Like texting, sacks distract Miami Dolphins while on the drive

A psychologist said excessive sacks could impair Ryan Tannehill’s ability to drive the team in the same way texting affects drivers of cars.

10/19/2013 4:51 PM

10/20/2013 9:46 PM

There’s a reason Florida and 40 other states have banned text-messaging while driving. It’s incredibly dangerous — more so than even driving under the influence, researchers say.

Here’s why: The human brain is not built to handle that many stimuli at once.

“Attention is a limited-capacity thing,” said Keith Kaufman, a Washington-based clinical psychologist and research associate at Catholic University. “If you’re paying attention to one thing, you have less attention to go around for anything else.”

The technical term is maladaptive focus, and it’s not limited to the open roads.

Substitute the words “worrying about Mario Williams” for “texting” and “running the Dolphins’ offense” for “driving,” and you get an idea why the record number of sacks Ryan Tannehill has taken this year is troubling.

First, Tannehill’s physical health is at risk. But his mental well-being — most specifically, his ability to concentrate on doing his job — could be imperiled as well.

“When you play physical, you bring your will to them and make them shudder or look over their shoulder when maybe somebody’s not there,” Dolphins star pass rusher Cameron Wake said.

“It’s the nature of this beast, and you want to be that beast that causes those ghosts and those footsteps.”

Tannehill swears the 24 sacks he has sustained this fall have not affected him mentally. Those words will be put the test Sunday, when the Dolphins (3-2) play host to the resurgent Williams and his Buffalo Bills (2-4).

Williams, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, has eight sacks this season, third-most in football.

“No question, he’s back to the Mario Williams he was before,” Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said. “He’s playing real good football.”

And he’s going against an offensive line that has allowed more sacks per game (4.8) than any team in the league.

It’s a worrisome matchup for the Dolphins, who arguably rely more on their second-year quarterback than they should.

Miami has been historically awful at running the ball this season, and its defense has been exposed by several big-time quarterbacks.

So the last thing the Dolphins can afford is regression from Tannehill. But if they can’t keep him upright, it’s likely to happen.

“He’s integrating a lot of information,” said Kaufman, who counsels high school and college athletes. “If he’s not completely plugged into what he’s doing at the line of scrimmage, that’s where that maladaptive focus comes in.”

This isn’t some faculty-lounge theory. There are real-life examples.

One is David Carr, considered one of the greatest draft busts in NFL history. The then-expansion Texans made Carr the first overall pick in 2002, and he went on to start all but five games for them over the next five seasons.

But they forgot to get him a competent offensive line. As a rookie, Carr was sacked 77 times, an NFL record that still stands. In his second pro game, he was sacked a staggering nine times, and hit more than a dozen times more.

“Yeah, he got sacked a lot that year,” said Dom Capers, Carr’s coach in Houston who was fired after four losing seasons. “When you’re putting together an expansion team, you’re going to be short in some areas. Unfortunately, we were short in that area.”

The protection didn’t get much better with time, however. Carr led the league in sacks taken in 2004 (49) and 2005 (68).

It was widely believed that the constant duress ruined any chance he had to succeed. Carr’s career completion percentage was below 60 percent, and he threw more interceptions (71) than touchdowns (65). He’s now out of the league and a cautionary tale.

The Dolphins don’t want the same to happen to Tannehill.

Jonathan Martin, their starting left tackle, spent every day of his bye week at the team’s training facility, trying to decipher what has gone wrong.

Tyson Clabo, Miami’s other bookend who has allowed six sacks, knows he’s better than that. He has film from last season proving it.

“At times, I am playing at a high level,” Clabo said. “The consistency’s not there, which is unusual. You just can’t have, out of 70 plays, two or three letdowns. To be a professional athlete, you have to do it the right way every time.”

Dolphins coaches and players argue that sacks alone don’t tell the story. Whereas sacks are way up, quarterback hits (13 in five games, according to Pro Football Focus) are actually down.

But factored together, that means Tannehill still has been planted roughly seven times a game — an alarming amount. If there is an upside, it’s this: he’s still hanging in there to make the throw instead of hitting the eject button.

Said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin: “It’s better to have a guy willing to sit in there and function while some stuff is compressing around him as opposed to, ‘I thought I felt something. I’ve got to get out of here.’ ”

But even the toughest minds can handle so much abuse before it has an effect — one that could potentially change the trajectory of Tannehill’s promising young career.

“You could imagine that scenario that it could happen,” Kaufman said. “Ideally, if someone is going through this, it takes a lot of focus to tune this out.

“[A therapist] would teach him to let go of your fear. Let go of your concern with your pass rush or the risk of being sacked. Just focus on your job as a quarterback.”

In other words: Put the phone down and drive.

• The Dolphins elevated defensive tackle Isaako Aaitui to their active roster from the practice squad Saturday, filling the roster spot created when they cut Marvin Austin earlier in the week.

If Aaitui plays Sunday against the Bills, it would complete a compelling comeback story. Aaitui was in camp with the Dolphins last season, then got cut and was claimed by the Jets. Before the season even began, Aaitui tore multiple ligaments in his knee, and was lost for the season.

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