This football club’s proud past segued to its promising future — a ceremonial handoff of sorts — in a neat little moment during Sunday’s Dolphins game here.
Defensive greats Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas were up in the press box holding a news conference following their halftime induction onto the club’s stadium Honor Roll when, down on the field, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s right hand was a scalpel cutting deftly through the St. Louis Rams’ defense as the third quarter commenced.
A television directly behind Taylor and Thomas had been muted, so you saw in pantomime Tannehill’s seventh completion of the drive — an arrow into the end zone onto Anthony Fasano’s chest for what proved to be the winning points.
“It was awesome,” Zach was saying.
He meant seeing his and Taylor’s names revealed into franchise immortality.
He could as well have been describing what increasing evidence suggests Miami has found in this kid QB. The Answer at last, is what it has found. The future.
There was so much crazy about this 17-14 victory that leveled Miami’s season record at 3-3. The Dolphins were outgained more than 2-to-1 in total yards. The running game didn’t, and the defense spent much of the afternoon getting trampled.
“It wasn’t pretty,” coach Joe Philbin told his players in the winning locker room.
Nobody was talking about Tannehill afterward, and yet all he’d done was have the best game of his young career, at least statistically. He was an efficient 21 for 29 for 185 yards, with a 29-yard scoring strike to Marlon Moore before his game-winner to Fasano. He had zero interceptions. His passer rating topped 100 for the first time.
On a day when a strong Rams defense bottled up Reggie Bush and the ground game and forced the result into Tannehill’s hands, all he did was deliver, though quietly, as if it was fully expected.
On a day when a Tannehill turnover would likely have turned this game, he kept it clean.
This is a good sign: When your rookie quarterback’s strong performance begins to become assumed, like, no big deal.
“I thought his decision making was good. Again,” said Philbin, when prompted. “When you don’t throw the ball to the other team, that’s a good place to start.”
Tannehill took a couple of sacks, avoided more than a few with his mobility and rollouts, and continued to earn respect of his teammates. A rookie — especially at this position — does that by making his teammates begin forget he’s a rookie at all.
“He’s getting better every single week,” said tackle Jake Long.
Said Fasano: “His growth from game to game has been critical and incredible.”
This NFL season will not stop being the year of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III when it comes to rookie quarterbacks. Tannehill will forever be, well, the third. But Dolfans will be increasingly pleased with the player fate gave them the more we see games from him like Sunday’s: Accurate, efficient, turnover-free.
A Dolphins team that had found ways to lose has begun to find ways to win, something hardly coincidental with Tannehill’s progress.
“It’s been changing for this team,” said Moore. “We’re getting it together, point blank.”
Said linebacker Karlos Dansby: “We have the potential to be great.”
Marvel at where this club is today compared to a year ago, something else tangibly tied to Tannehill’s arrival.
One year ago the Dolphins were winless. The exit door was drawing ever nearer for embattled coach Tony Sparano. The “Suck For Luck” campaign had begun — with even many Dolfans hoping the record would sty winless so the club might get the overall No. 1 draft pick.
A year later, Sunday brought more validation that Miami has the right young quarterback, and it also delivered some symbolism that the Dolphins perhaps have also found a keeper in the first-year head coach, Philbin.
The juxtaposition was interesting.
Jeff Fisher had turned down the ardent courtship of Miami to go to the Rams instead, and stood on the opposite sideline from Philbin Sunday.
And wouldn’t you know that the game would turn in part on two coaching decisions — turn all Miami’s way.
Philbin called a fake punt from his own 40 with a scant 17-14 lead and only 3:22 to play. The move was extremely daring. If it failed and proved costly, the decibels on the second-guessing would have been enormous. But it succeeded on Chris Clemons’ 3-yard run. Miami eventually did punt, but the gutsy fake kept the ball away from St. Louis’ offense an added minute and a half, which was huge at the time.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of rhythm on offense,” Philbin said, explaining the gamble. “We felt it would be there. We’d practiced it a lot. We told the players [Saturday night] that if it was there, we’d go for it.”
That is coaching. That St. Louis’ susceptibility to a fake punt had been identified on film, and also that Philbin showed faith in his team to execute the play.
Fisher’s big decision would come a bit later. With a time out left, he had a chance to run one more play (and should have) but instead let the clock wind down to 4 seconds before trying a 66-yard field goal — the length of which would have shattered the league record.
I don’t know any of this means Philbin “out-coached” Fisher. But maybe it added a little security to the idea that maybe Miami has itself the right new coach moving forward, along with the right new quarterback.
Somebody asked Tannehill afterward if this was the best he’d played.
“I don’t know. There was a throw that I should have made to Charles Clay, but I threw it low and left,” he said. “Still things to correct. Just trying to get better every week.”
The rookie seems to be doing exactly that, and so does the team following his lead.