There's an old metaphor about having one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and the Dolphins' state of the franchise is in much the same position. Now, I'm not saying that Tannehill hasn't been any good in his two NFL seasons. However, the Dolphins have continued to careen out of control, and Tannehill has not been the sort of consistent, calming presence that a first-round quarterback should be.
Let's be clear: There's a difference between blaming Tannehill (which I'm not) and understanding the basic NFL premise that the proverbial buck needs to stop somewhere, and it often stops right on the quarterback's desk.
If last year was a perfect storm around Tannehill, the 8-8 record doesn't quite represent a boat crashing against the rocks, but it's not exactly a marked improvement from 7-9 the year before or even 6-10 the season before that.
Did Miami owner Stephen Ross put this team together to strive for mediocrity, or will his patience eventually wear thin?
It was difficult whittling down the many NFL players facing pressure this season to just Tannehill. Some players are dealing with upcoming contract issues (like Detroit tackle Ndamukong Suh). Others have coaches solidly on the hot seat (like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo) or rookies breathing down their backs (like Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer).
Yet, Tannehill stands above the crowd because he's got the weight of an entire franchise resting solely on his shoulders this season.
Tannehill Not Just Playing to Save Himself
No matter how you slice it, head coach Joe Philbin's job this season is tied to the performance of Tannehill.
Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports even said as much earlier this year when he reported that new general manager Dennis Hickey would have his hands full putting talent around Tannehill and that Philbin "definitely wants to push Tannehill more." La Canfora even held out the possibility of veteran backup Matt Moore being used to push the young starter.
While I won't go as far as La Canfora's source did, it is relevant that Moore has been kept around at the significant price tag of $4 million this season. The Dolphins likely hope to never need the Plan B that Moore represents, but they're prepared for the possibility.
|Offensive Performance under Joe Philbin|
|Year||Total Offense||Passing Offense||Rushing Offense||Scoring|
|2012||4,984 (27)||3,182 (26)||1,802 (17)||288 (27)|
|2013||5,007 Yards (27)||3,567 (20)||1,440 (26)||317 (26)|
|ESPN.com (Rank in Parentheses)|
Philbin is supposed to be a QB whisperer...or, at least, an offensive mastermind.
Coming from the Green Bay Packers in his role as offensive coordinator, Philbin had to answer a lot of questions early on about whether the Dolphins would be able to find an Aaron Rodgers of their own. He did his best to downplay it at his opening press conference, but he was up front on the importance of the position:
One of the things I believe in strongly when you analyze your football team is that you have to look at the quarterback rating differential. So how your guy is performing as oppose to the opposition. So it's certainly a key component in winning football games.
In fact, even though Philbin has focused on the offensive line during his time in the league, much of his bio on MiamiDolphins.com focuses on the play of Rodgers while Philbin was running the Green Bay offense.
Former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman couldn't get that kind of production out of Tannehill and the offense, so Bill Lazor was brought down from Philadelphia where many credited him with getting the most out of Nick Foles in Chip Kelly's high-octane offense.
Here's what MMQB's Andy Benoit had to say about that in his Dolphins season preview:
The Dolphins’ leap forward will come from what they’re now capable of doing between the sidelines. Philbin was hired away from Green Bay in large part because of his familiarity with the West Coast spread system, but now the 53-year-old has turned much of the offense over to new coordinator Bill Lazor.
At the beginning of the new league year, the 42-year-old Lazor was a mystery man around the NFL. He’d worked with a variety of different systems as a quarterbacks coach during his time in Seattle, at the University of Virginia and in Philadelphia (his most recent stop) over the previous six years, and Philbin’s assistants were being tight-lipped about what system they’d run in 2014.
But once minicamps started, it was clear: Lazor is bringing Chip Kelly’s scheme to South Beach.
Let's remember, now, that Hickey—just a few months into the position after spending 18 years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—doesn't have a single thing tying him to any of these people. In a few more months, Hickey can pull the plug on this whole grand experiment and say it's time for step one in finally building things the right way (or, something along those lines).
This is a "show me" year for the entire Dolphins organization, and a lot of that rides on Tannehill.
Tannehill's Best Might Not Be Good Enough
I can hear the arguments now, and let me assure you they are valid: Not much of the past has been Tannehill's fault!
I agree, but it doesn't matter.
Again, the point of this is not to pretend that Tannehill has brought this pressure on himself, it's to admit that he's probably the only person who can do anything about it. Though the team has improved the offensive line and running game with additions like tackle Branden Albert and running back Knowshon Moreno, none of this is really going to work without top-notch play from the quarterback position.
Top notch isn't that far off from where Tannehill was in 2013.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tannehill was the fifth best quarterback in the league last season (subscription required). That's in stark contrast with where many stats and metrics have the QB—for instance, his QBR of 45.8 was 26th in the league. PFF's Steve Palazzolo explained the discrepancy (emphasis his, in bold):
While QB Rating is obviously supposed to be a QB statistic, it’s actually a better gauge of what the entire offense did in a given situation. This is the type of information that is actually extremely valuable to our NFL team customers as their game planning efforts must go towards stopping an entire passing offense, not just the quarterback. ...
... On the other hand, PFF Grade is a good indicator of how well the quarterback actually performed in a given situation. Whether they throw an accurate pass that was dropped, or perhaps an inaccurate one that should have been intercepted and the defense dropped, the PFF grade will account for those situations with a positive and a negative grade respectively while QB Rating will simply reflect the 0-for-1 passing.
Later, Palazzolo would go on to say that Tannehill fared well on intermediate passes and tended to struggle when pressured. Because Tannehill played in an offense in 2013 where pressure was almost entirely present, that his numbers dipped was understandable.
The silver lining, then, is that a better line and rushing attack could mean a big jump in Tannehill's play. Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated quoted Tannehill in his offseason report card for the Dolphins, and the young quarterback realizes the pressure that's on him:
I have to make a big jump, I'm aware of that. I’m putting in the work, putting in the time to get myself physically ready, mentally ready and learn this new offense that we’re going with this year. So there is still work to be done. But I look for a big jump in myself, both in production and wins. That’s what we ultimately play for is wins. So, I’m excited to see what this team does.
Talking about quarterbacks merely in terms of wins and losses is often a lazy or crass way to examine their play, but there's something to be said for how the blame is going to get divvied up at the end of the day. For the Dolphins—if they're 8-8 or worse next season—Tannehill will get a lot of that thrown his way whether it's fair or not.
Tannehill needs to improve. He doesn't have much of a choice, but if he was as good as PFF says he was last season, then what can he actually do by himself to improve the Dolphins' chances of winning?
As much as we can point to (hopefully) improved pass protection and (possibly) a better running game, the wide receiver corps is essentially the same group and will lean on overpaid Mike Wallace and overachieving Brian Hartline. The entire depth chart is filled with No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts (or worse) without a true star in the bunch. The lack of a star tight end is just as troubling.
So, while Tannehill might have more help in 2014, it isn't going to be much more.
Because of the franchise's hopes riding on him and the lack of help around him, Tannehill faces the most pressure of anyone in the entire NFL.