Is Ryan Tannehill Holding Back the Miami Dolphins Offense?

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor ISeptember 24, 2014

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The 2014 season started with a surprising bang as the Miami Dolphins defeated their AFC East division nemesis, the New England Patriots, at home in Week 1.

But the performances of the last two weeks have caused panic amongst fans.

At 1-2, the Dolphins are facing an uphill battle on their quest to make the playoffs. According to SportClubStats.com, the Dolphins have a 12.6 percent chance of making the postseason, as they likely need at least eight more wins to be in contention. There are only 13 games left.

Fortunately for the Dolphins, the games aren’t played through statistical analysis, and an early bye week will allow the team to clean up some of the glaring issues that we’ve looked at previously.

At the center of the aforementioned panic in Dolphin Nation after three games is the performance of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Looking at the raw statistics, courtesy of pro-football-reference.com, it’s easy to see why. Tannehill has posted a career-low completion percentage of 56.5 percent, and has just four touchdowns through three games. His longest completion of 30 yards ranks him 37th in the league. He’s averaging just five yards per passing attempt, which is 1.7 yards less than his 2013 average.

Other statistical data also reinforces the notion that Tannehill's play has been a major problem for the Dolphins offense, which has produced a measly 19.2 points per game. The QB's DVOA rank, which attempts to value quarterback performance based on more than just net yards and other statistics, placed Tannehill at 34th in the league.

Looking at ESPN’s QBR leaderboard, Tannehill is again 34th in the league. The QBR is a statistical yet subjective look at data and situational football, and currently ranks Carolina Panthers’ backup quarterback Derek Anderson as the league’s top signal-caller.

Over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tannehill is slightly above average, sitting 11th in the NFL with a passer grade of 1.7. Pro Football Focus doesn’t look at raw data; instead they grade every snap of the game, and assign a numerical value to each action. They only take into account what happened, and their rankings aren’t meant to suggest a player has more talent than another, but it does grade cumulative performance, as Sam Monson of PFF explained.

Certain statistics are valuable when evaluating a player’s effectiveness, but statistics such as completion percentage, yards, touchdowns all heavily factor into the quarterback rating and QBR, so when the play around the quarterback is poor, the quarterback suffers. Despite the high profile of quarterback position, the NFL demands teams to be talented and have solid coaching in order to win football games. It’s not all on the quarterback.

For example, the Miami Dolphins lead the league in the dubious category of drops, according to STATS.com. Four of the 12 official drops were well-thrown passes that could’ve led to touchdowns for the Dolphins offense. If these passes had been caught, Tannehill’s metric rating would be significantly higher.

Tannehill's ball placement was much improved in Week 3. This ball was dropped by Brandon Gibson
Tannehill's ball placement was much improved in Week 3. This ball was dropped by Brandon GibsonNFL Game Rewind

Executing a play takes all 11 men on the field, not just the quarterback. So we cannot rely on the traditional measurements completely, especially when there are ways to gauge effectiveness outside of algorithms.

With the discrepancy in the different metrics and ratings system, it’s time to look at the film of Tannehill’s play so far, and find out if he is truly holding back the Miami Dolphins offense.

Many times, the broadcast angles used for games restrict what fans see past 10 yards, because the action is where the ball lies. Thankfully, we have access to the All-22 coaches film from NFL.com, so we can see the plays being called and how well Tannehill sees the field.

Where Tannehill Succeeds

Through the first 35 games of Tannehill’s career, he’s had tremendous success throwing the ball off of play action, despite not having much of a running game to better sell his fakes to the Miami running backs. His 2013 QB rating of 109.6 on play actions ranked eighth in the league, per PFF.

A big reason for that success is that Tannehill's play-action skills creates room behind linebackers who freeze on the Miami quarterback's ball-handling. In Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tannehill played very well in the first half because the running game was gashing the defense for an average of 7.2 yards per carry. Take a look at the well-thrown ball Tannehill delivered to receiver Mike Wallace off the play action below.

This 30-yard reception was created by play action, and Tannehill hit Wallace in stride
This 30-yard reception was created by play action, and Tannehill hit Wallace in strideNFL Game Rewind

The three games of 2014 is a small sample size with which to work, but Tannehill has improved against opposing pass rushes. Although his completion percentage is at 40.7 when pressured, PFF has adjusted that number to 60.9 after factoring in drops. Again, with 12 official drops, Tannehill hasn’t been helped as much as he should be, so we have to look deeper than just the raw data.

All four receivers broke their routes within six yards of the LOS
All four receivers broke their routes within six yards of the LOSNFL Game Rewind

Despite criticism from fans that Tannehill holds on to the ball too long, the data suggests this isn’t the case. On television, it may appear a wide receiver is open, but most likely, there is a defender lurking, which oftentimes alters a QB's decision on where to go with the ball. PFF charts the amount of time it takes quarterbacks to get rid of the ball, and Tannehill comes in as the 10th-fastest in the NFL to release the ball (2.56 seconds).

A lot factors into that number, such as protection and the ability of his receivers to get open, and without those positions executing, the quarterback will again look like he’s slow to read and execute against the defense. Tannehill isn’t great at quickly breaking down an opposing defense, but he’s far from a one-read quarterback.

Take a look at the play below, which was taken from the Chiefs’ game. There are no receivers open, and at the top of Tannehill’s five-step drop, he’s supposed to unload the ball. Forcing a bad pass is worse than taking a sack or throwing the ball away, but Tannehill’s carefulness has still drawn the ire of fans.

