We cannot claim either of these statements about Miami’s two major quarterbacks are a fact. We’d admit both are conjecture, not science -- still unknowable with certainty -- and acknowledge there might be disagreement on either. But we’ll offer a case why we think each is true:
1. Ryan Tannehill is good enough. It’s time for Dolphins fans to get past doubts and equivocation that have dogged him his first 4 1/2 NFL seasons.
2. Brad Kaaya is coming back. The Hurricanes’ QB would benefit from another college year and there is reasonable cause for UM fans to think he’ll agree.
The opinion of Tannehill may never move all the way past debatable among some fans. The thought on Kaaya’s future will be revealed soon enough. Meantime I’m not being a frontrunner here with either opinion. Tannehill is coming off a season-low 149-yard game in Sunday’s win over the Jets, and still I’m pushing him as the long-term answer. Kaaya is coming off a big 356-yard, four-touchdown game in the win over Pitt, yet I still doubt he’s next-level ready.
Let’s frame the argument surrounding both young men:
THE CASE THAT TANNEHILL IS GOOD ENOUGH
Adam Gase, quarterback whisperer, took over as Dolphins coach this season and immediately decided this about Tannehill: He couldn’t be fairly judged. Not yet because in four seasons he’d been a punching bag, sacked more times (184) than any other QB. By a lot. Gase felt so strongly about not taking sacks as the key to Tannehill’s development that during training camp he said this when pressed on why Miami wasn’t attempting more long throws: “There’s a time and a place [for deep passes]. But there’s also a time and place to not get sacked 60 times in a year. If you want to stand back there and have your quarterback get his brains beat out, then go at it.”
Gase saw Tannehill’s potential amid the bruises and pounding. And this season we have been reminded the difference protection makes. Tannehill has averaged a subpar 72.5 passer rating in the three games he was sacked 16 times. But that rating has shot to a solid 94.2 in the five games he was sacked a total of only three times.
With an increasingly complementary ground game led by wunderkind Jay Ajayi and solid blocking, Tannehill is averaging 7.79 yards per attempt, a key statistic that finds him sixth-best in the league. And his five games with a completion of 50 yards or more are tied for the most with Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. His touch on deep passes has improved, as has his still-rising comfort in Gase’s new system. No NFL starting QB has played under more different head coaches and offensive coordinators in 4 1/2 seasons than Tannehill. His ceiling is yet unreached. We are just beginning to discover the Tannehill who has time to throw in an offense he knows fully.
Tannehill is durable; he has yet to miss a start -- all the more remarkable for the beating he’s taken. Gase has called him probably the offense’s most consistent performer. He throws well on the move and is mobile, about to surpass Bob Griese’s three-decades-old franchise record for career rushing yards by a QB. And this may surprise you: His 15,460 passing yards are third-most ever in any player’s first four seasons, trailing only a couple of guys named Peyton Manning and Dan Marino. Is that really the quarterback some are still doubting?
Yes, there is a caveat still shadowing Tannehill. It is the lack of playoffs, of winning enough. Head coach and quarterback are the two jobs in the NFL judged most harshly and perhaps disproportionately by this bottom line, and it is not unfair to apply that to Tannehill. Finally, with a cleaner pocket and an extra beat to throw, it is a fair fight. But the onus is on him and it’s all the greater after three straight wins to level the season at 4-4 at midyear. The idea of playoffs has grown from hopeless cause to nearly expected. Now the quarterback must lead the way.
I am not overselling Tannehill. He isn’t the Next Marino. He isn’t Tom Brady. But solid, steady quarterbacking is itself a prize in the NFL, and hard to come by. Ask the Browns, Jets and so many other teams who keep desperately pounding the reset button at the most important position. I like Tannehill’s upside, his chance to prove worthy of that first-round draft status and contract extension. Greatness is a rarity, an historical bonus. For Miami, right now, by my eye, Ryan Tannehill is good enough ... and getting better.
THE CASE THAT KAAYA SHOULD COME BACK
UM’s junior quarterback has not had a great season big enough to reshape NFL draft boards. He was hurt vs. Florida State, the game in which a tooth was knocked from his head, and it took him awhile to fully recover -- a partial reason for that four-game losing streak. He has been hampered by spotty line play that has seen him sacked 21 times. Preseason talk of Kaaya being a certain first-round draft pick and maybe even top-10 has largely evaporated.
“This is as bad a quarterback [draft] class as I can remember,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay wrote recently. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking any of these quarterbacks in the first round.”
An NFL scout I know was among those working Saturday’s Miami-Pitt game, and I asked him by phone Monday what he thought of Kaaya and of this QB class in general.
“1996,” he answered.
I had no idea what he meant. He explained that was the last year no quarterback was drafted in the first round -- but that he thought it could happen in 2017 for the lack of a ready and/or certain franchise QB.
The scout told me Kaaya has near-perfect size at 6-4 and 210 but that he needs to get stronger and develop what is “a pretty good, not great” arm, and, bottom line, that he’d benefit from one more season in Mark Richt’s pro-style offense. He included Kaaya among the most draftable QBs along with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and maybe North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, but the scout’s emphasis was, “You don’t come out early at that position unless you’re sure [about the first round], and Kaaya has a better shot in ’18.”
When you combine this uncertainty with what surely will be Richt’s sales pitch that he return for his senior year, Kaaya’s likelihood of sticking around for a fourth UM season seems better to us today than it did in September.
The message for South Florida fans on both sides of the pro/college aisle?
Quit worrying about your quarterback.