Bill Belichick, the gruff Patriots coach who is infamously judicious with his words, actually said something memorable last week when discussing Ryan Tannehill.
He basically called Tannehill a game manager.
To some people, that’s an insult. That’s the term used when teams don’t ask their quarterbacks to win games, but rather simply not to lose them.
“The thing he does the best is control the game, manage the game, manage the offense,” said Belichick, who later insisted it wasn’t a slight.
He went on to explain: “I think it means they’re giving him a lot of responsibility. He’s the one who has to, at the line of scrimmage, get them out of a bad play if that’s what’s necessary and then after the ball is snapped decide what to do on the play whether it’s hand the ball off, keep it, keep it and throw it as the third part of the option, which some of their plays have. … I think that’s a lot of responsibility to give a player.”
The problem is that Tannehill hasn’t been winning much lately. Even as his completion percentage and passer rating continue to rise, his impact on the game is beginning to wane.
That’s bad news for Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who by all appearances is coaching for his job these final three weeks. After losses in two of their past three games, the Dolphins (7-6) must win out to have any hope of making the playoffs.
But the Dolphins are no longer scoring enough to win.
The typical NFL team averages 23 points a game. The Dolphins haven’t reached that figure in four of their past five games.
An even more startling statistic: The Dolphins scored 17.6 points per game in a disappointing December last year. They’re on pace to average 14.5 this time around.
That won’t nearly cut it against the Patriots (10-3) on Sunday in New England, where the Dolphins haven’t won since 2008.
During that five-game losing streak, the Dolphins have been outscored 147-65. The Patriots have averaged nearly 30 points in those five games; the Dolphins have scored 30 or more points just seven times in Philbin’s 45 games with Miami.
When asked to explain the team’s late-season regression on offense, Tannehill answered:
“I don’t know specifically. I know we haven’t played well in parts of the last two games specifically. You really look at the first half, the first two-and-a-half quarters of New York and the second half of this last week, we just didn’t put together full games in either situation. We have to find a way to do that.”
Is this offense better than it was a year ago?
“I don’t know. It’s not about that,” Tannehill said. “It’s a matter of wins and losses. Right now, we have three more games. We are just trying to fight to get wins.”
It’s hard to get wins when you can’t keep your quarterback upright.
The Dolphins spent tens of millions of dollars in free agency and used two of their first three draft picks in an attempt to fix their broken offensive line.
But since Branden Albert went down with a season-ending knee injury, a case could be made that the Dolphins’ pass protection is no better than it was a year ago. They allowed 3.6 sacks a game in 2013; they’ve allowed an average of 3.4 in the past five weeks.
Tannehill’s lack of time in the pocket has severely limited his ability to move the team. Throwing deep has never been Tannehill’s strength, but he barely even gets to try anymore.
Tannehill has attempted 35 passes of 20 or more yards (completing just eight, for a rating of 40.5). By way of comparison, New England’s Tom Brady has thrown deep 50 times this season.
But anyone who claims the Dolphins limit Tannehill the way the Chiefs limit Alex Smith (who is viewed as the prototypical game manager) is mistaken. Smith has thrown passes of 20 or more yards a scant 18 times this year.
“One thing to understand, in the passing game, most of the time, there is a deep throw somewhere built into the play that’s called,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “There were some [last week against the Ravens] that we called specifically to throw it down the field, but the ball wasn’t able to get there. I’d be happy to score quickly on deep throws when we can. We’ve got to find another way, that’s my job.”
So who is Ryan Tannehill? There is no one quarterback in the league who is a perfect comparison.
His completion percentage (66.7) ranks sixth in football, but his yards-per-attempt (6.66) is 31st. He doesn’t often turn the ball over, but he doesn’t produce many touchdowns. He’s more mobile than the average quarterback, but he’s no Colin Kaepernick on the ground.
In short, Tannehill is efficient, but not dynamic. He’s a little better than average, but not by much.
This all makes projecting his future dicey.
The third year for any quarterback is usually a crucial benchmark. Yet there’s a belief in some league quarters that Tannehill might need a bit longer to develop because of his background and pedigree. Tannehill played wide receiver at Texas A&M until midway through his junior year.
That’s why some around the NFL believe he can still make yet another leap — as soon as next season.
The Dolphins might not have that long to decide on his future. They have until May to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract — a one-year hit of roughly $15million.
League insiders believe they will, because the alternatives are no better, based on what probably will be available in the draft or free agency.
▪ The Dolphins on Saturday promoted defensive back T.J. Heath to their 53-man roster from their practice squad. Heath, who appeared in five games for the Jaguars in 2011, takes the roster spot of defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, who was placed on injured reserve.