The third season often is the ultimate test for any NFL quarterback. In many cases it's the make or break year in which a front office must decide whether the quarterback they have is the future of the franchise or just another guy.
In the case of Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, he will enter the 2014 season with expectations through the roof.
He has shown flashes of greatness over his first two years but is expected to put it all together next year under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
But before we look ahead to 2014, let's first look back at Tannehill's performance in 2013.
While there are hundreds of different ways to judge a quarterback's performance, I'm going to use ESPN's Ron Jaworski's method, who made his own list of the 10 most important quarterback traits.
On the wall of my office is a list of 10 characteristics that I believe make a successful QB: leadership, arm strength, accuracy, toughness, touch, mechanics, pocket awareness, size, mobility and character.
Now, in how many of those categories do you need to be above average to be truly great? With a small caveat for size, the answer is all of them.
For the purpose of this article, I'm going to whittle his list down to just four—leadership, arm strength, accuracy, pocket awareness—while also adding two categories of my own, killer instinct and team results.
Ryan Tannehill's leadership ability was certainly in question heading into the 2013 season. Even though he was named to the team's leadership council, he wasn't viewed as a vocal leader in the locker room.
However, when the Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito scandal erupted midseason, Tannehill stepped up and took control of the team.
With head coach Joe Philbin deflecting questions about the situation, Tannehill did the exact opposite, walking up to the podium on Nov. 6 and faced a firing squad of media members asking all different questions.
You can find the video of the press conference above.
Tannehill very impressive today. Looked like a real leader at the podium.— ThePHINS.com (@DolphinsNews) November 6, 2013
He fielded every question asked of him, speaking confidently and honestly. Not only did he stand up for Richie Incognito, but more importantly he stood up for an entire Dolphins locker room that was getting blasted by the media all over the country.
When the team appeared to reach rock bottom after losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on Monday Night Football to fall to 4-5 on the season, Tannehill then righted the ship with the best stretch of quarterback play of his young career.
After the loss to the Bucs, the Dolphins went on to win four of their next five games with Tannehill averaging 284 yards per game. He threw 10 touchdowns, four interceptions and posted a 96.2 QB rating.
Anyone that questioned his leadership before, didn't question it anymore.
Arm Strength and Accuracy
For the success of this Dolphins offense, these two traits seem to be completely intertwined.
There has never been a question about Tannehill's arm strength. Even entering the draft, there were some who argued he had the best arm of his entire class.
However, it was his inability to find Mike Wallace deep this year that cost the Dolphins a lot of points. On the other hand, he actually was relatively accurate when throwing deep to someone other than Wallace, particularly Brian Hartline.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tannehill was 6-of-14 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and one interception this year when throwing the ball 20 yards or farther from the line of scrimmage to Hartline.
With Wallace lined up on the right side the majority of the time, most of Tannehill's longer throws to Hartline were passes to the left side. Yet in 2012 Hartline caught 10 of 21 deep passes for 341 yards when lined up on the right side of the formation.
Compare that to Wallace's numbers this year—five of 26 passes for 212 yards with one touchdown and three picks when lining up to the right—and the problem seems to be much more of a timing issue between receiver and quarterback than an accuracy issue with Tannehill.
In fact, Bleacher Report's Chris Kouffman did a wonderful job looking into this very issue during the season and came to this conclusion:
(Tannehill's) deep ball accuracy in his short career has been mediocre. The same can be said for a surprising number of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Heading into the 2013 season, Tannehill's deep-ball accuracy was statistically among the best in the league. Those numbers have come down considerably as Tannehill attempts to gain chemistry with an unfamiliar player. At times, the coaching staff and play design have worked against the two players as they attempt to get on the same page.
However, film study shows that when you strip away extraneous noise such as "Hail Mary" plays, defensive penalties and plays severely influenced by pressure in the backfield, Tannehill is throwing catchable deep passes to Mike Wallace at an acceptable rate.
One of the biggest problems Kouffman mentions with Tannehill's deep ball is the play design. In many cases where Tannehill seemed to underthrow Wallace, the issue was that there was simply too much going on during the play.
Instead of dropping back to pass and letting it rip, in most cases offensive coordinator Mike Sherman would instead design a play that calls for other elements—such as play-action, a hitch step or even both—that would add an extra second or two to the play.
For a slower receiver like Hartline, this is the extra count he needs to gain a step on his defender. However, for a burner like Wallace, who can get that step on a corner almost immediately, the extra time results in underthrown balls that allows the defender to get back into the play.
Even with an inconsistent deep ball, Tannehill's 60.4 completion percentage still reflected a clear improvement in accuracy to other areas of the field.
However, the lack of a consistent connection with Wallace is still a major problem that needs to be addressed prior to the start of the 2014 season.
