MIAMI — After two diagnosed concussions derailed an MVP-caliber season in 2022, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa‘s priority entering this offseason was learning how to better protect himself.
So he made an interesting choice.
“I’ve been falling a lot this offseason,” Tagovailoa said.
But it’s by design. One day each week, Tagovailoa trains in jiu-jitsu. From learning how to fall to making contact less of a shock to his system, jiu-jitsu has become an important part of Tagovailoa’s regimen as he looks to reduce the possibility of future head injuries.
“For guys at my position, we barely get hit throughout practices, throughout the offseason, even going into training camp,” Tagovailoa said. “We don’t even get touched until the season starts.
“So I mean, with jiu-jitsu, I’ve been thrown airborne, I’ve been put in many uncomfortable positions for me to learn how to fall and try to react throughout those positions that I’m getting thrown around in.”
As the Dolphins surged to an 8-3 record last season, Tagovailoa was running one of the league’s top offenses. But injuries, including the concussions and an apparent head injury in Week 3 that ultimately prompted the NFL to change its policy on evaluating concussions, caused him to miss the better part of six games, including the playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. It inspired an unconventional approach to this offseason by a team that again has Super Bowl aspirations.
“It’s really hard sometimes for me to even remember [who came up with the idea of jiu-jitsu],” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. “I know [quarterbacks] coach [Darrell] Bevell was spitballing some problem-solving things that we could do. [Strength and conditioning coach] Dave Puloka and [head athletic trainer] Kyle Johnston were very involved in all this stuff.”
Regardless of whose idea it was, Tagovailoa is following through. And it makes sense to at least one world-class fighter whose talents helped her become an MMA champion.
“When you’re in a specific sport, you’re using the same muscles over and over and over again,” said Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo. “You’re breaking those [muscles] down and wearing those down. So in the offseason, to train and use your brain in a different way, to use different muscles is I think super beneficial to athletes, and I think science shows that as well.
“MMA is a really tough one to pick … but I love it. I love that they want to get in there, get beat up a little bit and learn how to fight, I think that’s awesome. And I do think it’s beneficial for football, for sure.”
‘Why haven’t we detailed this before?’
Some fighters don’t watch videos of themselves getting knocked out, but for Tagovailoa, it was important.
He rewatched the hits he took during the 2022 season, including the one in Week 4 that resulted in him being taken off the field via stretcher and having a brief stay in a Cincinnati hospital.
“It wasn’t tough to watch,” Tagovailoa said. “I want to get better at everything that I can do to help the team win games, and I know the biggest one is my health, staying out on the field. And so looking at the film, I was able to watch that with my jiu-jitsu coach, and we were able to kind of relive the scenario in how I got tackled, how I fell.
“And it wasn’t just one particular game. It was multiple ways that I got taken down and how I could have prevented that.”
The training included Tagovailoa being placed in recreated scenarios that mirrored situations he faced last season.
“It’s a lot of strategic falling that is patterned after things that happened to our quarterbacks during the season,” McDaniel said. “So kind of recreating those things, because the master of jiu-jitsu had to study some game tape to understand how he was falling, where the impact points were, and what we could do to help correct it.”
Tagovailoa strengthened his neck and core muscles through his jiu-jitsu training, to a point where a source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN he is “the strongest he’s ever been.”
Initially, Tagovailoa told USA Today he was training in judo, before McDaniel publicly corrected him a few weeks later. The two forms of martial arts are fairly similar — they’re “sisters,” even, according to Harrison.
“They both have some of the same moves,” she said. “In judo, you can choke, you can armbar; and in jiu-jitsu, you do chokes, armbars, heel hooks. You can also do takedowns in jiu-jitsu, but the focus is really different.
“Where in judo the focus is a lot on throws — big, exciting throws. The focus in jiu-jitsu is more on submission.”
Tagovailoa said his training has focused on grappling and dispersing energy while falling, while also remembering to tuck his chin on his way to the ground.
“It kind of looks like bullying,” McDaniel said. “Like it’s just a guy being attacked and going to the ground. And then how to transfer energy to disperse it and not have a central impact focus. It’s something that makes you think, ‘Hey, why haven’t we detailed this before?'”
‘Excited to see his progress’
With pads popping and fighters grunting, Harrison extended an invitation to Tagovailoa to train at her gym, American Top Team, in Coconut Creek, Florida. South Florida is a hotbed for mixed martial arts, and ATT has produced some of the top MMA fighters in the world.
“If he wants to come by American Top Team and get a lesson from a two-time Olympic champion, I’m more than willing to help him,” Harrison said. “He’s always welcome here.
“I’m excited to see his progress.”
Tagovailoa should be in the area for a while. After the Dolphins picked up his fifth-year option in March, Tagovailoa is expected to remain in Miami for at least the next two seasons. Meanwhile, McDaniel is entering his second season in Miami, which means Tagovailoa will have the same playcaller in back-to-back years for the first time since Miami drafted him in 2020.
If he remains healthy, there’s little reason to believe the Dolphins won’t again possess one of the NFL’s most potent offenses. But Tagovailoa wasn’t the only Dolphins quarterback to sustain injuries last season. All three of their quarterbacks were injured at some point in 2022, so McDaniel said the team has incorporated jiu-jitsu training into its drill work with the quarterbacks, although he didn’t go into specifics.
“As a quarterback, September starts and then you get tackled,” McDaniel said. “And then you get tackled for six months, and then you don’t again until September. So how can we help train quarterbacks to stay healthy? And that’s something that that whole offseason training has really helped us try to take a good step in the right direction for how to best prepare players for an NFL season.
“By and large, you find out that core strength is very much important when you’re talking about the transfer of energy of the human body going to the ground, and different things that you can do to minimize that are strategic, but then strengthening of the core so that when you’re going to the ground, the top of your torso isn’t just a leverage whipping device.”
Tagovailoa has bulked up from 217 to 225 pounds this offseason while maintaining his mobility. The quarterback is focused on preparing for a pivotal season, after which he could sign a sizable contract extension.
“I’ve seen a guy that has followed through on his words as much as any young man I’ve come across in my career,” McDaniel said. “You talk about going above and beyond.”
Can jiu-jitsu help Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa fight off concussions?