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Becoming the face of a franchise at the most important position on the football field is not an easy burden to carry, especially when that franchise is as storied as the Miami Dolphins. But
Last Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Atlanta Falcons in the team’s home opener pushed Tannehill’s overall winning percentage as a starting quarterback over .500 at 10-9. He now has as many professional starts as he had in college at Texas A&M, and through three games in this, his second season, he has his team sitting at 3-0 and tied atop the AFC East with the New England Patriots, while completing 71-of-107 passes for 827 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
What has been most encouraging to see out of the eighth overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft is how he has taken charge of the huddle in the fourth quarter of all three games. In each of the wins, over the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts on the road and then at Sun Life Stadium over Atlanta, Tannehill has engineered either a game-winning drive or a game-sealing drive. That was something that eluded him too often as a rookie in so many close games last season and only magnifies where he has shown significant growth.
“I think the game has slowed down for him tremendously,” said Dolphins quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, who was the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2006 as starting quarterback at Nebraska. “He’s seen all the different looks the defense is giving him in terms of fronts and pressures and coverages, so it’s slowed down for him because he now knows where his indicators are and what to expect.”
Tannehill finds himself in impressive company among the passing leaders in the league in two of the most critical categories – completion percentage and passer rating. His 66.4 completion percentage has him tied for seventh among starting quarterbacks with Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub and ahead of his fellow first-round draft choices from a year ago – Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden. His passer rating of 94.3 ranks ninth and ahead of Luck, RGIII and Weeden.
Sticking to just the AFC quarterbacks, which has future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning leading the way, Tannehill ranks third in passer rating, fourth in passing yardage and is tied for fourth in completion percentage. Manning, of course, is in another stratosphere right now with a record-setting 12 touchdown passes in three games, zero interceptions and 1,143 passing yards, but behind him in yardage is Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (848) and Matt Schaub (838), with Tannehill right on their heels. His passer rating in the fourth quarter is 105.1, which ranks third in the AFC behind Manning (a perfect 158.3) and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton (116.8), and now has earned the trust and confidence of his teammates, Head Coach Joe Philbin and the rest of the coaching staff.
“I think it’s one of many hurdles he has to clear to be that quarterback,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “I understand Ryan has confidence in himself, and I think the fact he’s demonstrated, I don’t think he had any doubt in his mind what he was able to do. He never has. That’s the strength of Ryan Tannehill. That’s the belief he’s always had in himself. Regardless of the consequences or the circumstances, he’s always believed in himself. But I think what has happened is, I think the belief system now becomes a little more contagious. Other guys say if we are in this situation again, we’ve done this before and we can do it again. We’ve been here before.”
That’s precisely what Tannehill told the offense in the huddle against Atlanta when he began the last scoring drive at his own 25 with 4:46 left in the game. He methodically took the Dolphins down the field 75 yards on 13 plays in a little over four minutes, completing 9-of-12 passes for 69 yards. He finished off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end
Back on September 8th in the season opener at Cleveland, Tannehill salted the game away in the fourth quarter by completing 6-of-7 passes for 78 yards on a 10-play, 85-yard scoring drive that ate up 8:12 of clock. Running back
“Yeah, I felt calm,” said Tannehill after the Falcons game when he was asked about the final drive. “We knew what we needed to do and we had done it multiple times in practice. We repped that situation constantly and that’s one thing Coach Philbin always stresses is end the half and the game. Throughout the week, every week we are going to rep those situations. We knew what we were getting. We knew what we needed to do. Now it’s just a matter of stepping up and making plays.”
Lost in the end results of the previous two games were the drives Tannehill put together at the end of the first halves. Against Atlanta, he was a perfect 5-of-5 for 52 yards in taking the Dolphins from their own 12 with just 2:04 remaining on the clock to the Falcons’ 28. That set up rookie kicker
One week earlier, Tannehill started at his own 20 with 1:26 left in the half and also went 5-for-5, this time for 54 yards to move his team from its own 20 to the Colts’ 36. Sturgis drilled a 54-yard field goal – twice after the Colts called a timeout on the first one – to tie the game at 17-17 at intermission. So in his last three two-minute drills, Tannehill has completed 19-of-22 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown with an 86.3 completion percentage.
“We practice it every week and Coach Sherman does a great job of calling the plays that he called in practice in that two-minute drill,” Taylor said. “So when Ryan gets in the two-minute drill, and our receivers for that matter, they know what plays are coming at them. They’re all core plays that we’ve repped a thousand times and so there’s no indecision on any of their parts. … Ryan rarely comes off the sidelines and communicates what he saw and is wrong. He’s usually right about what he sees. He can see the full the field and that’s a great quality he has. He’s got great recall and understands what he’s seeing.”
Tannehill spent hours and hours during the offseason watching game film of all 16 starts he made as a rookie, which made him the first rookie quarterback in franchise history to start all 16 games. He watched every single pass attempt so that he could analyze his footwork and his throwing motion and mechanics so he could improve in all of those areas. Taylor has seen a difference.
“He’s always in balance when he throws the ball,” said Taylor, who was with Tannehill at Texas A&M as a member of then head coach Sherman’s staff. “One thing all right-handed quarterbacks struggle with is throwing to their left consistently on the sidelines and that has been his biggest area of focus throughout the offseason and as we continue in the season. It’s something he does a great job of working on post-practice and during practice, so there are certain areas where he can always improve and he recognizes that. He’s always trying to strengthen his weaknesses and he’s making steps in the right direction.”
One character trait Tannehill has mastered is humility when it comes to dealing with success. He has taken the blame for a number of sacks, admitting he held the ball too long and didn’t step up in the pocket, and has given credit to his teammates when things have gone well. That was the case again after the win over Atlanta when he praised the offensive line for protecting him down the stretch and the rest of the skill players on offense.
“They gave me all the time in the world where I could go through my reads and let the guys work downfield,” Tannehill said. “It was a team effort. The receivers were working and getting open. The offensive line was doing a good job of giving me time being able to go through my reads and give them the ball.”
A solid assessment by the face of a franchise.