Sometimes, you have to jump in with both feet. But there's no rush in the preseason; it's acceptable to dip your feet in the water first.
The Miami Dolphins are committed to Ryan Tannehill in the long term, but tonight's start against the Carolina Panthers is far from a commitment in terms of him being the starting quarterback for the team in 2012.
It is, however, a good way to gauge whether or not he's ready.
Tannehill has clawed his way up the depth chart, starting out as the team's No. 3 quarterback after poor decision-making and too many turnovers in OTAs. The injury to former No. 1 quarterback David Garrard allowed Tannehill to climb up one spot, but that still left him as the backup behind quarterback Matt Moore.
For one, he's earned it. Tannehill has been taking reps with the first-team offense in practice for a couple of weeks. It also likely helps his case that Moore is not considered a good practice quarterback.
Beyond the practices, though, Tannehill's performance against the Buccaneers—though not as amazing as the stat line would suggest (14-of-20, 167 yards, touchdown)—was a great display of fundamentals and efficiency on Tannehill's part.
He was stepping into his throws and, for the most part, going through his reads (there was that one play on 4th-and-goal where he stared down tight end Charles Clay and nearly gave up a pick-six).
He has done what the coaches have asked him to do.
"He's steadily gotten better in the decisions he's made," offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said, per the Palm Beach Post. "What mistakes he made early are probably attributable to his overconfidence to make every throw on the field. He just has a lot of confidence in his ability, and you don't want to take that away. But we have to minimize the risk factor. He's done that and minimized his mistakes."
Decision-making, making the critical plays and managing games were the three things head coach Joe Philbin outlined as the keys in Tannehill's path to becoming a starter—all of which were at least alluded to by Sherman after Tannehill's first outing.
If Tannehill continues to grow, it's only natural that he would eventually earn the nod as the starting quarterback at some point.
The Dolphins will never truly learn what they have in Tannehill if he's only going up against the second- and third-string defenses with the second- and third-string offense at his side. There's no better pressure-free, consequence-free way to find out if Tannehill can compete with top-notch talent around him—and top-notch opponents in his face—than in a preseason game.
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Philbin pointed out earlier this week that he would like to see each of his quarterbacks get some playing time against an opponent's first-team defense.
The best thing that could happen is for Tannehill to have an incredible game, forever wresting the starting job from Moore and Garrard. The worst thing would be for Tannehill to perform awfully, in which case he is relegated to backup duty, as was originally expected of him for much of the 2012 season in the first place.
At that point, depending on the outcome, the Dolphins can put both feet in the water or pull their first foot out. But either way, Tannehill is making the plunge into the pool at some point in his NFL career, and at that point, it will be sink or swim whether he's ready or not.