The Dolphins’ first practice for their first playoff game in eight years was commencing Wednesday, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill was back out there, football in hand. He tossed the ball a foot or two in the air a few times, catching it himself. That was the extent of his throwing. He wore shorts and a T-shirt. On the sideline. He did not practice. Later, he ambled through the team’s locker room with no limp evident but with the flexible black brace on his left knee unmistakable.
The coyness from the Miami camp is cute. Tannehill has not yet officially been ruled out of playing this Sunday. It is Gamesmanship 101, standard-issue subterfuge. The Dolphins and coach Adam Gase want to give the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday’s hosts, one more thing to think about, to maybe plan for. Because they can.
It is pointless, though, on a few levels.
First, Tannehill ain’t playing, folks, nor should he, and everybody knows it. That No. 17 was unable to participate even on a limited basis Wednesday meant he is not as close to recovered from his Dec. 11 knee injury as he needs to be, and the idea he might have a physical epiphany in the next day or so — be as mobile, be himself, enough to shed a month’s rust and face a very tough defense in 10-degree winter — is beyond credulity. By the end of practice even Gase seemed no longer interested in the ruse.
Matt Moore will start a fourth consecutive game, Gase had to admit Wednesday, “unless something changes drastically in the next two or three days.”
Drastically? Closer to miraculously. Gase called the drama and doubt surrounding Tannehill “a big gray area right now for us.” Part of the gray is that Tannehill has been the picture of health in his NFL career before this, never missing a game. Since the knee injury is a first for Tannehill, “He’s trying to figure out, ‘How am I supposed to be feeling?’ ” Gase said. “It’s not as easy as we all want it to be. I have to be smart. I don’t want any setbacks. I’m not gonna put him in harm’s way.”
There should be no gray area, really. Abundant caution should make it closer to black and white. If he is not 100 percent — especially in the mobility that would allow him to protect himself in the pocket, to evade sacks — he must not play.
Tannehill is the long-term future. But here’s the thing. In the short term, for Sunday’s game, it isn’t as if even a healthy Tannehill would change much. Miami would still be the biggest underdog of the NFL’s wild-card weekend. Maybe the betting line would eke down from 10 points to eight or nine? (Or maybe not, if the perception was Tannehill wasn’t fully ready.) Tannehill isn’t an elite QB or a superstar, and Moore isn’t an inexperienced unknown you’re afraid to play. Tannehill is more mobile and a threat on read-option plays, but, otherwise, well, Tannehill’s passer rating this season was a career-high 93.5; Moore’s, in a smaller sample, is 105.6.
“Matt’s done a good job,” Gase said.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the Dolphins offense is pretty much the same with both passers and that no different preparation is required.
“I would agree with that,” Moore said.
This isn’t like the Green Bay Packers preparing for their playoff opener if Aaron Rodgers was injured and Brett Hundley was starting instead. (Hands, please, if you knew Rodgers’ backup was a person named Brett Hundley.) Miami’s Tannehill-to-Moore dropoff isn’t even as bad as the playoff fate of the Oakland Raiders, who go this weekend from Derek Carr, injured at the end of a Pro Bowl season, to one Connor Cook.
Good teams (and ostensibly all playoff teams are) find ways to overcome even calamity at the most important position. New England reminded us of that earlier this season when Tom Brady was docked four games on account of Deflategate and the Patriots won with Jimmy Garoppolo, and even with Jacoby Brissett.
Now Miami must find a way to win with Moore, and not see that as a crutch of an excuse if they fail to do so. But it will take far more than Moore, of course.
The Dolphins, if they are to shock the NFL on Sunday and win the franchise’s first postseason game since 2000, must find a way to take on the road the same formula that beat the Steelers here, 30-15, this past October. Miami sort of dominated, if you’ll recall.
Jay Ajayi that day rolled one of this three 200-yard games. The offensive line was great. The defense intercepted Ben Roethlisberger twice and sacked him twice and held him to a 57.1 passer rating. Le’Veon Bell had a modest 53 yards rushing. Cornerback Byron Maxwell limited Antonio Brown to four catches for 39 yards, which is like reducing a monsoon to a light sprinkle. Tannehill wasn’t great that day, had no TD passes. It was the entire team being good enough, being better than the Steelers. It may have been the best showing of the season. It is in the Dolphins to do that. Now, though, can they again?
Ajayi has one of those red plastic gas cans hanging from his locker stall and a sign on it asks, “Can you fill your tank every week?” — with a fuel gauge pointed to full.
If the Dolphins can get that this week, a full team performance, just like in October, then who starts at quarterback for Miami won’t matter much. The Dolphins will have given themselves a chance.