Despite offseason additions, onus still on Ryan Tannehill in Miami

Offseason improvements will mean nothing if Tannehill doesn’t take next step

As the dust settles on one of the most eventful offseasons in Miami Dolphins history, the attention is beginning to shift back to the one person who holds the key to the success for the team in both 2013 and the foreseeable future.

There’s only one who can restore the Dolphins as one of the league’s marquee franchises. There’s only one who can catapult them back to the forefront of league discussion and transform a mediocrity plagued organization into a contender once again.

It’s not general manager Jeff Ireland. It’s not head coach Joe Philbin. It’s not any of the Dolphins’ expensive new toys like Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, and Brent Grimes. It’s not their freak of an athlete first-round pick, Dion Jordan.

All valued commodities, yes. And all pieces that could potentially help Miami make a playoff run this coming season.

But quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the basket that holds all of the Dolphins’ eggs.

In a quarterback-driven league, in a quarterback-obsessed league, Ryan Tannehill and Ryan Tannehill alone can lead the Dolphins to the promised land. He flashed, at one time or another, all of the tools to do so as a rookie.

The arm strength is certainly there. Tannehill can zip passes to either sideline before the defense has time to react and his deep ball is an effortless beauty.

“Ryan has a cannon, can really fling it,” Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace told the Miami Herald. “Ryan may be able to throw the ball a little farther than Ben (Roethlisberger)…I feel like we can make a lot of big plays.”

Having a player that can actually stretch the field like Wallace should help showcase Tannehill’s cannon more in 2013. But unlike many quarterbacks with rocket arms, Tannehill can also put great touch on short to intermediate throws.

“Tannehill shows uncommon touch on a pass over the middle,” writes Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com. “He has a very strong arm, but a lot of young quarterbacks struggle to throw changeups.”

His accuracy was spotty during brief stints in year one, but on plenty of occasions it was pristine, fitting tight spirals into a group of receivers who rarely separated from coverage and executing the back-shoulder throw along the sideline flawlessly.

Tannehill also displayed the athletic ability to evade the rush or pull the ball down and move the chains with his feet, adding a dimension to the offense that really hasn’t been seen before in Miami.

All of his physical attributes would mean nothing if he didn’t have the mental makeup to be an NFL signal caller, though. And from everything we saw from Tannehill as a rookie, his football IQ and confidence are on par with his arm.

Tannehill channeled his inner Peyton Manning often, changing plays and protections at the line of scrimmage like a five-year veteran, not a rookie with only 19 collegiate starts under his belt.

He also responded well to adversity. How many young quarterbacks would have lost confidence, demoralized after throwing three interceptions in the first half of their first career start?

Week 1 at the Houston Texans was the worst-case scenario for Tannehill. He looked poised in the pocket and was moving the offense efficiently during the game’s first quarter. But everything that could have went wrong, did in the second.

First, it was an interception to Houston corner Johnathan Joseph, who jumped a poor route by Dolphins receiver Legedu Naanee. Then, it was two batted passes at the line of scrimmage by J.J. Watt.

The dreaded thud after Tannehill’s release told the whole story on that dreadful day for the rookie. Two passes, on consecutive drives were batted up into the air for what felt like an eternity as Tannehill helplessly watched both fall into the hands of a Texan defender.

Many rookies would have crumbled. Not Tannehill, who only threw 10 more interceptions throughout the remaining 15 games of the season. He went about his business and never looked back, doing the most he could with a receiving corps that arguably wasn’t SEC caliber, let alone NFL.

Perhaps the most important trait any quarterback can have, even more so than arm strength and accuracy, is sound decision making. Were Tannehill’s decisions perfect as a rookie? Of course not. But his reads were solid. He didn’t stare down his first priority. He went through his progressions. And most importantly, he didn’t force the football into coverage. He trusted his target to win one-on-one battles when coverage was tight at times, but he was taking a calculated risk not being duped by the defense.

The ability to make every NFL throw is there for Tannehill. The pocket-presence and command of the offense appear to be as well. But let’s not get so caught up in Tannehill’s potential that we forget that we’re talking about a quarterback who threw more interceptions than touchdown passes a year ago. And a quarterback who produced less yardage than the likes of Brandon Weeden and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Tannehill certainly looked the part as a rookie. But he still has to become the part. He still has to put all of his talent together and emerge as a reliable quarterback that regularly puts the Dolphins in a position to win football games.

If he doesn’t, the curse that has beleaguered this franchise ever since Dan Marino called it a career will continue. The $178.73 million the Dolphins spent this offseason on new contracts will essentially be wasted. The refreshing return of optimism surrounding the team will go up in smoke. And a fanbase that has been waning by the year will be alienated further.

A potential savior to the Dolphins’ 13-year franchise quarterback drought couldn’t have come at a better time. The Miami Dolphins brand is as weak as it’s ever been. Long forgotten are the perennial winners of yesteryear. Losing records in six of the past seven seasons and only one playoff appearance since 2001 has created a new, negligible perception of the franchise, particularly for younger generations.

Ryan Tannehill can change all of that. And he can do so swiftly.

Tannehilll refurbishing the Dolphins would come at the perfect time, but his failure to do so would come at the worst. Empty orange seats are becoming more common every season at Sun Life Stadium. Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross has to buy tickets himself just to prevent television blackouts. There’s talk, whether legitimate or not, to move the organization to another city. And Miami is quickly gravitating more towards the success of LeBron James and the Miami Heat, transforming what once was a football town, a Dolphins town into a shell of its former self.

Ryan Tannehill’s inability to take the next step as a quarterback would lead to this team’s failure to win. If this team fails to win, say goodbye to Jeff Ireland. Say goodbye to Joe Philbin. In will come a new regimen with a new GM and coach. In will come a new quarterback. Things this franchise and fanbase may not be able to withstand. At least not if there is hope of preserving any remaining aura or pride in the Miami Dolphins. Not to paint a grim outlook, but just to show how much is at stake for the Dolphins and, in turn, Ryan Tannehill.

Excitingly, optimistically, no quarterback for the Dolphins since the great #13 has the type of ability Tannehill brings to the table. “It wouldn’t shock me if Tannehill wound up eventually passing one or two of the big-name young quarterbacks in front of him,” says Greg Rosenthal. “I don’t see any big reason why Tannehill can’t evolve into a top-five NFL quarterback.”

Rosenthal has bought in. Others will follow. And if Tannehill develops into the quarterback he’s capable of becoming, a quarterback that has every tool imaginable, the Dolphins will be on the cusp of something great.

Winning will return. The fans will fill those empty orange seats. 100 degrees or torrential downpour, Sun Life Stadium will be rocking like the Orange Bowl used to rock. The Dolphins will be back.


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