Ryan Tannehill is a talented athlete. He works incredibly hard, perhaps harder than any other quarterback in Miami Dolphins history. He’s a leader in the locker room and in the community. In short, Tannehill is the sort of player anyone would want to represent their football team.
Drafted 8th overall in the 2012 draft, Ryan Tannehill came to Miami as the first QB drafted in the first round by the Dolphins in 29 years (Dan Marino, 1983). With only 19 starts at Texas A&M we knew it would take time for him develop, though given his age (24) it couldn’t take too long. A revolving door of coaches has been a challenge, as has the team’s inability to build a solid offensive line in front of him. And yet Tannehill has soldiered on loyally, absorbing league-high amounts of punishment that would have broken lesser men and should have incarcerated GMs and coaches for criminal negligence. This is a man that, through sheer perseverance and hard work, would almost certainly find success and achieve a high level of play that the position demands for a team to win championships.
During his first four seasons under former head coach Joe Philbin, we saw hopeful signs that this could come to pass. Yes, there were grumblings about Philbin’s methods and faith in his pupil, but there was progression. The zenith was 2014 when he posted a career best in TD-INT ratio as well as his 2nd highest QBR rating (92.8). As Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula observed, Tannehill was a good athlete learning to become a good quarterback. Most people were generally bullish on Ryan Tannehill.
But then Tannehill regressed in 2015, his 4th season, mainly due to a sharp falloff in completion percentage and an inability to sustain drives in passing situations on 3rd down. The reasons for this don’t matter now: it was a concerning anomaly for a 4th year QB supposedly on the rise. In 2016, during Adam Gase’s rookie season, Tannehill did rebound somewhat; he posted his career-best in completion percentage and QBR (93.5) before going down in Week 14 with a serious ACL injury. He has not played a down since.
By all accounts Tannehill’s rehabilitation is on schedule; this means he should be ready for training camp at some point if there are no setbacks. Today there is every indication that he will be the Dolphins starting QB on opening day next year.
Assuming Tannehill accomplishes that milestone, what will the Dolphins have?
The hard answer: a 30-year old QB who will be rusty from 20 months of game inaction, with a reported $20 million 2018 cap hit, with average career numbers to date, whose body has absorbed unprecedented amounts of abuse, together with the concern that he will suffer some loss of mobility due to his ACL injury, and a legitimate question as to how much upside there truly is from continued investment.
Does this sound like a quarterback that a franchise would count on to lead them to future postseason glories, let alone a championship, on a team that has seriously regressed in almost all areas this season?
Let me simplify: If you think the Dolphins are Super Bowl bound within the next three seasons with Tannehill at the helm, then this discussion is a no-brainer. Likewise, if Tannehill was an established Pro Bowl caliber player.
It says here that the front office will not view this as a no-brainer, that they will be taking a sobering look at the direction of this franchise in the wake of this disappointing season where very little has gone right. And a critical part of that assessment will include the quarterback position and their view of Tannehill as being a viable part of a future championship.
Where are the Dolphins today? Are they still within Tannehill’s event horizon?
Defensively, there has been serious regression in both points allowed and takeaways. The impact expected from this year’s draft class never really materialized, with almost no production from their top picks and serious offseason work required for DE Charles Harris and LB Raekwon McMillan to be meaningful contributors, let alone impact guys. The rookie of the year is probably a reserve interior lineman (5th round pick Davon Godchaux). Last year’s veteran arrivals from Philadelphia via trade (the one the Eagles engineered to help get to Carson Wentz) have been disappointing this season; CB Byron Maxwell was cut and an inconsistent LB Kiko Alonso was recently called out by defensive coordinator Matt Burke for missing too many playmaking opportunities. And while there is optimism that a re-built secondary will get even better next season, the front seven will have to undergo yet another makeover with the great Cam Wake turning 36 and very large cap number swirling around one of the two best players on defense (DT Ndamukong Suh).
Offensively, the line is a mess. LT Laremy Tunsil hasn’t played to his pedigree. Both starting guard positions are once again in transition. Center Mike Pouncey’s hips are a ticking time bomb. And RT JaWuan James will be a free agent coming off a serious hamstring injury. TE Julius Thomas couldn’t produce or finish the season, Pro Bowl RB Jay Ajayi turned into a malcontent and was traded (Eagles), and 3rd year WR DeVante Parker still hasn’t been able to stay healthy nor realize his full potential.
This isn’t the complete list of issues by any means but it’s certainly a long one, even if we omit the coaching staff, schemes, and the ongoing work to cast a winning culture. Given all this, one wonders what the odds are that they will be able to successfully undertake these fixes within the next three seasons? Does their track record suggest this will happen? And should they expect a pedestrian 6th year QB turning 30 years old to make a major leap forward in that time, the sort of leap that will be necessary for the Dolphins to contend for a championship?
Before you answer that last question, consider this: if we applied Tannehill's BEST career QBR (93.5 in 2016), he would be ranked 16th in the NFL right now (min. 75 pass attempts).
Given the team's expected high draft position together with the availability of some strong young QB talent in this year's pool, it seems inconceivable for them not to take a very close look at the goods. Would they consider targeting one if they see a guy they are enamored with, who they feel they can get (see Wentz, Carson)?
It's way too early to know what the front office can or will do. Maybe nothing. But the discussion at a minimum is inevitable.
Meanwhile, we keep wondering 'what if'. What if Tannehill hadn't been injured last season? What if he had opted for surgery when the injury happened instead of trusting it to rehab and losing the bet in training camp? What if Tannehill had been afforded another full season in Gase's offense to see if the QB whisperer could coach Tannehill into a major step forward?
Add these answers to the real cost of this lost season. And then ask yourself if Ryan Tannehill's window in Miami has closed. You can bet the Dolphins brain trust will.