There is no clear way to remove the sheer tragedy of the situation from the analysis. Alabama did not issue an immediate medical report, but several sources indicated a hip dislocation and fracture, an injury that would require far more rehabilitation than there is time remaining in the season. In other words, the Crimson Tide career of Tua Tagovailoa — nothing short of brilliant and all too short in the end — is over.
No one, not even Alabama’s bitterest rivals, wanted it to end this way. There will be retrospectives to come but consider that Tagovailoa started for less than two full years and shattered school records in every passing category that doesn’t require more career longevity. Whether he was “greater” than Joe Namath or Kenny Stabler can be debated, as can the question of whether he “accomplished more” than A.J. McCarron. But no one has ever been more fun for more people to watch than Tagovailoa was — the sudden use of the past tense stings like an open wound — or seemed so much larger than life from the first time he stepped onto an Alabama field.
Before the debate about whether Tagovailoa should or should not have been in the Alabama-Mississippi State game, be warned. The “Should Nots” are armed with the mighty weapon of hindsight, able to crumple any counter-argument with one swing.
Even Nick Saban acknowledged that in the post-game. Noting that he does not usually “make (football) decisions based on guys getting hurt,” Saban said that had he known Tagovailoa would be injured, he would have taken him out of the game sooner. He would also have removed the other injured players — defensive end Raekwon Davis and wide receiver Henry Ruggs III — before their injuries as well. No one has a crystal ball and it’s doubtful that Saban could have gotten such a precise prognostication even if he had stopped the team bus on the trip over to consult with “Mrs. Lamarr, Reader and Advisor”at her parlor on Highway 82.
Taking hindsight out of the equation, the question of whether to “blame” Saban hinges on a handful of suppositions and surmises. There were people in the football world who cautioned against playing Tagovailoa in Starkville. None were Alabama doctors. Some are part of the bubble-wrap brigade who want Alabama’s best players to appear in only three or four games per year “because they could win against Team X anyway.” Others said that Tagovailoa didn’t appear to be at full speed after the LSU game and should have been rested. Some of those takes were sincere. The ones prefaced with “…’cause Bama can’t beat Auburn without him…” should come with a dose of self-reflection.
Tagovailoa played an entire game on the ankle a week ago. In Saturday’s game, he went in and played well, showing no ill effects, no hindrance from the injury that would prompt Saban to remove him before halftime, a fairly common practice in coaching. You can argue that “the score was enough,” but where was that line drawn? At 14-0? 28-7? 35-7? This isn’t a knock on Mac Jones, put into a tough situation, but he led Alabama to three points in the second half. What if Jones had started and Alabama had lost 14-13? Or, for that matter, won by a field goal? Would Saban have been criticized for that?
There are a thousand other arguments based on outcome, or possible outcome.
What matters today is this. Football is a great sport that can also be a cruel sport. The warriors know the risks. On Saturday in Starkville, it was cruel — and what matters now is how Tagovailoa’s injury can heal, how his future can be as good as possible. Not whether Alabama “beats Auburn” or “makes the playoffs” or any of that. Save the cold calculations, at least for a day. Send hope in your own way, through prayer or simple positive thoughts.
“Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened,” the adage goes.
Not today, Dr. Suess. The smiles can come later.
Be sad because it’s over. All football fans should be.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt