If the Dolphins are judging preseason success solely by how their young starting quarterback plays, then Saturday was an accomplishment.
Ryan Tannehill, under scrutiny in his second season and needing to show progress to make this team relevant, did exactly that against Tampa Bay. He completed 17 of 27 passes despite suffering a handful of drops by his receivers. He threw for 150 yards in one half of play. And he threw a touchdown pass, which easily could have been two had Brandon Gibson not dropped the other.
Overall, Tannehill was good enough that coach Joe Philbin felt no need to continue playing him into the second half. Tannehill’s 90 quarterback rating marked the third consecutive game he has been at or above a rating considered star quarterback territory.
None of that, by the way, is a small feat because you should remember Geno Smith, given the chance to win the starting job in New York, threw three interceptions for the Jets on Saturday. You should know the Bills are conducting quarterback tryouts Sunday because quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb can’t stay healthy.
Even the Patriots got a poor performance from Tom Brady (one interception, no touchdowns) in their so-called dress-rehearsal game at Detroit.
Yes, yes, yes, Brady is exempt from preseason scrutiny because he has had so much postseason brilliance. But there’s no denying he had a tough go of it against the Lions, which suggests even he has work to do before the regular season.
So, all that should make the Dolphins feel good. All that is good news for a franchise desperate for every ounce of cheer it can get.
If we’re judging preseason achievement for this football team by how many issues it is solving and how many goals it is meeting, then Saturday night’s game was not quite the celebration it might have been.
First on the list of unresolved issues is the tight end position. The Dolphins came into this game hoping to find a viable replacement for Dustin Keller, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
How intense was this search? Well, the Dolphins identified Charles Clay as the likely player to take Keller’s job, so they gave him every opportunity to do just that.
Tannehill threw a staggering six passes to Clay in merely one half of play. And all those attempts resulted in exactly one reception for a 5-yard gain.
This tight end search is a big deal, by the way, because championship teams score touchdowns when they get in the red zone and the way that is often done is by throwing to a dominant tight end.
The Dolphins lack that right now and so not surprisingly, they failed to score a touchdown on their first trip in the red zone even though Philbin pressed the issue by going for it on a fourth-down attempt.
“When we get a first-down-and-goal,” Philbin said, “we have to be able punch it in the end zone.”
Miami also has to get away from its troubling penchant for turnovers.
The team had a minus-10 turnover margin last season, meaning it yielded 10 more turnovers than it collected. That’s bad news because the Dolphins play in the same division as the Patriots, who were plus-25 in turnover margin.
So Miami coaches have been stressing taking the ball away and not fumbling or throwing interceptions.
Well, the starting defense did its part this game. It collected a Josh Freeman fumble. But the Dolphins had two special teams turnovers.
Nolan Carroll allowed a punt to graze his arm, and that led to a turnover that resulted in a Bucs touchdown.
Then, punt returner Marcus Thigpen fumbled a punt and that led to a Tampa Bay field goal. So those turnovers resulted in 10 points for the Buccaneers.
“Frustrating” and “disappointing” are the words Philbin used to describe it.
The Dolphins also were frustrated in that they desperately want to establish a consistent running game and the darn running game refuses to be established under any circumstances.
Behind the first-team offensive line, Miami running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas combined to average 2.5 yards per carry. Thomas, impressive in practice last week, gained a meager 3 yards on seven carries.
Miller, the presumed starter, went a long way toward winning the starting job but that’s because he was merely solid. He gained 35 yards on eight carries, which is hardly impressive but felt like a revelation compared with Thomas.
Is that good?
It depends on how the Dolphins define preseason success.