Ryan Tannehill's Injury Isn't Death Knell for Surprising Miami Dolphins

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 14, 2016

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 11: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins throws the ball prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals on December 11, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Miami defeated Arizona 26-23. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Week 14 of the NFL season was the epitome of an old saying for the Miami Dolphins.

"I've got good news, and I've got bad news."

The good news was a win over the Arizona Cardinals that lifted the surprising Dolphins to 8-5 and kept them in the chase for an AFC wild-card spot.

The bad news was a potentially serious knee injury to Ryan Tannehill, one that could both shelve Miami's starting quarterback and its hopes of reaching the playoffs.

But all is not lost in sunny South Florida. Tannehill's injury may not be season-ending.

His absence won't be either.

It didn't look good last Sunday against the Cardinals. Not long after Tannehill went to the ground in a heap after a hit from Arizona's Calais Campbell, reports circulated that the Dolphins believed the 28-year-old had torn his ACL.

However, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweeted, an MRI revealed the damage to Tannehill's knee isn't as bad as feared:

Head coach Adam Gase was both optimistic and realistic while speaking to ESPN's James Walker. "It's better [news] than what we thought yesterday," Gase said, adding, "This is not going to be one game. It's going to be longer than that."

The prevailing belief is the Dolphins will trot out backup Matt Moore this Saturday night against the New York Jets and next week against the Buffalo Bills. Then, if the Dolphins are still in the hunt and Tannehill won't risk further damage by playing, its possible Miami could have its starter back for the Week 17 tilt at Hard Rock Stadium against the New England Patriots.

There's ample reason to think the Dolphins will indeed face that difficult decision—that Miami will play for more than pride in Week 17.

For starters, the Dolphins' next two AFC East foes aren't powerhouses. The Jets are 4-9 with one victory over a team with a winning record in 2016. They've dropped four of their last five games, with their one win over that span coming against a pitiful San Francisco 49ers club last week.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 11: Matt Moore #8 of the Miami Dolphins throws the ball prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals on December 11, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Miami defeated Arizona 26-23. (Photo by Joel Auerbach
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are 6-7, and like the Jets, they have all of one victory over a team with a winning record this year. That was against the Tom Brady-less New England Patriots in Week 4. They are in their usual December spotpreparing for yet another analysis of why they missed the playoffs.

The Dolphins already own wins over both teamsa four-point home victory over the Jets in Week 9 and a three-point win over the Bills two weeks prior.

Also, while Moore may not be Tannehill, he isn't cat food either. The 32-year-old led the Dolphins on a game-winning drive against Arizona. And Moore's been here before, making 25 NFL starts over eight seasons, including 12 for Miami in 2011.

That year, Moore threw seven more touchdowns than interceptions (16-9) and posted an 87.1 passer rating. That's more than a half point higher than Tannehill's career mark of 86.5.

Ryan Tannehill 2016 vs. Matt Moore 2011
PlayerGComp. Pct.Y/Att.PYPGTDINTRating
Moore1360.57.2192.116987.1
Tannehill1367.17.7230.4191293.5
Per Pro Football Reference

And that's the thing. With all due respect to Tannehill, who has played well this year, we aren't talking about Brady and the Patriots.

According to Pro Football Focus, Tannehill ranks 17th among NFL quarterbacks this season. His passer rating is 15th. His QBR at ESPN sits at 24th.

This isn't to say Tannehill hasn't been good. But he hasn't been great, and he hasn't single-handedly carried the Miami attack.

Moore told Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald he's confident he can lead the Dolphins offense:

I'm obviously not shy. I'm not one to not throw it down the field. This will be the first time. ... Well, [Sunday] really was the first time playing under coach Gase. The preseason is what it is, but [this was] a real game, the style.

My whole thing is to execute this offense. What is my style? I'm a pocket passer who likes to throw it down the field. That's how I would put it, but that doesn't matter. I think if you're in there, you have to execute the plays called. At the end of the day, the ultimate deal is to get the win, so whatever style that is, that's what it'll be.

The Dolphins also have something of a quarterback whisperer in their first-year head coach. Gase has coaxed a career-best 93.5 passer rating from Tannehill this season. Back in 2011, while Moore was starting in Miami, Gase was the quarterbacks coach for a Denver Broncos team that won a playoff game.

Denver's starting quarterback in that contest was Tim Tebow.

It's not as if Miami's been winning by chucking the rock all over the field anyway. The Dolphins are 27th in the NFL in passing. They're winning with tailback Jay Ajayi and a ground game that ranks 12th in the league at 109.3 yards a game.

Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen lauded Ajayi's progress while speaking with Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post:

It was an up-and-down ride with him initially...but he's really been a pleasant surprise. He's really had a nice year and he looks like a pro running back out there. He's physical, he comes and he goes hard week after week after week.

He's earned it the hard way. He's had a couple of big games but there have also been some games where it hasn't been easy sledding. He's stayed healthy and kept himself in there and kept pounding it up in there.

The Dolphins need Ajayi more than ever over the next two weeks. And on paper at least, the matchups suit him. The Jets are a middle-of-the-pack run defense. The Bills are fifth-worst in the league against the run.

Get Ajayi going, and it sets up play-action shots downfield (one of Moore's strengths), keeps pressure off the backup signal-caller and keeps an up-and-down, banged-up Dolphins defense off the field.

Of course, even if everything goes swimmingly, there are no guarantees. It's possible Tannehill won't return this season. And depending on how the AFC West shakes out, the Dolphins could win the rest of their games and still miss the postseason.

But the perception that a promising 2016 campaign in South Florida went up in flames as soon as Tannehill went down isn't an accurate one. Given how the Dolphins got where they are and who they face over the next two weeks, there's still a solid chance they'll take the field at Hard Rock Stadium in Week 17 as a 10-5 team playing for a berth in the postseason.

Then all they have to do is beat the Patriots.

Hey, no one said it would be easy.

       

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.

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