For a moment or two, Brian Cushing wasn’t so much an NFL linebacker as he was a quarterback-seeking missile.
It was early in the Dolphins’ third preseason game of the summer, and the Texans’ Cushing had Ryan Tannehill locked in. Tannehill dropped back to pass, but almost immediately, Cushing had the play disrupted.
He hurled himself over the Dolphins’ offensive line, with a bull’s-eye on Tannehill’s chest.
Some quarterbacks would have wet themselves.
Instead, Tannehill simply shrugged him off. The Dolphins’ young triggerman deflected the incoming blow, escaped further pressure and scrambled for a first down. A few plays later, Tannehill got the proper payoff, connecting with Mike Wallace on a touchdown pass for the first time in a game.
“It was a fun play,’’ Tannehill said a few days later. “There’s going to be times when you get hit, and shake a tackle off. Maybe they’re being half-blocked, and they’re grabbing you and you have to be able to fight through it and escape.’’
That only comes with great strength — both physical and mental.
At 6-4 and 222 pounds, Tannehill has the prototypical size for a quarterback. Darren Krein, the Dolphins’ strength coach, calls Tannehill one of the most durable players on the team.
He’s particularly stout in his lower half, the place from where real power comes.
As for the second part of the equation — the inner strength and focus it takes to be a great NFL quarterback? The jury’s still out. We’ll find out over the course of the next four months if Tannehill has the goods.
A winning season and the Dolphins’ first playoff appearance in five years are riding on it.
Had Tannehill — now entering his critical second season — mastered the late-game pressure in 2012, that playoff drought would already have been snapped.
Instead, they were mediocre. The Dolphins went 7-9, a fourth consecutive losing season that ended with a 28-0 thrashing at the hands of the Patriots.
For Miami to avoid the same fate in 2013, most believe Tannehill must be the difference.
“I think he’s displayed good mental toughness, really since the start,’’ Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said.
To illustrate, Philbin pointed to the way Tannehill responded against those same Texans in the 2012 opener, when he threw three interceptions in one quarter.
“He knew what went wrong, he didn’t panic he came out and played better in the second half after certainly a rough patch there of four or five minutes,’’ Philbin added.
Now, Tannehill is trying to translate that inner resolve into real results. In a late-summer interview with the Miami Herald, Tannehill listed the top three benchmarks to judge greatness in a quarterback: third-down conversions, red-zone efficiency and late-game execution.
In 2012, the Dolphins converted on 38 percent of their third-down opportunities, 16th-best in football. To compare, Tom Brady’s Patriots led the league with a 49 percent success rate.
New England also ranked first in red-zone efficiency, scoring a touchdown on 70 percent of the offense’s trips inside the 20. The Dolphins at 55 percent weren’t awful, but also not great.
Then there were the last-minute drives that went nowhere.