If Dr. Frankenstein made quarterbacks and not monsters, his creation might look a lot like the strapping kid from Big Spring, Texas. Ryan Tannehill’s size, speed, strength and smarts are all off the charts.
And faster than most anyone expected, Tannehill’s production has begun to catch up with his freakish physical potential. His 431-yard passing game in Arizona last week is proof of that.
But there’s more to being a successful NFL quarterback than stuffing stat sheets and being able to make all the throws. Just as important — if not more so — is knowing which throws you should not attempt to make.
Four games into this grand quarterback experience, that’s the one box on the evaluation checklist that remains blank. For all the good Tannehill has done, his team is 1-3 and in last place in the AFC East.
The reason: The Dolphins have turned the ball over 10 times. Tannehill is responsible for seven of those gifts — all directly contributing to his team’s losses.
“How do you handle pressure? How do you handle the game when things aren’t going well?” Joe Theismann, the former Redskins great, asked rhetorically.
“That just comes with maturity and time. The only way that you improve is to make a mistake and learn from it. That’s the tough part of playing quarterback.”
Tannehill gets another opportunity to evolve Sunday, leading his Dolphins into chilly Cincinnati, where the first-place Bengals (3-1) await with their pressure defense.
Marvin Lewis’ bunch averages a league-best four sacks a game, and will surely try to get after Miami’s young quarterback. As the first quarter of the season shows, Tannehill has a tendency not only to make mistakes, but also to do so in bunches.
He threw interceptions on three consecutive drives in a loss to Houston.
And for all the good he did against Arizona, Tannehill’s turnovers on back-to-back possessions (not including a kneel-down to close out regulation) turned a seven-point lead into a three-point overtime loss.
“You just go out and play your game,” said Tannehill, who has completed 56 percent of his throws and averages more than 260 yards passing per game. “You can’t think about every play, ‘Oh gosh, can’t make this mistake.’
“You go out, you play your game confidently and trust the guys that are around you. As a group, if everyone has that mind-set, everyone does what they’re supposed to do, then you’re going to make the plays.”
If you take the long view, Tannehill is playing at a level history said was possible.
His quarterback rating (66.4) is consistent with rookie quarterbacks over the past decade. And his fellow first-year quarterbacks — particularly Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson — have had their own struggles.
But what’s so maddening, particularly for Dolphins fans, is that if just two or three of Tannehill’s plays had gone the other way, Miami would be in first place in the AFC East, as opposed to in the cellar.
But if identifying the problem is half its cure, it’s also the easiest half. Actually fixing it when 60,000 orange-clad antagonists are screaming and Bengals pass-rusher Geno Atkins is bearing down? That’s tough for any quarterback — especially one with 23 starts at the position in the past six years.
“There will be a significant learning curve for him,” said Tim Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback who now works as an analyst for ESPN. “But I think Brandon Weeden, at times, has looked overwhelmed. I don’t think that’s been the case of Tannehill.
“I think you can easily make the case that Ryan has elevated the play of the guys around him. At the end of the day, as much as we can talk about everything of being a quarterback, that’s as important as anything.”