Imagine being Matt Moore today. You are in your sixth season with the Miami Dolphins; only two teammates on the entire current roster have been here longer. But, suddenly, you are the new guy who must introduce himself, as if a Hello My Name Is tag still should be affixed to your uniform. Suddenly, now, you have gone from being the hidden face of obscurity to the man out front carrying a franchise’s playoff hopes.
Everything changed for the Dolphins here Sunday afternoon as an ash-gray sky poured rain on a football game and awful fate cast black clouds over a football team and its season.
Ryan Tannehill, the fifth-year starting quarterback, the ironman who had never missed a single NFL start and rarely missed even a snap, suffered an ACL injury to his left knee and “it doesn’t look good,” coach Adam Gase said afterward with foreboding. Miami would defeat the Arizona Cardinals 26-23 on a dramatic last-second field goal to improve to 8-5 and enhance playoff prospects, but the victory was Pyrrhic. Football teams including this one pledge to the macho mantra, “next man up,” but usually it’s a backup guard or linebacker stepping in for an injured teammate.
Now it is the most important position on the field.
Now the searing spotlight is thrust on the man accustomed only to shadows.
“Matt, how would you describe your style of play,” the quarterback here since 2011 was asked following Sunday’s game.
“That’s an interesting question,” he said. “I’m a pocket passer who likes to throw it down the field...”
Moore was Miami’s starting QB in 2011, the year before Tannehill arrived, but he had thrown a total of only 30 passes in the five seasons since entering Sunday’s game, including only one pass over the previous two years. Now the 32-year-old Moore inherits the biggest opportunity of his professional career with the expected announcement Monday that Tannehill will miss the rest of his season, casting Moore as the man who charged with leading to the Dolphins into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Moore and Tannehill have grown so close that Moore has turned down chances to go elsewhere in free agency.
“My heart breaks, man,” Moore said of watching what befell his friend. “That guys puts his heart and soul in this. I just wish him the best and hope it’s not terrible.”
Miami led 21-9 late in the third quarter Sunday when Tannehill was tackled backward after he’d released the ball on a hit by the Cardinals’ Calais Campbell, a former Miami Hurricane. The hit was a little low and a little late. No penalty was called but some on the Dolphins sideline saw the play as dirty. Tannehill left the field on his own but slowly and with a noticeable limp, a trainer gently holding his right elbow. When he later returned from the lockerroom in street clothes, having an idea of the severity of his injury, Tannehill fought his emotions on the bench. His emotions won. Teammates came by to console him, like mourners at a funeral home do.
“I told him we’re going to get this win for him,” receiver Jarvis Landry said to Tannehill. “No matter what. I don’t care if we have to play eight quarters, nine quarters. I promised him that and we made it happen.”
Later, in the postgame locker room, Tannehill, who did not speak to reporters, appeared to be near tears. At one point Moore and Tannehill exchanged an embrace and quiet words. At that moment, at least symbolically, the football and the team and the playoff dream were handed to Moore.
“I told him I loved him,” Moore said. “I told him regardless of what your situation is the team still needs you. He was shaken up. Just looking at him I knew he was upset.”
Tannehill has spent his five Dolphins seasons being the guy who wasn’t quite able to end the playoff drought, his personal statistics not bad at all, but with a December record of 8-12 before Sunday. In 2013 and ’14 Miami had a chance late in the year to make the playoffs but Tannehill and the team fell short. Tannehill was determined that wouldn’t happen again -- but then last week’s 38-6 loss in Baltimore left that in doubt.
Tannehill’s entire drive was to reach the playoffs, and he rose up big on Sunday before being injured, with a 124 passer rating and three touchdown throws before all of it was snatched from his hand in an instant.
Moore will get a cram-course in piloting the offense now as Miami prepares to play at the Jets, then at the Bills, then close at home vs. the Patriots -- likely needing to win two of those three division-rival games to make the postseason.
Sunday’s unexpected sudden deployment was exacerbated by miserable, wet conditions.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, I haven’t done this in a long time!” he said of what was on his mind trotting to that first huddle. “Then it was execution, tempo, command and confidence -- that’s what was going through my head.”
Moore did well, given the conditions and the rust.
“He helped put us in a position to win,” said guard Jermon Bushrod.
Moore would complete three of five passes for 47 yards, including a 29-yard strike to Kenny Stills to the Arizona 1-yard line to set up the game-winning field goal.
The Dolphins beat the elements as well as the Cardinals on Sunday. The defense played well after struggling the previous couple of games. Under ordinary circumstances it would have felt like an exhilarating victory reflected in a buoyant, joyful postgame lockerroom.
This one was too quiet, though. Much. Everybody knew why, but the only snapshot you needed to explain it all was that one moment when two quarterbacks embraced, two friends, one handing the team and the season’s hopes to the other.