NFL Game Rewind

The best skill of Tannehill’s repertoire is his ability to manage a two-minute drill. Before halftime in Week 3, Tannehill orchestrated a drive that featured rhythm passing with short and intermediate throws. Tannehill picked apart K.C.'s defense on the drive and the Dolphins settled for a short field goal just before the half.

Despite Tannehill's strength in pushing the pace, Dolphins offensive coaches have, for the most part, limited the tempo of the Miami offense and restricted Tannehill to making shorter throws. Take a look at the route combination below, where the receivers can almost hold hands because of the poor depth gained on the routes.

As Tannehill hits the top of his drop, three receivers are within two yards of each other
As Tannehill hits the top of his drop, three receivers are within two yards of each otherNFL Game Rewind

The conservative play calling and elementary route designs aren’t playing into Tannehill’s strengths. Tannehill has been tremendously good at throwing the deep comeback and deep out routes, such as the one below to Mike Wallace.

And in 2013, we often saw spot-on throws down the seam to tight end Charles Clay, who has only produced 79 yards receiving in three games. Clay might not be completely healthy after minor surgery this summer, but that’s no excuse for drops like these.

Where Tannehill Struggles

Tannehill has been criticized heavily since the Dolphins brought in Mike Wallace, who was known for making big, game-breaking plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger was his quarterback. Being accurate on just three deep balls this year, per PFF, he’s once again under the microscope.

Although Tannehill is ranked 18th in the league (tied with Aaron Rodgers) on his deep-ball accuracy, he has missed too many long throws in his short tenure in the NFL. The issue on many of his downfield throws is that Tannehill puts too much air under the ball, forcing the receiver to slow down to secure the catch. The Dolphins lack a big, physical receiver to go up against a defensive back to make a play on the ball.

Tannehill passes up the easier pass to Hartline underneath to throw to a well-covered man
Tannehill passes up the easier pass to Hartline underneath to throw to a well-covered manNFL Game Rewind

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has tried to have Tannehill throw to spots on the field as opposed to being more natural with his throws, but that has made Tannehill appear rigid and uncomfortable in the pocket. His unwillingness to escape the pocket and run is a concern, because he’s a tremendous athlete who can threaten the defense with his legs.

Having looked at Tannehill’s play in depth this season, I noticed that he makes the right throw most of the time, but there are a handful of plays where he seems to force feed Wallace or overlooks easier throws.

Take a look at the screen shot below. Receiver Brandon Gibson was streaking underneath on a crossing pattern, wide open for a first down. Tannehill opted to throw deep to Wallace and said after the game he was hoping for pass interference, according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald. “I had to skip the pocket, he had a double move and the guy [collided with] him. Thought we could get a pass interference if I put it, the safety was coming across the top when I scrambled," said Tannehill.

Tannehill threw deep to Wallace, passing up a wide open Gibson underneath
Tannehill threw deep to Wallace, passing up a wide open Gibson underneathNFL Game Rewind

It’s not always fair to criticize a quarterback for missing receivers, because when a three-step or five-step drop is called, the quarterback has to get the ball out. That’s about 2.5 seconds to see multiple targets. Try to look around at three or more targets at varying ranges within 2.5 seconds, and it shows how hard it can be to see a receiver coming open at the exact time of the progression.

But the easier, underneath routes have to be completed. Tannehill seems to overthink when he’s playing, so he comes off as unnatural at the quarterback position. His inability to see obvious options or targets at critical times is worrisome, despite his physical gifts and moments of brilliance.

Tannehill takes a sack here instead of moving around to allow his receivers to come open
Tannehill takes a sack here instead of moving around to allow his receivers to come openNFL Game Rewind

Tannehill's pocket presence has also failed to develop in his first three seasons. Often, pressure will come from off the edge or up the middle, and he doesn't feel the incoming hit, causing plays to end before they really begin. Some of this blame could be placed on the Dolphins' horrific offensive line play in 2013, and Tannehill could be permanently shaken from those 58 sacks. But Miami needs Tannehill to feel that pressure, step up in the pocket more consistently and make a throw that playmakers have to catch.

He must gain consistency when scanning the field, and pull the trigger on tough throws more often. He has the arm talent to make any throw, but whether from poor coaching or from the mental scars of taking such a beating behind a troublesome line, he seems unwilling to chance a tough throw like the one below.


Verdict

The Dolphins’ offense has struggled due to many factors in 2014, including bad receiver play, an interior offensive line that hasn’t protected the pocket and terrible play-calling.

#Dolphins 2nd in NFL in yards per rush attempt but 22nd in rush attempts. Dead last in yards per pass attempt. 2nd in NFL in pass attempts.

— Evan Silva (@evansilva) September 22, 2014

For Miami to get the most out of Tannehill, the playcalling must even out, starting in Week 4 against the Oakland Raiders. Tannehill operates best in rhythm, and running the ball will supplement his strengths. The current pass-to-run numbers of 124-to-79 may not be that effective in an offense that features many short routes.

Head coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor must put trust in Tannehill and allow him to work quickly. So far, the offense has been less impressive on film than Tannehill has been. To put things in perspective, Tannehill is struggling with many of the same issues that other young quarterbacks around the league are as well.

Tannehill is holding back the Dolphins offense, but no more so than the parts surrounding him. The game plans have been ineffective and don’t tailor to the signal-caller's strengths. There are too many drops, and the offense has no consistency.

Tannehill and the entire offense must play better and more efficiently to win enough games to save jobs and make the playoffs. The fact that the offense is not just on Tannehill—though he’s not guilt free. He should continue to start for the remainder of the season, because he’s shown that he can be an effective quarterback in this league with good play-calling and help from his teammates. 

See Week 1 against New England for evidence of that.

All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.

Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth. 


 

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