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.
In four of their nine losses, the Dolphins had the ball, late in regulation, needing a touchdown to win. In each of those games — against the Jets, Cardinals, Colts and Bills — they fell short.
When facing the Cardinals and Bills, Tannehill committed two costly late turnovers, including a fumble in Arizona with the Dolphins up a touchdown, needing only to run out the clock. The Cardinals recovered, tied the game and ultimately won in overtime.
Meanwhile, Andrew Luck had nearly an identical quarterback rating last year as Tannehill. But his team captured a wild-card playoff spot because the Colts converted 43 percent of their third downs and had seven fourth-quarter or overtime wins.
It’s also a huge reason why Luck, along with fellow phenoms Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, has his jersey displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Tannehill does not.
“Someone has to find a way to win the game,’’ Tannehill said.
“Being the quarterback, being the leader, I want the ball to be in my hands if the game’s on the line, to win the game.’’
Statistically, Tannehill had a decent season for a rookie, and under normal circumstances, would have been given more credit.
He completed 58 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. No Dolphins rookie has ever thrown for more than his 3,294 yards.
And many believe he’ll only be better in Year 2. Mike Sherman said on draft weekend that he expects Tannehill to be the league’s most improved quarterback. NFL.com listed him as the No. 1 player expected to “Make The Leap’’ this season.
If so, that would be an excellent sign of things to come.
For quarterbacks, the second season as a starter is often when things begin to click. Eli Manning’s quarterback rating jumped more than 20 points from Year 1 to 2. Brother Peyton had a similar breakthrough, while some — like Drew Brees and Matt Ryan — didn’t truly blossom until their third seasons.
That might be too late for Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, who is in the final year of his contract.
“You’ve got to move the team into the end zone,’’ Ireland said of Tannehill. “That’s obviously what we’re trying to get accomplished here. ... How he does it, really doesn’t matter to me. Just get your team into the end zone.’’
Added Tannehill: “You are going to go through good times and bad times. [If] you have a bad play, you are going to have to recover from that. I think [it’s] just as much mental as physical.’’