There were some questions as to whether Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill could ever adjust to a new system after spending six years on the short leash that was offensive coordinator Mike Sherman's scheme. With new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor calling the plays, Tannehill will be unleashed in an offense more diverse than anything he has ever known.
Forget about the Dolphins teams of the past. With Lazor at the helm, and with a brand-new group of linemen, the offense as we know it has been gutted. What we saw on Friday looked like some space-age system compared to what Miami fans have become accustomed to over the past two years.
Gone are the days of predictability—I didn't hear one "go" or "go-go" all night. So are the days of making Tannehill a sitting duck in the pocket, rather than allowing him to get his wheels moving on bootlegs.
If Saturday night is any indication of what to expect from the Dolphins offense, Tannehill and Lazor will complement each other very nicely.
Before we go any further, there is obviously caution in reading too deeply into one preseason game. The Dolphins may have been experimenting with things that they may not necessarily try in the regular season. The same goes for the Atlanta Falcons, who were flogged by Miami's offense up and down the field on the opening drive and got almost no pressure on Tannehill.
Still, there were plenty of signs for hope.
Strength In Numbers For Deep Pass-Catching Group
There should be no concern over the Dolphins' weapons on offense. The receiving group is deep with talent.
Veterans Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline are the top two, but they sit on opposite ends of the same spectrum—where Hartline has become notorious for his symbiotic chemistry with Tannehill, Wallace and Tannehill missed several opportunities last year.
Rishard Matthews, Brandon Gibson and Jarvis Landry are vying for reps in the slot and could share that load. Matthews and Gibson had moments in the spotlight on Saturday—Matthews with Tannehill's longest pass and catch of the night on a 36-yard reception over the middle and Gibson with the touchdown to finish the drive.
Of course, tight end Charles Clay should be a very important piece to this offense—even if the rest of the world doesn't realize it yet. The Dolphins don't have much depth at tight end, so they can't afford an injury to Clay.
Depth at tight end should not rank high on the Dolphins' list of concerns. The focus, as it has been all offseason, should be on the offensive line and the running game.
The Dolphins made moves to better their team in both areas. They went right down the list and checked off all the boxes by picking up left tackle Branden Albert and guards Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith in free agency and adding right tackle Ja'Wuan James and tackle/guard Billy Turner in the draft.
Their plans came a little undone with the loss of center Mike Pouncey to a torn labrum, but he will bring immediate stability with him when he returns.
Knowshon Moreno has only recently returned to the practice field, but he should be given a warm welcome by a Dolphins offense that lacked a running back who could either be effective as a receiver or a pass-blocker. He did both extraordinarily well for the Denver Broncos—if Peyton Manning didn't trust him to pick up a blitz, he wouldn't have been on the field.
Tannehill needs much better production from both the running game and the offensive line to keep the pressure on him to a minimum in more ways than one.
Throwing On The Move
As mentioned earlier, Lazor seems more than willing to let Tannehill throw on the move—this means bootlegs and rollouts off play action. All reports out of camp lately have indicated there will be plenty such plays in the Dolphins offense this coming season.
That was not a luxury Tannehill enjoyed very much last season. I charted all of his dropbacks from 2013 and found 29 designed rollouts in his 658 total dropbacks. Tannehill went 17-of-28 (60.7 percent) for 243 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked once and intentionally threw two passes away.
For whatever reason, Sherman either didn't like the prospect of Tannehill throwing on the move, or he simply couldn't find ways to make it happen. The Dolphins were plagued by pressure problems up front all season, and what better way to get him away from the rush than to have him start moving immediately when the ball is snapped?
Hypothetically, more rollouts could have helped save Sherman's job. As I say this, some Dolphins fans are probably thankful that the team didn't call more of them last year.
The former wide receiver is clearly athletic enough to move. He has shown the ability to be an accurate passer on the run, and designed bootlegs are a great way to minimize risk—in a worst-case scenario, the quarterback can throw the ball out of bounds—while giving Tannehill the option to either pass or run.
The Dolphins' means of innovation on offense spanned further than a shiny new snap count that didn't involve one instance of "go."
There were play-action fakes from the shotgun, and there were the aforementioned bootlegs. Even something as simple as moving players around with pre-snap motion is seen as a welcome change from the old, where Wallace lined up on the right, Hartline lined up on the left and no one really shifted from their spots.
"I think we've got some guys that can line up in a bunch of different spots and do different things," Lazor said. "Obviously, Charles Clay's a guy that kind of fits the offense very well because he's versatile. He's got good speed, good awareness, good instincts.
"Obviously, Mike Wallace, who we've featured in the past, last year primarily more outside. I think there's a place where formationally we can maybe use him in the middle of field on occasion, not wholesale. I think some of those guys, Brian Hartline with his smarts, we can move around."
There was even a very creative play call in the red zone to help the Dolphins punch it in for a touchdown.
Tannehill faked the handoff before rolling to his right, where he found Brandon Gibson all by himself in the flat. Gibson caught the ball and high-stepped into the end zone—he could just as easily have walked—for a six-yard touchdown.
The revamped offense cannot and does not end with play calls, though. The Dolphins will have a renewed focus on pace and tempo, much like what Lazor saw when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles and head coach Chip Kelly. Tannehill was rarely letting the 40-second play clock reach single digits before he would call for the snap.
There was very little mystery to what the Dolphins were doing offensively last season. Couple that with the problems on the offensive line and you have the disaster that resulted. But with an offense that seems to be full of surprises, defenses may have a hard time getting a read on what to expect and how to stop it.
None of this means anything if Tannehill himself doesn't take the next step forward.
The former first-round pick made progress on the stat sheet in 2013, doubling his passing touchdowns from the year prior and improving in both completion percentage and passer rating, but those numbers hide some of the facts about Tannehill's game.
He didn't get much help from his offensive line, but he seemed to lock onto receivers at times in 2013, which may have made the protection look worse than it was. If Tannehill's first read never developed, he would either freeze up (resulting in a sack) or force the pass (resulting in an incompletion or an interception).
Make no mistake, Tannehill showed the arm talent to complete virtually any pass he'd need to in the NFL. It's not a matter of the ability to make the throw. It's the ability to process what he sees quickly enough to make smart decisions.
Friday night was a good start in that sense, as Tannehill was throwing in rhythm with his receivers, with no hesitation in either making a throw or coming off his first read.
The foundation is set for the new-look offense, and if the Dolphins continue to build this way, the final product could be special.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes obtained via team's news release.