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Tua Tagovailoa Enters the NFL As an Expectation and an Enigma

The Alabama quarterback’s legendary college career was cut short by injury. Now, he’s become the most fascinating case study in the 2020 NFL draft.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tua Tagovailoa’s last great college throw came in early November. Alabama trailed LSU 46-34 with a minute and a half remaining in the fourth quarter, and Tagovailoa, playing three weeks after undergoing a tightrope procedure on his right ankle, was set to fall short for just the second time in his tenure as Bama’s starter. Despite his second-half heroics, the Crimson Tide were about to lose, ruining their perfect record and marking their first blemish against the rival Tigers since 2011.

He lined up in the shotgun, received the snap, and shuffled back three steps. Then he unleashed a strike down the sideline, hitting DeVonta Smith perfectly in stride for an 85-yard touchdown. It was the type of play that awakened ghosts, causing LSU fans to re-live all of the horrors they had previously endured against the Tide. Maybe, by the grace of bad coverage and Nick Saban’s dark sorcery, this wasn’t over yet.

Only this time, it was. Bama failed to recover an onside kick and lost four plays later. The Tigers went on to win the rest of their games and secure a spot in the national championship; the Tide fell to Auburn and missed the College Football Playoff for the first time in the event’s six-year existence. Far more concerning, Tua went down with a dislocated hip and fractured acetabular posterior wall the following week against Mississippi State, a diagnosis that not only ended his 2019 season but drew comparisons to the injury that ended Bo Jackson’s career. The speculation was sobering: Tua’s college career was over, with potentially devastating consequences for his future.

On Monday, Tagovailoa declared for the 2020 NFL draft. He said that the decision to forego his senior season was “especially hard,” that he sought the counsel of everyone in his orbit, and that he’ll remain in Alabama to rehab for the foreseeable future. The draft process, once poised to be his coronation, has now become an experiment. While some mocks project him going in the top five picks, the ensuing months will be critical to his stock, and every injury update will be studied and scrutinized. The quarterback whose college legend blossomed from a remarkable show of faith on the biggest stage imaginable is asking a league of famously conservative decision-makers to show remarkable faith in him too.

As Tua uncorked that 85-yard bomb to Smith, it seemed like he might do the impossible—defy his opponent, the odds, and the laws of space and time. It seemed like he might deliver another miracle in a career defined by them.

Tua Tagovailoa’s most improbable college throw came in September 2018. Well, maybe it wasn’t the most improbable, but it was the one that proved plays that were unthinkable for most quarterbacks were utterly routine for him. Three minutes into Alabama’s season opener against Louisville, he faked a handoff, spun to avoid a pass rusher, and fired across his body, on one foot, while falling down and barely looking at his target. Anybody who has ever watched football for even a few minutes would be able to identify this pass as a ludicrous idea, so naturally it dropped right into Jerry Jeudy’s hands for an 11-yard touchdown.

Bama won that game, 51-14. It won each of its next 13 as well, with Tua putting together one of the most incredible passing seasons in the sport’s history. He threw for 334 yards with four touchdowns on only 13 attempts in a rout of Arkansas. He racked up five scores and zero interceptions in an Iron Bowl blowout. He went 205 consecutive attempts without recording a pick, a streak made all the more impressive by his style—less controlled chaos than quarterbacking hurricane that had been taught to throw ropes. Tua went from one-game hero to all-world phenom; there was a fleeting moment when it seemed like he could author the greatest college football career of all time.

He didn’t get there. He hurt both of his ankles in the 2018 SEC title game and the Tide were blown out by Clemson in last season’s national championship. He sprained his right ankle against Tennessee this October and then went out for good a month later. His career will be remembered as undeniably great, but as my colleague Michael Baumann noted, it’s also something of a what-if. His legacy is simultaneously lacking and complete.

