The Rise of Ryan Tannehill

How far can Ryan Tannehill carry the Miami Dolphins? (Screen shot from http://youtu.be/Lukw8UmfKtw)

How far can Ryan Tannehill carry the Miami Dolphins? (Screen shot from http://youtu.be/Lukw8UmfKtw)

During the build-up to the 2013 NFL season, much of the discussion centered on the young quarterbacks who had taken the league by storm in 2012: Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Robert Griffin III. For the most part (we can talk about the non-stop, obsessive coverage of the NFL some other time), the talk was justified: Each quarterback had a remarkable first season, and all four led their respective teams to the playoffs. Although some analysts questioned how quickly RG III could return to form after his knee injury, the consensus seemed to be that these four quarterbacks would continue their remarkable growth in their second year as starters.

Left out of this conversation was Miami Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Although Tannehill had a few shining moments in the 2012 season, most notably breaking Dan Marino’s rookie passing record against Arizona, his play was inconsistent throughout most of 2012. Tannehill finished the year with more interceptions (13) than touchdowns thrown (12) and the Dolphins missed the playoffs after finishing 7-9.

Even if many national pundits didn’t expect much of Tannehill in 2013, the Dolphins expressed a quiet confidence that he would show improvement. The team spent an estimated $220 million in free agency to surround the second-year quarterback with a plethora of weapons and to shore up some perceived weaknesses in the defense. So far, Tannehill has rewarded the confidence the Dolphins have shown in him.

In the first three games of the season, Tannehill hasn’t simply managed the offense, he’s carried it. The quarterback’s play has covered up a shaky offensive line and slowly-improving run game during a key stretch of opening games. Even more surprising, Tannehill’s arm has made up for a defense that has yet to live up to its potential, largely because of some key injuries to starting cornerback Dimitri Patterson and starting defensive linemen Cameron Wake and Paul Soliai.

Even though it’s still early, Tannehill is currently completing 66.4 percent of his passes, up from 58.3 percent in 2012. He also sits comfortably in the top-ten in passer rating, which measures a quarterback’s passing efficiency. At 94.3, Miami’s signal caller is ahead of established names like Drew Brees (91.4), Joe Flacco (80.0), and Tom Brady (79.4) and peers like Luck (92.7), Griffin (84.1), and Kaepernick (72.5). Tannehill also ranks in the top 14 in terms of total quarterback rating, another statistic used to measure the performance of quarterbacks.

While these stats are impressive, the most eye-opening aspect of Tannehill’s early season success has been his performance against the blitz. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Tannehill was downright surgical when pressured with five or more pass-rushers, as noted by ESPN’s James Walker. Miami’s quarterback completed 15-of-18 passes for an 83 percent completion rate and 155 yards when blitzed by the Falcons. If opposing teams are looking for a way to defend Tannehill and the Miami offense, they might want to consider something other than bringing pressure.

With all of this said, Tannehill is by no means a finished product. The quarterback still has a poor pocket presence at times and is guilty of holding on to the ball too long when he should instead look to run or throw it away. On some of these occasions, Tannehill has clearly been looking to go deep to receiver Mike Wallace, but he still needs to work on the clock in his head. Although some of the 14 sacks the Dolphins have surrendered so far can be blamed on the offensive line, a portion can be placed on Tannehill for holding the ball too long. If Tannehill is to survive the season, this fix must be made soon, as getting hit so often is simply unsustainable.

In addition to his poor pocket presence, Tannehill must continue to improve his ball security. In only three games, he has already fumbled the ball five times and thrown two interceptions. While only two of those fumbles have been lost, the ball will at some point begin to bounce the other way and may cost the Dolphins a game down the road.

Still, even though it is a small sample size, the early results are encouraging for Tannehill and the Dolphins. Led by Tannehill, Miami has already matched its road wins total from last season. The Dolphins also won what may end up being a crucial game against Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in terms of the AFC wild card standings. In Week 3, Tannehill made the biggest statement of his young career by leading the Dolphins on a 13-play, 75-yard game-winning drive against Atlanta.

For Tannehill and Miami, however, things won’t get any easier anytime soon. The Dolphins head to New Orleans on Monday night to face the undefeated Saints and will probably still be without Wake and possibly Soliai as well. After that test, Miami will return home to face the Baltimore Ravens before their bye-week.

Even with those tough matchups looming, Miami is playing with house money at this point. A 3-2 record after their first five games would still be a success and keep them on track for a playoff berth. Of course, Miami won’t be satisfied with 3-2; these are games they now expect to win. And if Tannehill is able to turn a hot start into consistent play, those expectations won’t be misguided.

With consistent play, Tannehill will begin to expect something as well: to see his name included in any discussion of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL.

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CharlieCharlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.

Previously from Charlie Crespo:
Upcoming Changes to Little Utopia
How Should the NHL Structure the Upcoming Champions League?
Frankenbride; or, The Contemporary Prometheus
Viral Video of the Week: ESPN is Clearly Excited to Have the NFL Back
On Trying to Find a Sleeping Bag in Shanghai

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