ready for the league.
To that end, agent Chris Cabott enlisted former Titans and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt to do film work with Tagovailoa a couple times a week ahead of the February combine, which prepared him to go in front of teams, while also meeting Dilfer’s stated goal of preparing him to hit the ground running with his future employer in early May.
In those sessions, the work that Tagovailoa had done coming from a proud high school program, then learning a little from ex-Bama OC Lane Kiffin before arriving in Tuscaloosa, and a lot from Nick Saban, Brian Daboll, Mike Locksley and Steve Sarkisian after he got there, was clear. In particular, Tua’s recall blew Whisenhunt away, as did his ability to diagnose situations and assess an opponent’s personnel.
“It was the recall not just with his players, but the opponent too,” Whisenhunt said. “It’d be, ‘Yeah, I’d say 18 was LSU’s best player, because he could rush, but you see him drop here where he’d get all the way underneath the corner route.’ He has a good feel for what’s going on, like, ‘That’s what I’m seeing.’ And the situational stuff, he’s got recall where, this was the critical play, this what happened, and here’s why.”
As they progressed, Whisenhunt would give Tagovailoa plays to install under what was, to him, foreign terminology, and ask him to know it during their next session. Then, when they’d reconvene, he’d put Tua on the board, and that wasn’t much of a problem either.
But what really stuck out to Whisenhunt wasn’t so much his acumen. Tagovailoa’s reputation preceded him on that. What jumped out, more so, was how, still injured and fighting through a difficult rehabilitation, Tua never complained about the challenges he was faced to those around him, which mirrors what Saban told us about him in March.
“He never felt sorry for himself, which is important,” Whisenhunt said. “He comes from a really good family structure, there’s a good culture of people around him, and Nick did a great job with him. He just has a personality people gravitate to, because you can feel that he cares about you. You notice that quickly. He’s genuine, he cares about you, his teammates, his coaches. I’ll use one of Trent’s terms—He makes them feel important.,
“That’s a great quality for a quarterback. He’s just very aware, very sharp.”
March 9 was set as the date for Tagovailoa to be cleared, and it was right around then, maybe a day or two later, that Dilfer got him back out on the field. Tagovailoa had been soft tossing since mid-February, but this was going to be the first time he’d do it with any sort of movement incorporated. As such, Dilfer set up a spreadsheet to sequence Tagovailoa’s return to the field, starting with light drills to test stability.
The quarterback had other ideas.
“And the first day ends up being, Hey, I can do anything. I’m like, What? And he’s like, Yeah, let’s go,” Dilfer said. “And the first workout I think I’d scripted 35 minutes, and we went for an hour and 15 minutes. It was movement and footwork drills and we weren’t gonna throw that much, and next thing you know we’re throwing BBs all over the indoor. And that’s when it hit me, OK, I gotta rethink this. This is about endurance; this isn’t about function. This isn’t about skill development; this is about endurance.
“I could see in one day, he’s twitchy, he’s powerful, he’s ripping it.”
So Dilfer blew up the script. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they’d add new layers of movement and go through harder workouts. Wednesdays were for “Quarterback Olympics,” the kind of games you might see for fun at an NFL facility on a Friday before a game, like throwing balls at uprights or into trash cans. Thursday and Fridays would incorporate receivers into the same movement work that was added on Monday and Tuesday. And Tagovailoa would work out on his own as he saw fit on the weekend.
That would get him ready for the pro day, of course. But, again, that was just a bonus.
“I kept telling everyone this, I don’t care about that,” Dilfer said. “I care about getting him to the Dolphins or the Bengals or the Colts or the Chargers, whoever’s gonna draft him, I have no flipping idea. And that team saying, ‘Wow, thank you, thank you. He’s ready to go, we can now teach him to play NFL football.’ Because that’s not my job, my job is to get him ready to hand him over to someone else, and that team goes, ‘Yes, we have the best Tua possible.’”
But the progress did give Dilfer room to be creative as the workout got closer, and even more creative when circumstances changed.
One thing Dilfer did want to be clear on was that precautions were taken ahead of the workout on Thursday, saying, “We had to find a facility that would allow us to do it under full social-distancing policy, which we did. There was never more than 10 people, for the most part we stayed six feet apart. Now, obviously, I’m snapping the ball to Tua, so we couldn’t be six feet apart. But we were clean, we were super careful.”
And as for the workout itself, Dilfer wanted to show endurance to display Tagovailoa’s health, and four specific traits: twitch, movement, power and precision. To accomplish that, he created four blocks of throws, which were slowed only when one of Tagovailoa’s receivers tweaked a hamstring. Each of the four blocks featured 13 consecutive throws without rest, and emphasized multiple movements, where the ball finished, and the ability to catch a snap and throw in an RPO/quick-game scenario.
More challenging, given the bandbox they were throwing in, was to display power. So Dilfer created a drill for the end of the workout where Tagovailoa would take a seven-step drop, make a movement (as if he were avoiding a rusher) and, with his feet planted, in a spot where most would crow hop, throw a ball on a line to a receiver 47 yards away. Four of five such throws he made, Dilfer said, were right where wanted them.
