At the instant rookie Ryan Tannehill was declared the Dolphins’ starting quarterback for 2012, it was as if balloons and confetti fell from heaven across South Florida. Listen and you could hear the buoyant brass of an approaching parade. Spontaneously, Dolfans began a joyful chorus of Happy Days Are Here Again.
The word for that feeling is hope.
The other word for that feeling is desperation.
We as a community and fandom have waited so long and wanted so hard for the Dolphins to at last be major players in the NFL again — to be relevant — that even unproven promise is worth saddling and riding. After all, sometimes even riding blind to destinations unknown is better than going nowhere, right?
It’s funny, though, the reaction I have heard since Tannehill’s ascension in speaking with friends and reading readers’ emails.
Tempering the optimism is an undercurrent of caution — a wariness and a weariness — not so much because of doubts about Tannehill, but more because a decade-plus of mostly disappointment and false hope have left Dolfans burned and scarred, the skin calloused, and the outlook, too.
“I’m afraid to hope for too much,” as reader Nicholas Friedman of Miami wrote in a surprisingly typical email. “Too many years of letdowns…”
“If you are a fan of this team you are always waiting for the next shoe to drop,” wrote a fan who goes by Pjx1Fin72. “It would not surprise me if Tannehill gets hit by a truck before opening day…”
Whatever-can-go-wrong-will is the unfortunate mantra of many fans. It is something of a defense mechanism, of course. The lower the expectations the shorter the fall when the collapse comes.
We all want to believe that Tannehill will be great if only because he is the club’s first quarterback selected in the NFL Draft’s first round since Dan Marino in 1983. But when it comes to the Dolphins, we have become the Show-Me state.
This franchise has done so much to lose the faith of its fans that the anointment of Tannehill only means for now that the process of re-earning that faith is under way.
Miami has withered to also-ran status in the league, 39 seasons removed from the last Super Bowl win, 28 years since even the last SB appearance. The playoff victory drought dates to Dec. 30, 2000.
The franchise’s two towering icons? Don Shula is 82 now. Dan Marino is a spokesman for the AARP.
So Tannehill’s task is big and broad as the symbolic (and literal) new leader and face of the franchise.
It isn’t enough that he find a way to end the Patriots’ long stranglehold on the AFC East under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — and do so with a supporting cast that seems pretty marginal.
This rookie must do more than just find a way to win, because this club needs more than just a strong quarterback. It needs a hero, a superstar, a savior — someone with the talent but also the charisma to heal all those scars and all that cynicism.
The law of averages alone might suggest Tannehill will be up to the task.
This has become The Team That Luck Forgot. The Dolphins are due a damned break. Due for something good to happen; no, something great. Dolfans seek tangible evidence that, post-Marino, the club has not fallen under a dooming curse, after all.
You would think otherwise if scanning all that has gone wrong in the 13 years (an appropriate number) since Marino retired.
A brief chronology of lowlights is in order to help explain the Dolfan mind-set and help explain how Tannehill’s job is so enormous.
In 2001, this team could have drafted Drew Brees but chose a cornerback named Jamar Fletcher.
In 2004, Ricky Williams, then the best runner in the game, fell under the spell of drugs and abruptly retired in his prime.
In 2005, Miami had the second overall pick but settled for Ronnie Brown because it was a bad draft year for QBs. Well, unless you count Aaron Rodgers.
In 2006, Brees was available in free agency but this club decided to trade for Daunte Culpepper.
The next year brought Cam Cameron. And later in ’07 the team decided Ted Ginn Jr. was a smarter draft pick than Darrelle Revis.
Interspersed were the myriad other bad personnel decisions such as spending a second-round draft pick to acquire A.J. Feeley or using one to select Pat White. And along the way all of the would-be saviors — Jimmy Johnson, Nick Saban, Bill Parcells — failed to varying degrees.
More recently, of course, The Team That Luck Forgot failed very publicly to sign coach Jim Harbaugh, got turned down by coach Jeff Fisher, and failed to land prized free agent Peyton Manning.
Things became so depressing around this franchise that owner Stephen Ross misguidedly sought to mask the stench with bells and whistles, rolling out a bunch of celebrity part-owners on an orange carpet. Fans weren’t buying the diversionary tactic.
Now comes the latest restart, the latest attempt to win games and win back fans.
Now, Joe Philbin becomes the eighth coach (including interim guys) since Shula left after the 1995 season, and Tannehill becomes the 17th different quarterback to start since Marino left after the 1999 season.
Philbin seems like he could be the right guy, seems like a bright and innovative offensive mind. Then again, so did Cam Cameron. So prove it, Joe.
And Tannehill looks the part, could turn out great, and earliest glimpses are promising. So prove it, Ryan. Show-Me state, remember?
Linebacker Karlos Dansby said of the 2012 Dolphins, “We can be great.” Added fellow defender Cameron Wake, “We have the talent.”
The owner, Ross, prone to rose-colored hyperbole, said, “I think we have a great team here,” adding, “people can talk the talk, but you can see we’re walking the walk.”
No. We can’t see that yet, sir. The long walk, the one with Tannehill now out front, begins Sept. 9.
Dolfans wait with hope but hardened caution to see where the long walk leads.