The stats can tell part of that legacy. Tua finished with the best passer efficiency rating (199.4) and highest adjusted yards-per-attempt average (10.9) ever; nobody is within 18 points of him in the former stat and 1.6 yards of him in the latter. He has the best touchdown percentage (12.7) in Division I history by more than two points—that means any of Tagovailoa’s passes were upward of 22 percent more likely to result in a touchdown than a pass thrown by anyone else who ever played college football. His completion percentage (69.3) ranks 14th among passers with at least 325 career attempts, and his interception percentage (1.6) ranks 28th. (Tops in those categories, if you’re curious: Northwestern’s Dan Persa and Northern Illinois’s Drew Hare.) Tua may not have had one season as iconic as Cam Newton’s 2010 or Joe Burrow’s 2019; he may not have hoisted the Heisman Trophy like Tim Tebow, Lamar Jackson, and Matt Leinart; and he may not have had the staying power of Tommie Frazier, Peyton Manning, Deshaun Watson, Vince Young, or Kellen Moore. But over 24 college starts, Tua was as impactful as any of them, and statistically he was better. His winning percentage of .917 in starts is superior to all of the above quarterbacks except Newton and Moore and doesn’t even include the outing that turned Tua into a star.

The second part of Tagovailoa’s legacy has to do with his transformative nature. Few players in modern college football have had such outsize significance both within their program and beyond. Tua single-handedly changed Bama from a defensive deathtrap into an offensive juggernaut. He was a major reason some NFL teams all but openly tanked in 2019. Saban said he had “as much of an impact on our program here as any player that we’ve ever had,” and he was the final piece in college football’s rise of the true freshman QB. Who else could do this, on a second-and-26, on the 77th passing attempt of his career?

Who else could make 84-yard touchdowns look as simple as 4-yard outs? Who else could outrun defenses full of NFL talent with preternatural vision and ease? Who else could inspire the population of an entire state to claim it had the same cousin all at once? And who else could be worth a top-five draft pick after going down with such a terrifying injury?

Tua Tagovailoa’s first great college throw came in late September 2017. Alabama was pummeling Vanderbilt 45-0, and he was in the game only because Bama’s starter, Jalen Hurts, had been pulled early in the second half of the blowout. Up until that point, the Tide had punished Vandy on the ground; their first five touchdowns came via Damien Harris or Bo Scarbrough carries. Tua, like most backups, was responsible for bleeding clock and getting everyone home safely.

But on his first series of the game, he went 3-of-5 with a 34-yard score. On his second series, he side-stepped a defender, pirouetted past another, and ripped a rocket to the back corner of the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown. He took over for Hurts after halftime and hooked up with Smith for one of the most amazing highlights in recent memory. It was garbage time. It was also a premonition.

Watching Newton in college was like watching a steamroller obliterate anything and everything in its path. Watching Tebow was like watching a fight scene in a Marvel movie, and watching Jackson was like discovering that fighting was unnecessary if you could show your opponents something they’d never seen. Watching Tua was like learning to believe in magic; he did things that seemed impossible so often that they became the norm. There had to be some unifying force to his play. But much of the wonder he evoked came from how his best highlights felt like a mystery.

As of Monday, that’s what he is again. He might be a transcendent talent who changes the fortunes of an NFL franchise. He might be an injury-prone player who drops out of the league within a few years. He’s the biggest and most tantalizing what-if in this year’s draft—risk, reward, and revelation all balled up into a 6-foot-1, 218-pound package.

When Tua went down against Mississippi State, it was unclear whether he would ever take another snap. Such talk may sound overblown now, but at the time, it seemed his career might be over. The chill this sent across the football world wasn’t limited to just fans and media. It even got to Saban.

“You want to be fair and honest with all players and you’d like to say you treat all [your players] the same, but that’s probably not the case,” Saban said two days after the injury. “And I can think back to four or five players and actually can say I really love those guys as people, the way they did things, the contribution that they made, how they affected other people, and Tua would be one of those four or five guys.”

In mid-November, imagining Tua as a top-five 2020 draft pick would’ve required a miracle. Seven weeks later, he’s already on his way. Tua Tagovailoa is going pro; if the past is any indication, his first great NFL throw is soon to follow.