Ryan Tannehill Must Live Up to Draft Hype by Positioning Dolphins for Playoffs

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 25, 2013

Dec 15, 2013; Miami Gardens, FL, USA: Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) passes against the New England Patriots in the second quarter at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

As the No. 8 overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft, Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has shown encouraging signs as he approaches the end of his second season under center.

However, the time is now for Tannehill to take a big step forward, match the rest of his peers in what's amounted to a loaded class and put the Dolphins in position for the postseason by winning in Week 17.

Top overall pick Andrew Luck has clinched the AFC South for the Indianapolis Colts in guiding them to the playoffs for the second straight year.

Washington QB Robert Griffin III—who sparked his team to an NFC East title in 2012—suffered through a difficult year coming off major knee surgery. However, his classmate and teammate Kirk Cousins has looked exceptional at times in his place.

Even two third-round picks have looked far better than Tannehill has. The Philadelphia Eagles are playing for the NFC East title this coming Sunday thanks largely to the brilliance of Nick Foles (25 passing touchdowns and only two interceptions).

Then, of course, there's Russell Wilson, who has the Seattle Seahawks a win away from the NFC West championship and the conference's No. 1 seed.

Miami faces the New York Jets in a must-win situation in the regular-season finale—in the friendly confines of Sun Life Stadium at that.

A number of playoff scenarios make the Dolphins' fate not totally in their own control. Here is the gist of the situation, per The Associated Press (via the Los Angeles Times):

Miami will clinch a playoff spot with:

  • Win and Baltimore loss or tie, or
  • Win and San Diego win, or
  • Tie and Baltimore loss and San Diego loss or tie, or
  • Tie and Baltimore tie and San Diego tie

Chances are, the Chargers will beat the Kansas City Chiefs, who are splitting first-team practice reps with their starters and backups, per NFL.com's Marc Sessler. The Ravens—2-5 on the road this season—also have no cakewalk against the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

This AFC East clash with the Jets is no sure victory, though, because New York head coach Rex Ryan may be coaching for his job, and Tannehill is under an unprecedented amount of pressure in his young career.

Ryan reportedly told his players before last week's win that he figured he'd be fired following the 2013 campaign. In a fight to boost the Jets back to .500, the defensive genius is likely to throw whatever he can at the young signal-caller.

Things were going great for Tannehill in the midst of a three-game winning streak. He was even saying all the right things before last week's game, expressing that his crew would not overlook their upcoming opponent, per ESPN.com's James Walker:

It is worth noting that Tannehill is hobbled by a knee injury that forced him to leave Week 16's 19-0 shutout loss at Buffalo, where he completed just 10 of 27 passes for 82 yards and was sacked seven times.

As documented by the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero, Tannehill contended that he would not miss the Jets game due to the ailing knee:

Adversity has struck the young Tannehill. How will he respond?

Laying that type of egg against the Bills in what was essentially a playoff game is not what a franchise signal-caller is meant to do.

True, Tannehill had limited experience under his belt at QB for Texas A&M before going pro, giving him a little leeway in terms of development and learning the nuances of the position.

At the same time, his head coach from College Station, Mike Sherman, is the offensive coordinator in Miami, so Tannehill knows the route concepts like the back of his hand, having been a former receiver.

Thus, it's hard to justify excusing Tannehill at this point. There have been flashes of excellence that haven't been sustained, but the Dolphins can still win and grab the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

That could pretty much be said for the entire team, whose roster was revamped this offseason by general manager Jeff Ireland. All the pieces haven't quite gelled, but there is enough there for head coach Joe Philbin to work with.

A big problem for Tannehill has been wilting under pressure. Losing Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin doesn't help. Neither does holding the ball too long—something Tannehill tends to do. That's led to him taking an NFL-high 58 sacks—very discouraging for the apparent face of the future.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 15:  Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins is sacked by Sealver Siliga #71 of the New England Patriots during a game  at Sun Life Stadium on December 15, 2013 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Those 58 sacks are 12 more than the No. 2 QB on the list of that inauspicious statistic: reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco.

CBSSports.com's Will Brinson alluded to the beating Tannehill had taken once he exited the Buffalo game:

With his blazing speed, athleticism and arm talent, it's a wonder Tannehill doesn't seem to do much when the play breaks down. He must be more decisive, whether he's running or throwing.

Just wing it, like the last great QB to lead the Dolphins: Dan Marino. In some ways, the 23-year-old has lived up to the hype in comparison to one of the more prolific passers in NFL history.

Even Ryan humorously implied that in alluding to Tannehill's 331 yards passing in the last meeting between these two teams on Dec. 1—a 23-3 Dolphins win—per Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald:

The shadow by Marino's legend isn't as long as it might have been several years ago, but there is still a desire for a long-term answer at the most important position for this organization.

Given his draft status and the success of some of his 2012 contemporaries, Tannehill is that implicit answer.

If Miami is a true playoff team, and Tannehill wants to prove he is a truly viable franchise quarterback, he will take care of business against an inferior, dysfunctional division foe at home and put the Dolphins in position for a postseason berth.