There is no question that throughout the 2013 season, Ryan Tannehill didn't have as much time to throw as he and the Dolphins offense would have liked.
Miami's offensive line was one of the worst in franchise history, allowing Tannehill to get sacked a team-record 58 times.
So it would come as no surprise to hear that the second-year quarterback was under pressure early and often in most games. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tannehill was under pressure on 34 percent of his dropbacks in 2013, compared to just 30 percent in 2012. He was also sacked once every 11 times he dropped back to pass, far more often than the one sack per every 15 dropbacks he endured the year prior.
One thing you cannot question MIA QB Ryan Tannehill is his toughness. Tannehill was sacked a team-record 58 times and will start every game.— James Walker (@JamesWalkerNFL) December 27, 2013
The offensive line is not the only ones to blame though, as its poor play still doesn't take away from the fact that Tannehill was simply not good at avoiding pressure.
In fact, among quarterbacks with at least 400 dropbacks, Tannehill ranked just 15th in pressure percentage (the percentage of plays he gets pressured compared to the rest of his dropbacks). However, he was tops in the league in sack percentage, a statistic that measures the percentage of plays a quarterback is pressured that turns into a sack.
In these instances, Tannehill was sacked on 26 percent of his dropbacks—a full five percentage points higher than Cam Newton, who was second on the list.
What this says is that when pressure comes, Tannehill has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long and/or fails to move effectively within the pocket or scramble away from collapsing protection.
While he is second in the league in passes thrown away—a good sign that he isn't forcing passes under pressure—he has shown a tendency to take sacks at critical points in games.
That will surely be something that gets worked on over the offseason as the team also looks to rebuild its offensive line.
Every elite quarterback in the NFL thrives in late game situations. When your team has the ball and a chance to go win the game, that is when you expect your QB to be at his best.
With the Dolphins having 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, Ryan Tannehill has certainly had his chances to be the hero.
And in those situations he has delivered more often than not.
Trailing 23-20 in Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons, Tannehill marched his team on a 13-play, 75-yard drive before finding Dion Sims for a touchdown with just 38 seconds left.
He delivered again in Week 14 on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers, hitting Charles Clay for a 12-yard touchdown pass to give his team a 31-28 lead with less than three minutes remaining.
But it was his performance the following week that really turned heads.
With the Dolphins hosting the New England Patriots, Tannehill delivered the best performance of his young career (the highlights are in the above video).
He capped off his stellar 312-yard, three touchdown game with an impressive nine-play, 60-yard game-winning drive. He found Marcus Thigpen for a touchdown with just over a minute remaining, giving the Dolphins a 24-20 lead.
i honestly believe you're team evolves when you find/develop a killer quarterback. Ryan Tannehill is starting to take lives. That's HUGE.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 16, 2013
But there are two different aspects of having a killer instinct.
The first is being able to come back when you are down but the second, and possibly most important, is being able to step on an opponent's throat and put a team away when you have a lead.
While Tannehill has clearly proven he has the ability to lead his team back in the game's final stages, he has yet to show a consistent ability to finish off teams when he has the chance.
The most glaring case of this was on the road against the Patriots in Week 8. The Dolphins went into halftime with a 17-3 lead but Tannehill was unable to put the game away in the second half, instead turning the ball over three times as New England stormed back to win 27-17.
To a lesser extent, the Week 12 matchup against Carolina Panthers,, in which the Dolphins led 16-3 before ultimately losing 20-16, is another example of Tannehill failing to close out games when he has the chance.
If we were giving out a grade for Ryan Tannehill's 2013 performance prior to Week 16, he would have passed with flying colors earning straight A's and B's.
However, much like the games against the Patriots and Panthers, Tannehill and the Dolphins couldn't close out their season strong and clinch a playoff spot that was practically given to them on a silver platter. While not all of the collapse can be blamed on Tannehill, he certainly isn't be blameless either. After all, he is the leader of an offense that scored a combined seven points in the season's final two games.
In those two games, Tannehill completed a combined 30 of 67 passes for 286 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He was also sacked seven times.
Not exactly a result you want to see from your franchise quarterback in the season's most crucial games.
Do you believe Ryan Tannehill is the Dolphins' quarterback of the future?
In the end, the Dolphins finished 8-8 and fell just short of their first playoff berth since 2008. With Tannehill under center, the team won one more game than they did the previous year and Tannehill put up career best numbers in nearly every passing category.
It's safe to say he took a step forward in his progression.
So while there is optimism in Miami when it comes to Ryan Tannehill being its franchise quarterback, it is on him in 2014 to reward that optimism with something the Dolphins haven't had since Dan Marino—sustained excellence at the quarterback position.
Because after seeing 16 quarterbacks try and largely fail, all of Miami is waiting for No. 17 to prove that he is finally the one.