MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – In a game that opened with heavy rain and closed with another torrent, Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill saw the ugliest cloud at the right moment.
Facing a second-and-8 from his own 30-yard line against the Atlanta Falcons, Tannehill dropped to pass and saw a blitz from his right and a defensive line stunt, a confusing combination for an untested QB. The usual alarms went off in Tannehill's head as he looked left to a wide receiver running deep. Before Tannehill did what everyone would have expected, he spotted the trap.
"They had a cloud of defenders over the top of it," Tannehill said. "If I throw that pass out there, it's going to be a problem."
One of two things was going to happen: Either his receiver was going to catch the pass and get hit hard right away or, worse, the Falcons would pick the ball off and likely return it for a score.
That left Tannehill with an uneasy choice. Standing in the middle of the field was veteran tight end Anthony Fasano, who had opened the game with two drops, including a potential touchdown on the previous drive.
On this Friday night, in an exhibition loss, Tannehill made the right choice, hitting Fasano for a 9-yard gain. It's a decision that impressed and surprised Atlanta coach Mike Smith.
"Most young guys, most rookies, fall for the trap," Smith said. "That young man has a chance to be really good, maybe special."
Since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season, 17 quarterbacks (the same number as years Marino played) have taken snaps for Miami. Prior to the Marino era, it took the Dolphins only two years to go from one Hall of Fame quarterback (Bob Griese retired after the 1980 season) to another (Marino was drafted in 1983). Like so many others born in the '60s, the Dolphins (founded in 1966) had never known suffering until recently.
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Now comes Tannehill, the 6-foot-4, 222-pound slinger from West Texas. Anointed the starter before the Atlanta game, his combination of arm strength and athleticism has excited a starved fan base. His mediocre numbers against the Falcons (11-for-27, 112 yards and an interception off a tipped pass) get adjusted to account for the lack of talent around him, particularly at wide receiver.
"For so long, you've had guys come in here trying not to make a mistake," former Dolphins defensive lineman and current TV host Kim Bokamper said. "This kid is coming in wanting to make plays."
But the thing that has earned Tannehill the job was closer to the former than the latter. First-year coach Joe Philbin and his staff made their decision based on Tannehill's ability to sidestep traps, like the one the Falcons set.
"We talk about how complicated football is and all the things that can happen, but really it can be very simple if you can just count to four," Philbin said. "You figure out where the numbers are. If the defense had more guys over there than you do, it's probably not going to be a very good result.
"Ryan has consistently gotten us out of a bad play or a bad situation with decisions he makes before and after the snap. I'm not saying he's perfect, but he has been the most consistent so far."
Philbin doesn't like to complicate issues. He may be folksy and mild-mannered – in every episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks," Philbin shows concern for how "classy" his players act – but he isn't afraid to make tough calls. Aside from naming Tannehill the starter over incumbent and team MVP Matt Moore, Philbin cut wideout Chad Johnson even though the Dolphins are desperate for receivers. He also signed off on trading talented cornerback Vontae Davis. Johnson's arrest and Davis' bad work habits were too much to tolerate.
"I'm not sitting here trying to make some statement to the team," Philbin said of the moves. "We have a way I expect to do things and I'm going to be firm about that and the players are going to know that."
It appears the Dolphins have solved the other troubling search since 1995. Philbin is the eighth coach (this includes two interims) the Dolphins have gone through since Don Shula retired after a 26-year hold on the job.
Of course, Tannehill's success or failure will largely determine Philbin's fate. This year, Miami overall is leaning toward failure. The Dolphins' receiving corps is bare. Davone Bess is likely the team's best starter, but he would be no better than a No. 3 on any decent team. The tight ends lack athleticism. Sure, the running backs are solid with the combo of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, but this isn't the '70s.
More than at any time in the history of the NFL, this is the era of the quarterback. Finding out if you have the right guy is priority No. 1. That's why Tannehill is one of five rookies who will start this season and another five teams are starting quarterbacks who are going into their second seasons.
Fortunately, Tannehill is extremely talented. At one point in the game against Atlanta, he dashed out of the pocket for a 15-yard run. Another time, he scrambled right to extend a play that seemed dead. He hit wide receiver Marlon Moore on the sideline on a surprisingly competitive play before Moore failed to stay inbounds.
"I thought Marlon was going to get his foot down on that one," Tannehill said. The look of intensity of Tannehill's face was telling. He had just finished his first start as a pro, run the no-huddle offense the entire time and come out the other side without any damage.
Yet as he stood in the Dolphins' locker room, he hardly sounded satisfied. Outside, the clouds were still overhead, dropping rain.
For the organization, however, the real storm may finally be over.
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