Quarterbacks are more than team leaders. They’re also symbols of what their team stands for, in good times and bad.
And so it’s fitting that Ryan Tannehill, more than anyone, encapsulated the Dolphins’ terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.
Tannehill offered up three interceptions — including one returned for a touchdown — in the Dolphins’ 37-3 loss to the Titans, an historically awful affair played before a generously announced crowd of 60,165.
“I’m embarrassed by the way we played,” Tannehill said, uttering a word repeated more than once in a Dolphins locker room more shell-shocked than angry. “I didn’t play well and we didn’t play well as a team.”
Tannehill could have been more specific. He could have said no Dolphins team has played worse at home in more than four decades.
Sunday’s beatdown was the second-most lopsided home loss in the team’s long history, behind only the 45-point drubbing dished out by the Chiefs in 1968.
“I didn’t really see signs of this coming,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “We didn’t respond as well as I would have hoped.”
Added linebacker Cameron Wake: “It was an embarrassment all around. What more can you say?”
He could say this: A season that just eight days ago was full of promise is on the verge of collapse. The Dolphins (4-5) have now lost two consecutive games, and trail first-place New England by two games in the AFC East with seven to play.
Up next: A four-day turnaround, with a road game in Buffalo on Thursday.
Like the Titans, who gave up 51 points in a loss to Chicago the previous week, the Bills are far from world-beaters.
But when the Dolphins turn the ball over four times, as they did Sunday, anybody can beat them. Those four gifts led directly to 20 points for the Titans (4-6), and derailed any momentum Miami’s offense could generate. The Dolphins’ only trip to the red zone ended with a Tannehill pick — his third and last of the day.
By then, the game was long decided. But when Tannehill threw his first interception, snapping a streak of 107 passes and four games without one, it left a mark.
The Dolphins trailed 14-0 early in the second quarter, and their star running back was in the doghouse. Reggie Bush earned a seat on the bench after fumbling on the Dolphins’ second possession, making Tannehill the team’s only real offensive weapon.
Miami had the ball near midfield, and Tannehill targeted Charles Clay on a hitch route on third-and-1. But the Titans’ Akeem Ayers got a hand on the ball and redirected it to former University of Miami linebacker Colin McCarthy, who caught it and raced 49 yards for a touchdown.
The Dolphins managed to cut the lead to 21-3 late in the first half, and had the ball with a chance to draw closer. But Tannehill forced a pass to Anthony Fasano, whom Ayers had covered like a tarp. The result: another interception leading to points, this time a 37-yard field goal by Rob Bironas.
Any hope of the Dolphins making it a game vanished not long after the second half began. The Titans marched 85 yards on 12 plays, capped by a rainbow 26-yard touchdown pass from Jake Locker to Jared Cook.
Everything that followed Sunday was background noise. The game was for all intents over.
Tannehill finished the afternoon with a respectable line — 23 of 39 for 217 yards — but the only number that mattered was the three picks.
When asked what he hoped his rookie quarterback had learned Sunday, Philbin quipped: “Don’t throw it to the other team. I hate to be a smart aleck …”
That’s not to say the issues were limited to Tannehill.
Take, for instance, Bush, who agreed he should have been benched after coughing up his third fumble of the year. Bush, who managed just 21 yards on only four carries, later took to Twitter to apologize for how he’s played in recent weeks.
And the Dolphins’ defensive struggles on third down are apparently here to stay. The Titans converted 8 of 17 third-down attempts, as well as their only fourth-down try.
Even Miami’s run defense, the team’s Morning Star, didn’t rise to the occasion. The Titans’ Chris Johnson went for 126 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, the first 100-yard rusher the Dolphins have allowed in 23 games.
But in the end, it all comes back to the quarterback, who looked very much like a rookie for the first time in nearly two months.
“Obviously, it wasn’t our day, and we could sense that late [in the] third quarter,” Tannehill said, alone at the podium. “We knew were just going to be playing for our character at that point.”
Come Thursday, the Dolphins will be playing for more than just character. They’ll be playing to save their season.