The season’s final weeks are here, and aside from marking a line of separation between teams that will make the playoffs and those that won’t — the classic and annual separation of contenders from pretenders — this is also a time for quarterback greatness.
This is the time the NFL’s most important players can carry their teams, flaws and all, to heights perhaps no one believed attainable.
This is around the time Aaron Rodgers got hot in 2010, throwing eight touchdown passes and only two interceptions to finish the regular season and then nine more scoring passes, including three in the Super Bowl, to carry the Packers to their latest world championship.
Joe Flacco, an otherwise ordinary quarterback, suddenly improved last winter. He threw 19 touchdown passes and only three interceptions after Dec. 1 — including 11 touchdowns without a pick in the playoffs — and the Ravens raised the Lombardi Trophy.
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The New York Giants were a mediocre team in 2011, their 9-7 record suggesting they would soon be escorted out of the playoffs after sneaking in. Then Eli Manning threw nine touchdown passes and only one interception in the playoffs. His quarterback rating jumped 10 points, he completed 75 percent of his passes in the Super Bowl, and a mediocre regular-season team won it all.
A hot quarterback is a great thing to have in the NFL’s coldest months.
A hot quarterback can make a mediocre team border on great. He can cover the flaws of a defense or an absent running game or leaky offensive line.
A hot quarterback can carry his team.
“No doubt about it,” Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said this week. “That’s why they get so much money, because they can carry the team. They are the biggest piece on the team.
“Everybody counts but everybody knows the quarterback is the most important guy on the team. It definitely can carry you. That’s what makes you a great quarterback, when you can carry your team.”
And that begs the question, is Ryan Tannehill ready to carry the Dolphins?
Is he capable of lifting a floundering, win-one, lose-one team with well-chronicled issues to the playoffs?
I believe he can.
I believe he’s capable.
I also believe the only way the Dolphins matter the final month of this season is if Tannehill does exactly that — puts the team on his back and does some heavy lifting.
If Tannehill does not suddenly light the Dolphins’ sky, the next month will continue to feature rolling blackouts of inconsistency and mediocrity.
But if he catches fire, we’re in for an interesting and exciting month.
So let’s examine this. Why do I believe Tannehill is capable of suddenly showing us things he really hasn’t shown all season?
Last week’s game, a loss, was depressing and disappointing considering the Dolphins wasted a 16-6 halftime lead and didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the fourth quarter for the seventh consecutive game.
But Tannehill showed something he hadn’t all year. He showed a desire and intent to make the big play.
Until last week, Tannehill’s play was almost robotic. He went through his progressions in logical fashion and, by his own admission, threw to Wallace only when the coverage and defense dictated.
Tannehill did exactly what his coaches told him. No more. No less. The man who considered becoming an orthopedic surgeon as a career outside football was trying to be too precise as with a scalpel.
Then against Carolina he brought out a machete.
He flung the football downfield. He threw it deep from the pocket, he threw it deep on roll-outs. He discarded his apparent distaste for low-percentage passes.
He let it rip. (His words.)
It was no coincidence Tannehill and Wallace suddenly seemed like the dangerous battery they were supposed to be but curiously had not been before. The quarterback was looking for his best weapon deep.
Did they always connect? No.
But the intent alone was a good sign.
There is another sign that suggests Tannehill can step up in the coming weeks. Namely, he stepped up in the final weeks as a rookie.
Tannehill threw seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions through November 2011. It was something of a disappointment compared with the playoff seasons Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson authored as rookies.
But something happened in December.
Tannehill turned it around. Things clicked. With the same talent around him he had earlier in the season, Tannehill threw five touchdown passes and only one interception in December.
That was better than RG3 (four TDs, one interception) over the final month and on par with Wilson (7-2) and Luck (6-2).
The Dolphins were 1-4 the previous five games before December 2012. With the help of a hot Tannehill, they finished 2-2 in their final four games.
So Tannehill can do this, although his excitement about the idea is only lukewarm.
“Well it’s a team sport, obviously,” he said. “You need the guys around you to play good. I think the guys around you can lift up a quarterback and make the tough plays when they are there. Obviously, it’s a quarterback league, and you have to be able to make the plays and throws in tough situations whether it is leading up to the playoffs or in the playoffs. I think I have what it takes, but I have to take it one game at a time and hopefully beat the Jets on Sunday.”
The response doesn’t exactly build confidence that Tannehill is on the verge of something great, does it? Perhaps he’s simply reflecting the culture set by coach Joe Philbin.
“Football is still a team game as far as I am concerned,” Philbin said. “I have never been around anybody, that one person that can carry a football team. It takes 11 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense, 11 guys on special teams.
“I think [Tannehill] has had some very, very good games here. I anticipate that he will continue to do so. I have been coaching for 30 years, I have never seen one player win a game on his own.”
Philbin obviously isn’t aware of Dolphins history and a guy named Dan Marino, who carried a nonexistent running game and an inconsistent defense for years. And doesn’t Philbin, the offensive coordinator for Green Bay in 2010, think Rodgers carried those Packers to the Super Bowl?
“Not necessarily,” he said. “I am not going to comment on those specifics. I am going to tell you that in 30 years of coaching, football is a team game and it takes 11 guys to execute in any phase.”
Philbin is wrong. And the hope here is Tannehill proves it to him.