Before Ryan Tannehill could truly command the Dolphins’ huddle, he had to first take charge of their classroom.
Every Friday and Saturday during the season, the team’s skill-position players gather for a half-hour or so to fine-tune the game plan. Coaches aren’t invited. The players-only meetings are organized by the team’s starting quarterback, and are serious affairs.
Chad Pennington once led them, before passing the torch to Chad Henne. Henne did the same for Matt Moore in 2011.
And after Tannehill won the starting job in camp, it was the rookie’s turn to take over. Although the meetings are collaborative efforts, in the end, it’s on Tannehill to make sure his receivers and backs are doing their jobs.
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That’s a lot to ask of a 10-year veteran, let alone someone just out of college. But Tannehill didn’t flinch the first time he led the meeting, Moore said recently, and hasn’t since.
“There’s no fear,” Moore said. “I think a lot guys would be timid, or just wouldn’t do it in general. The lack of knowledge scares some people.
“Ryan’s got it all. I don’t know if he was nervous or not, but he handled it like any vet would do.”
When the curtain lifts on the NFL season’s second act Sunday, with the Dolphins playing host to the Titans, Tannehill steps forward as Miami’s leading man.
Plenty of Dolphins have played better — Cameron Wake and Mike Pouncey, to be sure. And plenty others have more experience. But none are asked to perform under the same level of scrutiny and pressure as Tannehill, who has the surprising Dolphins playing relevant games in November.
“When we talk about leadership, [it’s] setting a great example, communicating with your teammates or staff in a positive matter, and caring about each other,” coach Joe Philbin said. “I think he exhibits those three.
“The proof’s in the pudding, to a certain degree, and I think he’s displayed an ability [to play].”
The numbers back that up.
Through eight games, Tannehill has completed 58.9 percent of his attempts for 1,762 yards. There’s no question that, barring unforeseen injury, he will break Dan Marino’s team rookie passing record — and perhaps do so as soon as Thursday. He has not turned the ball over since September. And the Dolphins have won three of their past four since starting the season 1-3.
But is he satisfied? Not even close.
“I’m just trying to improve all areas,” Tannehill said. “I want to continue to get better, be more consistent with my feet, with my accuracy, timing on throws, just being more on the same page with my receivers and being able to get the ball just a tad bit quicker.”
For most rookie quarterbacks, simple week-to-week improvement would be enough. But Tannehill messed up. He went and made Miami competitive.
The next five days will go a long way in determining whether the Dolphins are for real, and if Tannehill can perform when the pressure swells.
After the Titans (3-6) on Sunday, the Dolphins play at Buffalo in a Thursday-night game — their only nationally televised appearance of the season.
A loss in either game, and the Dolphins’ path to the playoffs becomes perilous. They still have two games against the Patriots and a trip to San Francisco left on the schedule.
But recent history indicates that if Miami can sweep the week, they have a realistic shot at the postseason.
In 2010 and 2011, there were 13 teams that have won both games of a Sunday-Thursday double-feature. Ten of those teams made the playoffs. And of the four teams to go 2-0 in a span of five days this season, three — the Colts, Ravens and Giants — would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
“When you have those quick turnarounds, it definitely can change a season,” said receiver Brian Hartline, who, like most of his teammates, has never played in the postseason. “This is the time of year when you’re trying to make a push, and if you don’t make that push, you’re not going to be in the playoffs.”
But the fact they’re even uttering the “P” word in South Florida is a testament to the job Philbin has done in his first season, and Tannehill’s maturation.
Out of necessity and adversity, the learning curve has been steep. Tannehill had a disastrous start to his career, throwing interceptions on three consecutive possessions against the Texans in the season opener.
But Philbin knew then they were mistakes Tannehill wouldn’t often repeat. The young quarterback had figured out what he had done wrong by the time he got back to the sidelines.
Still, such a rocky start would rock the confidence of many a young quarterback. But the following week, there was no hesitation in the meeting room.
The night before the Raiders game, Tannehill sought out Anthony Fasano — who’s four years his elder — and had a specific plan for the next day. If Oakland showed a certain defense in the red zone, Fasano was to adjust and expect the ball
“Sure enough, we get that look, and [Fasano] scores a touchdown on it,” Moore said. “Thank god for those meetings and that extra conversation.”
And, many in the organization would add, the player throwing the ball.
The Dolphins on Saturday cut cornerback Brandon McDonald after signing him just three days earlier.