The irony wasn’t lost on Nick Saban. That’s as good a starting point as any about Tua Tagovailoa coming to the Miami Dolphins. You could start with how Saban watched this draft with unusual anticipation considering his Alabama quarterback’s injury question.
“Probably the most anxious I was ever about a player getting drafted,” said Saban, who has had more NFL players drafted this past decade than any college coach.
You could start with the happy ending he sees for everyone in this.
“I think this is going to work out great,” Saban said. “Tua’s a great player. And he’s going to be even a better person in (the) community for the organization.”
But let’s start with this idea of irony. Saban said he applied the word to this draft to mean the first two Alabama players taken were by the two NFL teams he coached. The Dolphins took Tagovailoa with the fifth pick. Cleveland, where Saban was the defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick, took offensive tackle Jedrick Willis Jr. with the 12th pick.
Still, the larger story is of the Dolphins, injured quarterbacks and far-reaching decisions. As Dolphins coach, Saban faced a tough injury decision on free-agent Drew Brees in 2006. Now he was the Alabama coach as the Dolphins faced a similar injury decision on Tagovailoa, who is coming off hip surgery.
Saban told how Brees was his pick back then. He went to Birmingham, Ala., to talk with surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who did repaired Brees’ shoulder. He labeled it an “organizational decision” and “medical decision” to pass on Brees due to the injury.
“Obviously, it was not a good decision,” he said. “It was a medical decision. It was a decision decided by our medical staff. It was as simple as that. (Brees) was our first choice. He was there before we ever traded for Daunte (Culpepper). And he didn’t pass the physical.”
That was the lead-in to Tua’s draft night.
“I just wanted to make sure that we didn’t pass Tua (in the draft) on the physical,” he said.
Saban knew of the Dolphins’ interest, knew the games they attended and knew Dolphins general manager Chris Grier from his Dolphins days. He also thought the Los Angeles Chargers would take Tua with the sixth pick from what he picked up around NFL types.
Now comes the real question: What does Tua need to do to succeed with the Dolphins? Saban had some advice that applies to his former quarterback more than most players.
“The first thing is, and it’s true with all players, but he has to stay healthy,” he said. “The No. 1 thing we tried to convince him of here is he’s got to learn that self-preservation is part of the job. Tua’s a great competitor.
“You don’t want to take his competitive spirit away. He’s always trying to make a play, even when the play breaks down. That’s good. He does it well, and he’s made a ton of plays in those circumstances. But I still think there’s time when there’s just nothing there. Several times when he got here I felt like there was no reason for him to ever get hit. Receiver fell down, whatever the circumstance was, there was nothing there. Play the next play. Sometimes the other guy wins.
“So that’s number one. Number two, he’s so instinctive, and once he learns the offense and he has confidence and knowledge and experience in what they want him to do, I think everybody will be really pleased with how he goes out and competes. I’m sure it will be a work in progress. It always is, especially at the quarterback position. In the NFL, the game speeds up a little bit. The looks you get may be a little more complicated than (the college game).”
Some of that is because of the run-pass-options, a “one-person read,” as Saban said. But Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was a NFL coordinator so, “A lot of our stuff here was not just related to that. He’s got a pretty good background in some of the things he’s going to have to learn. I think that knowledge and experience is going to help him grow and develop.”
Next, Saban delivered a subtle challenge to a rebuilding Dolphins roster.
“I think quarterback is probably the most difficult position to play in sports, if you don’t have good players around you,” he said. “He always had good players around him here. Hopefully that will help them there. I don’t really know your personnel that well. I don’t really get into that stuff that much in the NFL. But hopefully that will be a benefit to him, and he’ll make those players better as well.”
Saban has won five national titles at Alabama. He made the right decision in leaving the Dolphins. But it’s fair to wonder if he’d signed Brees whether he’d have won just as big in South Florida. All these years later, he doesn’t see irony in the Dolphins drafting Tagovailoa. He sees success.
“He’ll be a great face for the organization there,” he said.
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