“All he could do was pick up his front foot and move it to the right,” Dilfer said. “Now, we’re talking rare air. There’s a very small group of the population that could make this throw.”
And that was one point that Dilfer felt was important to make.
“What I’ve had to explain to people—Tua doesn’t throw it hard very often,” Dilfer said. “When he needs to throw it long and hard, he can throw it as long and hard as anybody. That’s the thing that’s going to come out when he plays in the NFL, that’ll be the narrative in a couple years, people will go, ‘Whoa, we didn’t know!’ And I’ll say you should’ve known, because I tried to tell you.”
How much will what Tagovailoa did on tape change things? Maybe it won’t, because most of the questions on him center on health and there are questions on Tagovailoa’s future in that regard that are impossible to answer. But walking out of that facility, both Dilfer and Tagovailoa felt like they’d answered for everything else.
Really, the idea here wasn’t so much to impress everyone, as it was to confirm that Tagovailoa is still the same guy who won the national title coming off the bench as a true freshman, and lit up the SEC the last two years running. As Dilfer sees it, there was enough there already, on that tape, to know which of Tagovailoa’s elite traits would translate.
“What makes him great is he has multiple,” Dilfer said. “He’s got the best eyes I think I’ve ever seen at this age. At this age, he sees stuff others don’t see. I think Dan Orlovsky’s done a really good job on TV pointing this out; he makes full field reads, he sees stuff as if he has eyes in the back of his head. Some will call it intuition, instincts, some call it eyes. It’s probably both. It’s a feel as well as a clarity of vision when he sees stuff.
“And they’re quick, that’s the other thing. He doesn’t have to go, ‘Hey, my eyes are here, now my eyes are there, I gotta see it, confirm it and throw.’ It’s all one thing for him. His other [trait] would be precision. He just knows where his ball finishes, it finishes more precisely. Those would be the two superpowers. Precision, and the feel/eyes/instincts deal.”
But now? Now, Dilfer hopes the NFL sees what he has. And then they can weigh the talent against the risk, which Dilfer feels will be mitigated as Tagovailoa learns to protect himself better than he has.
Oh, and there was one other seminal moment in all this. A few weeks after they started working, Tagovailoa confessed to Dilfer he’d never seen Rocky IV—the soundtrack of which was playing in football locker rooms all over the country in the 1980s and ’90s. So he asked Dilfer if the training montage was like the desert scene in Creed 2, and they talked it over and, eventually, Tagovailoa got a night free where he could check out the real thing.
After that? “Rocky IV’s the best ever, coach,” he said to Dilfer, and the analogy started to make more sense, too.
“He definitely hunkered down,” Dilfer said. “What he had to come back from was tough, and the work he had to do to come back from it was difficult, monotonous, boring stuff. I wouldn’t say he enjoyed it. I don’t think any of this theme was, This is fun! I don’t think Tua would say, ‘Oh, man, this was the best three months of my life!’ I think he’d say, ‘No, this wasn’t very much fun, but it was worth it.’”
And now, with the metaphorical pullups on the cabin rafters and mountain runs in work boots down, and Tagovailoa having left Nashville, they’re 10 days away from getting to see the value in what they got done come to life.
URBAN MEYER TALKS TOP PROSPECTS
I talked to Urban Meyer on Sunday morning with the intention of discussing the chance—and it’s not all that remote of a chance—that three guys he coached in college could wind up going 1-2-3 in this year’s NFL draft. And we’re going to get to that. But just as we were wrapping up after about a half hour on the phone, I asked Meyer if he had a chance to get a better look at pro football than he had before, given that he didn’t coach in 2019.
He answered that he had, and that he’d actually made a point of studying the league, and talking to over 30 of his former players from Ohio State, Florida and Utah to gather information on what he was looking at. The results, he said, were fascinating.
“I just asked them, ‘Tell me about the culture, tell me about the team meetings, tell me about the expectations, the work ethic, the accountability,’” Meyer told me. “I had an idea, but what’s amazing to me is when I hear the media and the fans, and even others say the reason they’re losing is because they have bad players. That’s one of the most nonsensical things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I mean, they’re NFL players.
“There’s not a bad player in the NFL. Now, you have superstars, some might not be the right fit, they might have some character flaws, there might be some stuff going on. But to use the term ‘bad player’? And I hear that as an excuse, ‘Hey, he’s a bad quarterback.’ What are you talking about? Because I’ve heard that, and I used to get angry when they’d say that about our players. I’d hear someone say that—Alex Smith is a bad player.
“He was the best thing I’d been around when he came out of Utah. Then I do the homework and find out what it is. It’s certainly not bad players. There are certain organizations that win every year. There are certain organizations that can’t win, yet they have better players on paper than the other organizations, because they draft before them every year. Every year. So I’d challenge everyone, ‘When you say they’re a bad playe