by Michael Stewart
The fourth edition of Monday Night Football betting takes place tonight when two undefeated teams clash at the Superdome. While it's not totally surprising that the Saints have yet to lose this year, it's shocking that the Dolphins are both 3-0 SU and ATS in 2013. For those of you that care, I like the Saints to cover tonight as -7.0 home favourites in a game that will cement their place as one of the three best teams in the league. I've been touting them since the start of the season, and it will take a loss to the Dolphins to convince me otherwise, especially as the NFC South falls in to complete and utter disarray.
But this isn't about the Saints. It's about the Miami Dolphins as an understated team led by an under appreciated quarterback.
Or is he appreciated just enough?
Ryan Tannehill is on pace to throw for around 4,400 yards, which would place him in the top-10 according to the 2012 stat rankings. He may not be able to maintain that type of pace, and quarterbacks in general are smoking last year's totals in general so take that topic sentence with a couple dashes of salt. By comparison, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are both both en route to smash the 5,500 passing yard barrier this season as well. By the end of the year, Tannehill will likely finish near the bottom of the top-15 in terms of overall production at quarterback. That doesn't say that much about how good he can be, but it does indicate that the Dolphins could have done a whole lot worse when trying to find a player to lead their offence.
Part of what makes Ryan Tannehill so frustrating as a study is that he's only in his third year as a starting quarterback. He lacks a significant body of work is what I'm suggesting. Though Tannehill had essentially played quarterback his entire life, he wasn't used as one until his final year of college. This fact above all others was why he was a sketchy quarterback prospect at best. During his first two years at Texas A&M, Tannehill was used as a receiver, and in his junior year he mixed in time as a quarterback before landing the starting gig as a senior. He piled up 3,744 yards, 29 touchdowns and 15 picks in 2011 and led the Aggies to a 6-6 SU season that was pretty much forgettable. At the onset of the season, Texas A&M was a top-10 team in the 2011 polls, but dropped out of the rankings as the season went on. Much of that was because of Tannehill, who simply didn't have enough experience to be that reliable in college.
That didn't stop Tannehill from entering the 2012 NFL Draft, which was highlighted by fellow quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Tannehill was taken eighth overall by the Dolphins, behind safety Mark Barron and ahead of linebacker Luke Kuechly. He was also the third quarterback taken overall, but this is a draft where Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiller were drafted ahead of third-round sensation Russell Wilson. So when critics, including myself, laughed out loud at the Miami Dolphins for taking Tannehill with the eighth overall pick, it was appropriate.
The choice to draft such an inexperienced quarterback reeked of desperation, but if you look at the Dolphins' history at the position you can understand why they reached. These are the quarterbacks that have started for Miami since Dan Marino retired: Jay Fiedler, Damon Huard, Ray Lucas, the concrete-head-butting Gus Frerortte, Brian Griese, A.J Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemmon, John Beck, Trent Green, Chad Henne, Chad Pennington, Tyler Freaking Thigpen and Matt Moore. That's a horrifying collection. It's no wonder that Miami saw a shining star in Tannehill; their benchmark requirements for starting quarterbacks was pathetic for 12 straight years.
In my "Do You Know Your Quarterback" piece I said that there is nothing that stands out about Tannehill, and I still have trouble determining what makes him special. Almost every player in the NFL has had a performance which has helped define them as players. The only two who haven't are Jake Locker and Ryan Tannehill. To prove this point, it's important to remember that Tannehill has thrown for more than 300+ yards just twice in his 19 game career. The first came in a Week 4 loss against the Cardinals in 2012 where he posted 431 passing yards on 24-of-41 completions, and the the second was when he threw for 319 yards against Luck and the Colts in Week 2 of this year. Also, despite his athletic gifts (he ran a 4.58 40-yard dash), Tannehill has never posted more than 2 touchdowns in a game. That's pretty alarming, but again justifiable given his experience at the position.
Usually, young quarterbacks struggle in turnovers by either overreaching (like Christian Ponder) or by being unable to protect the football in general. Last season Tannehill was reasonably proficient at avoiding interceptions. He had just four games where he threw multiple turnovers. He ended the year with 13 picks in 2012, and has thrown just two this season. He's also fumbled the ball 5 times already.
Tonight could be Tannehill's breakout game, but it could be another one of his 220-yard / 2 touchdown / 1 interception performances that seems to be the norm with him. I'm not saying that he's pedestrian, but it's those kind of stat lines make it hard for me to believe that Tannehill is anything remarkable. Whenever I write these types of profile pieces, something usually emerges as a stand-out quality either in a player's character or the way they perform on the gridiron. And I think it's fair to criticize Tannehill when his relative peers - such as Wilson, Kaepernick, Luck and RG3 - are all elevating themselves in to a higher tier with comparable amounts of experience. There are distinctive qualities about each of those four quarterbacks, be it their accuracy, leadership, rushing ability or overall swagger. You can go to war with those quarterbacks.
The Seahawks and Niners are in a whole other stratosphere as contenders, but the Colts, Dolphins and Redskins are on a relatively even playing field when it comes to talent-per-position so you can't really argue that Tannehill doesn't have as much opportunity as the other four quarterbacks in this discussion. And even then, we've seen what Wilson, Luck, Kaepernick and RG3 are capable of. Their ceilings are enormous right now, though that may change over time. We have multiple games from each of those guys that screams "we are the future".
Tannehill has done nothing in his 19 game career to elicit a similar reaction, which I find strange in a modern NFL that is being defined more and more by the appeal of your starting quarterback. Ask me about any starter in this league and I can quickly point out a great skill they possess, or a notable flaw. I can't really do either with Tannehill.
Keep in mind that I love tracking careers through their lifespans. It's one of the elements about sports writing that inspires me the most because it captures a narrative and allows me to tell a story. There can be struggles and triumphs along the way that define careers, and big moments that help paint a picture. Right now Ryan Tannehill is still a blank canvas and that's a pretty damning thing to say even though it seems totally neutral. We should have hit a point by now where Tannehill has more to offer. In other words, shouldn't we know more about Ryan Tannehill as a quarterback than we do right now? Shouldn't he have had an incredible performance, or a laughably putrid, Sanchez-esque game?
Part of me wants to delete this whole article because there is no definitive conclusion. The Ryan Tannehill Story might simply read: "Not Great. Not Bad. The End." For his sake, and for the sanity of Dolphins fans everywhere, I hope there's more to Ryan Tannehill than he's shown us because when it comes to quarterbacks in today's NFL, "good enough" isn't good enough.