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Tua Tagovailoa Is Going to the NFL, and So Is the Dream of His Limitless Potential

Alabama’s star might not leave school as the greatest QB in college football history, but his best may be yet to come

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tua Tagovailoa has the highest passer rating in college football history. He threw 87 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and averaged 10.9 yards per attempt in three seasons; these are eye-popping numbers that could have been accumulated only through equally eye-popping skills. Among those skills, particularly for a quarterback, is the ability to make smart decisions under difficult circumstances and heavy scrutiny. At a nationally televised press conference on Monday, Tagovailoa made the final such decision of his collegiate career: the decision to end it.

It’s the smart thing to do. Tagovailoa suffered a series of nagging ankle injuries during his time at Alabama, and then ended his junior season by gruesomely dislocating his hip in a game at Mississippi State in November. Despite those injuries, he’s projected as a top-10 NFL draft pick. By going pro now, he all but locks in an eight-figure signing bonus; if he plays well, he guarantees that his big free-agent payday will come a year earlier than it would have if he’d stayed in school. To play another down in college would have been to risk his long-term financial security and potentially snuff out his NFL future without playing a down in the pros, as the likes of Tyrone Prothro and Marcus Lattimore did before him.

But despite Tagovailoa’s career accolades, and despite the obvious virtues of tipping his cap to the Crimson Tide and moving on, it was not until he came out and said he was declaring for the draft that his final decision was clear. “My love for the University of Alabama, our coaches, our fans, and my teammates has made this especially hard for me,” he said. It was only after conversations with doctors, coaches, family members, trusted church leaders, and—in his words—“too many” NFL general managers that he felt comfortable leaving school.

Tagovailoa heads to the NFL with an impressive CV. There’s the aforementioned passer efficiency record, a 22-2 record as a starter, a second-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting, a national championship, and a second appearance in the national championship game. He leaves behind a string of impressive highlights, the most famous of which is his 41-yard title-winning touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in January 2018. In that game against Georgia, Tagovailoa, a true freshman who’d never previously started in college, stomped out of the bullpen like Rick Vaughn to deliver Bama a trophy in a game that it trailed 13-0 at halftime.

And yet Monday’s announcement comes with the sting of business left unfinished. Tagovailoa joined an Alabama program that had won four of the previous seven national championships thanks to stifling defense and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of steamroller running backs—a stone-age program not only in the sense that the Tide hardly represented the cutting edge of offensive innovation, but also in the sense that playing against Alabama often felt like getting beaten with stones for ages.

Nick Saban’s first three national-championship-winning Alabama quarterbacks (Greg McElroy, A.J. McCarron, and Jake Coker) were all game managers culled from high schools in states that abutted the Gulf of Mexico, tasked with not screwing up while a loaded defense and running backs like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Derrick Henry took care of everything. It wasn’t until the arrival of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and quarterback Jalen Hurts that Alabama had the talent to run a modern spread offense, and the ambition to do so.

In his first season, Hurts was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year and carried Alabama to within one second of a national championship before losing to Deshaun Watson and Clemson. And yet Tagovailoa was a popular choice to supplant Hurts from the moment he arrived on campus, as dating back to his initial spring game he seemed like some higher form of football player who had been dropped in from space. At 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, he didn’t have overwhelming size, and Hurts would have smoked him in a footrace. But Tua was strong and nimble enough to buy time in the pocket, and his passing ability was like nothing the SEC had ever encountered.

Saying that Tagovailoa looked like he had Michael Vick’s arm grafted onto Kellen Moore’s body—to invoke two other legendary left-handed college quarterbacks—doesn’t tell the whole story. The ball simply looked lighter when he threw it, such was his pinpoint accuracy over long distances. After Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray won the Heisman and went first overall in the NFL draft in back-to-back seasons, we’ve grown used to smaller QBs with big throwing arms. But neither Mayfield nor Murray made the game look as easy as Tagovailoa did.

Watching Tua play as a freshman, it was easy to dream big. More than that, he expanded our capacity to dream. A quarterback that polished, with those physical skills, with Alabama’s customarily world-class offensive line and running game to back him up—the possibilities were endless. If Saban could win consecutive titles with McCarron under center, what could he do with Tagovailoa, a receiving corps featuring Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III, and the restrictor plates taken off the offensive playbook?

When Tagovailoa wrested the starting job from Hurts as a sophomore, it was quite reasonable to believe that he’d combine Moore’s passing stats with Vick’s did-you-see-that highlights with Cam Newton’s pro potential with Tim Tebow’s cabinet full of team and individual awards. In other words: Tua was expected to become the greatest college quarterback ever.

He didn’t get there. As a sophomore, he averaged 11.2 yards per attempt and threw 43 touchdowns against six interceptions, but finished second to Murray in Heisman voting. And while he took the Tide back to the national championship game in January 2019, he did so on a bad ankle, and Bama proceeded to get absolutely throttled by Clemson. And as a junior, Tua was keeping pace with Joe Burrow’s historic statistics until the dislocated hip forced him out of the race prematurely, and now his college career is over. No second national title, no Heisman. Tua just had a remarkable career that—as Rodger Sherman wrote in November—peaked before he ever started a single college game.

And yet what he managed to accomplish in Tuscaloosa compares favorably to any number of quarterbacks who’ll go down as legends of the modern game. When Saban introduced Tagovailoa at Monday’s press conference, he said that “Tua has probably had as much of an impact on our program as any player we’ve ever had,” which is high praise considering what Alabama had achieved under Saban before the 2017-18 season.

Rather than comparing Tagovailoa’s achievements to his expectations, we should look at those expectations as an achievement themselves. He had a legendary college career by any standard, and still has barely scratched the surface of what he’s capable of. Tagovailoa might not leave Alabama as the greatest college quarterback of all time, but by heading to the NFL now, he’s merely transferring his limitless potential to a different forum.