HOUSTON -- The big tease lasted all of one and a half quarters here Sunday as the Dolphins began their 47th season. Miami led and looked good, and all of those doom-saying experts looked bad. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill was in command. Reggie Bush and the offensive line were percolating. The defense was dominating.
Then it happened.
“Unraveled” was Joe Philbin’s word for what fell on his NFL head-coaching debut like a roof collapsing.
“Everything that could go wrong did,” Tannehill tried to explain.
Four turnovers bunched within seven minutes — three of the gaffes on consecutive plays by Miami, a seemingly impossible feat — busted open a taut game like a piñata spilling toxic waste, and just like that the Dolphins were what we thought they were: A bad team. One whose greatest creativity seemed to be finding ways to lose.
Those turnovers preceded 24 Houston points late in the second quarter of an eventual 30-10 Dolphins loss, and the seven-minutes-of-hell collapse was so acute that Philbin afterward could do nothing but find macabre humor in it.
Asked how one stops such a self-destructing avalanche, Philbin said, “Halftime?” Then, with a comic’s timing, he added, “That’s supposed to be a joke.”
I’m not at all sure about a debuting coach finding any humor at all in a 20-point opening loss, even in jest. But, oddly enough, I do think there was encouragement to find Sunday if you looked beyond the ultimate reality of the final score.
I’m being serious.
And I think most of the encouragement was rooted in the performance of Tannehill, despite his three interceptions and dismal 39.0 passer rating and the offense fizzling inside the red zone.
I’m being serious again.
Anybody who thinks Tannehill’s Sunday was Exhibit A for why Miami should be starting a veteran quarterback has it wrong. What Tannehill’s Sunday verified is that Miami looks like it has the right guy at last and is right to go with this kid now, to start his learning curve now and fast-track the future.
Don’t get me wrong. No self-respecting player or coach will admit to finding any good in a loss, let alone a lopsided one, even to a very good opponent. No moral victories up here. No silver linings allowed by the macho tenets of professional football. For me though — maybe this is borne of how little I expect of the Dolphins this season — there was some stuff to like Sunday. Pegs on the wall with which to climb.
Tannehill completed 20 of 36 passes for 219 yards, and only the first of those three interceptions was plainly his fault, the other two coming on tipped passes at the line. He didn’t debut with the stunning sizzle of success that Robert Griffin III did for Washington on Sunday, but neither was he nearly as awful as that passer rating suggests.
(My mind casts instead to a 34-yard strike to Brian Hartline along the right sideline in the fourth quarter, a ball so artfully thrown that it left good coverage helpless and caressed into the receiver’s hands like a gift. This kid Tannehill has an arm, man!)
The offensive line looked pretty good, too, I thought, and Bush ran hard and well behind it as if to prove to doubters that his 1,000-yard season of a year ago was no fluke.
“It was really encouraging,” Bush said.
Surely, Marcus Thigpen’s 72-yard punt return for Miami’s only touchdown would count as a positive.
I’d also mention that the Dolphins’ run defense looked very strong, limiting Houston’s premier back, Arian Foster, to 79 yards on 26 carries, a scant 3-yard average.
“Their front is very stout,” Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said.
But negatives also glared Sunday, and three were ugliest:
• One was the pass defense, which Andre Johnson alone beat for eight catches for 119 yards and a touchdown.
• Another was that Miami doesn’t have an Andre Johnson of its own or anybody close — no premier wide receiver to make Tannehill’s job so, so much easier.
Those two things don’t have quick fixes in sight.
But the third negative does. Turnovers. Those are fixable to a degree, especially when Tannehill’s first interception was borne of his inexperience and the other two were on balls batted at the line.
Tipped balls are partly the offensive line’s fault and partly the passer’s.
“We’ve got to do a better job knocking [defenders’] hands down,” Philbin said. “And Ryan maybe has to move and slide a little bit and adjust his throwing angle.”
Said Bush: “That’s something that’s easily fixable. I thought Ryan did a great job for the most part throwing the ball and finding open receivers.”
Hartline called Tannehill’s poise and demeanor “phenomenal.”
“Never got rattled,” said tackle Jake Long of the rookie quarterback. “He had confidence.”
Tannehill’s development into something special (if that is his destiny), let us not forget, is the priority of this 2012 Dolphins season. With that in mind Sunday was encouraging — and I don’t care that the statistics sheet says otherwise.
“The game didn’t appear too big for him,” as Philbin put it.
Tannehill himself dressed nattily in an ash-gray suit after the game and sounded like you’d want him to before boarding the team bus to the airport.
Disappointed, in other words. But seeing the good, too.
“Any time you turn the ball over you can’t be happy with yourself, no matter how they happen,” he said, but added, correctly, “We hurt ourselves more than they stopped us. It gave us a look at what we could be if we play to our full potential.”
In Tannehill, Sunday offered the first real peek at the one player whose potential provides the intrigue to this season, and who will most define and steer this franchise the rest of this decade and perhaps beyond. That potential is big and looming, and not a bit less so because a couple of tipped passes Sunday happened to land in the wrong hands.