The Miami Dolphins 2013 season begins Sunday in Cleveland and for the second straight year Ryan Tannehill takes the reigns as the starting QB. In Miami Dolphin fandom, there is a fixation with the quarterback.
The shadow of Dan Marino has loomed large over the Dolphins since he retired in 1999. The reasons are plenty, drafted in the 1st round of the famed 1983 "year of the quarterback," Marino’s career eclipsed nearly every passing record in NFL history. Danny’s notorious gun slinging came prior to the proliferation of the passing game in the NFL. To many fans, Marino paved the way for a new breed of passer since his remarkable skills led all the way to the hall of fame.
Thirteen years later, fans in Miami are still obsessed with the quarterback, so much so, Ryan Tannehill is only the 3rd passer to enter a second season as the starting signal caller since Marino. Of the others, Jay Fiedler was a game manager in Dave Wannstedt’s power running offense and Chad Pennington was permanently injured three games into his 2nd season.
Great QBs leave a tequila sized hangover after retirement. It took Peyton Manning to make Denver fans forget John Elway. In San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick has a chance to emerge from the shadow of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Ryan Tannehill is an interesting example of how the landscape of the NFL is changing with the introduction of the rookie salary cap. QBs like Jamarcus Russell entered the league with all the expectations of a $20 million dollar a year price tag. Tannehill’s $12+ million dollar contract is $7 million less over four years than Russell made in a single season. Changing the investment, changes the expectations. Miami can afford to bring Tannehill along slowly now that the bank is not broken.
There is no longer the need to run a developing QB out of town shouting "bust" when the salary cap makes it conducive to bringing him along slowly. The Dolphins knew Tannehill started only twenty games at QB in college, but with his college head coach and QB coach joining the Dolphin's staff, there was no mystery. Miami would depend on a stellar defense and slowly develop Tannehill into an NFL QB. Perhaps unrecognized around the NFL, the Dolphins are breaking new ground in wisely using the rookie cap. If Jamarcus Russell is the poster child for not paying players before they have earned the big payday, Tannehill may prove the opposite.
2012 was an anomaly with five rookie QBs stepping straight into a starting role. Even the famed draft of 1983 did not see more QBs starting with Marino not taking the first snap until the 6th game of the season. The fact is most QBs take time to develop in the NFL. The previous Collective Bargaining Agreement with its continuous escalation of rookie salaries, left owners and fans demanding starting roles from day one. Russell joined Ryan Leaf and a litany of other QBs unable to hold up under the scrutiny of winning the lottery with the expectation to perform at the level of their riches.
To ease the burden on Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins quietly put together the best collection of young defensive talent Miami has seen in forty years. Whether preordained or coincidence, the order of business in Miami is clearly to lean on an exceptional defense while building the team around an emerging QB. It's an old school approach to the new school NFL. The style of play and the type of player has evolved, but the coaching in Miami has reverted to the days before rookie salaries escalated beyond the ability to coach performance on the field.
While fans and the media fixate on the QB position, NFL offensive coordinators contemplate how to block Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan. Double team any of these three and the trio of Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick await in the middle of the line. The Miami defensive line may be the most talented six-man rotation in the NFL. Behind them, speedy Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Koa Misi form an impressive linebacking crew. The Duo of Chris Clemons and Rashad Jones return at safety to lead an experienced secondary featuring former pro bowler Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson at the corners. Patterson may have trouble holding his own against the best NFL receivers, but the ball will need to be in the air quickly when Wake, Vernon and Jordan pin their ears back on the pass rush.
The strength of the Miami defense is not by coincidence as the Philbin plan becomes apparent. Media, fans, GMs and owners caught in the instant gratification craze plant their QBs squarely in the cross-hairs. Many consider quarterback to be the hardest position to play in all of sports, yet the expectation of these supreme athletes is instant success or else. Success not instantly achieved equals catastrophic failure in the court of public opinion and ever-present character assault in the forum of social media.
The curiosity is, these same lambasters will blurt out a comparison to Aaron Rodgers when Rodgers sat four seasons behind Brett Favre. Tannehill is no Drew Brees who walked away as a free agent from San Diego after three miserable seasons. The Pittsburg Steelers cut John Unitas. Talent alone does not dictate the path to QB greatness in the NFL, it is an intangible desire to win no matter how many times failure has interrupted the quest. The question then is, does Ryan Tannehill have the desire?
Joe Philbin learned English in high school from a teacher named Mike Sherman. After thirty-three years, these two men may have switched roles, but clearly, the trust is absolute. Their careers ride on the answer to that question; does Ryan Tannehill have the desire for greatness? The skills are obvious, but these coaches are well aware of how difficult it is to play quarterback in an NFL offense. All the desire in the world will not overcome the inability to recognize defenses or see openings destined to appear during the sequence of a play.
Before Aaron Rodgers emerged, he was coached by these two men. The Green Bay Packers rose to prominence during the tenures of these two men. The media and fans should stand in front of a mirror and ask, are they more qualified to assess Ryan Tannehill? Don Shula once looked Dan Marino in the eye and completely changed his offense. Since then, no group of coaches, a GM or owner has had as much skin in the game. Their entire experience and future legacy is riding on their assessment of a single player, Ryan Tannehill.
Trust is a fool’s game they say. The Miami Dolphin organization is all in and thankfully, the English teacher and assay writer still trust and understand the word coach is a synonym for teacher. Ryan Tannehill may not yet live up to the fans or media expectation, but as long as his teachers see the progression, perhaps the outsiders should leave his potential to the experts. Sooner or later, the understanding of the game will catch up to the desire and Ryan Tannehill will reward his teachers.
Instead of vitriol, Miami fans should sit back and enjoy the ride.
Of course, there will be plenty of time after the plan reaches fruition for KV to say...
“I told you so!"