Greg Cote: Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill must embrace greatness

07/26/2013 12:01 AM

07/27/2013 12:11 AM

The Dolphins’ new receiver, Mike Wallace, said something notable the other day that got lost in the slipstream of training camp. He might have said it the day attention swiveled to top draft pick Dion Jordan’s shoulder not being quite ready. Or maybe it was the day Mike Pouncey’s “Free Hernandez” hat was the honey for the media bee.

Wallace was speaking of his quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, and said:

“He wants to be great.”

I found that interesting because “great” is precisely what Miami fans dream Tannehill will become, and exactly what this franchise needs him to be, but it is not a word we had heard applied. It was as if no one dared.

Buttoned-down coach Joe Philbin, who hands out praise as if it were a precious commodity in short supply, speaks of Tannehill in terms of increments of progress.

The quarterback himself talks of “taking this team to the next level” but parries queries of his own talent. This week as camp opened he said, “I’m not here to compare myself to anyone else” — and he hadn’t even been specifically asked to.

One year ago, Tannehill was just a rookie trying to beat out journeymen Matt Moore for the starting job. Even now, the job firmly his, “He comes to work like a seventh-rounder,” Wallace said. That was not meant as an insult, but as a compliment for the absence of any diva in Tannehill’s persona.

This young pro who turns 25 on Saturday is more likely to offer an aw-shucks smile than to self promote in any way, let alone speak aloud intentions of greatness.

The context of Tannehill’s NFL arrival is another reason expectations for him have been muted. “Great” has gone elsewhere. Fellow quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the national stars drafted 1-2, and both lived up to their billing. And third-round pick Russell Wilson catapulted Tannehill in stardom and regard as well, all three rookies leading their teams to the playoffs.

Tannehill, drafted eighth overall, threw for 3,294 yards last season as Miami snored to a 7-9 record. Some seasons, that might have made him NFL Rookie of the Year. Instead, he wasn’t so much overshadowed by the Luck/RGIII/Wilson troika as obliterated by an eclipse.

You knew exactly who he meant, or at least who he thought we meant, when Tannehill said, “I’m not here to compare myself to anyone else.”

Those three rendered Tannehill’s potential forgotten. Ignored. ESPN’s Ron Jaworski’s new quarterback rankings slot Tannehill 24th of 32.

That is why it was refreshing to hear Wallace set the Tannehill bar at “great.”

It is the first time Miami’s guy has been included, however quietly, in the conversation about the next wave of great young quarterbacks.

It is about time somebody — anybody — stepped out of the long line of lemmings conceding long-range superiority to Luck, Griffin or Wilson.

Former QB Chad Pennington, on a conference call this week with Dolphins season-ticket holders, said Tannehill last season learned “there are more games lost than won.” It might have been a reference to Tannehill’s league-worst passer rating on crucial third-down plays, or the fact seven of his 13 interceptions came on that down.

Let’s not already caution down Tannehill into the role of play-it-safe caretaker, though. He’s too young and was drafted too high and has too much potential to give up on “great” and already settle for good or safe.

Conceding anything to his more celebrated draft classmates always was wrong-headed, based on one season, because Tannehill did not enter the league as right-now-ready as the other three, after only 20 college starts at Texas A&M. Neither was Tannehill surrounded by as many weapons, a situation Wallace and an emerging Lamar Miller should make better.

The mind casts back30 years to a guy named Dan Marino, whose arrival into the NFL had some common ground with Tannehill’s.

Young Ryan could take a lesson from the greatest Dolphin.

The lesson is: Concede nothing.

If Tannehill is any sort of competitive he should want to compare himself to others, even if that fire is kept internal. Luck, Griffin and Wilson are the immediate and career measuring stick set before him, whether he admits it or not.

Marino had his own, and he relished it.

Marino of course famously fell to the 27th overall draft selection in 1983, chosen after fellow QBs John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and, from Division II, Ken O’Brien.

Marino told me once that when even O’Brien was picked ahead of him, he felt nearly nauseous with anger. “Who’s Ken O’Brien?” he asked his agent.

That draft-day disrespect fueled a Hall of Fame Dolphins career.

“Just say I was motivated,” Marino said.

The greatest Dolphin was the sixth QB in his draft class.

Tannehill now stands a distant fourth in his in terms of attention, critical regard and estimation of potential.

Marino absolutely did compare himself to others — to every passer selected ahead of him.

Tannehill should embrace the same motivation. He should have a healthy, competitive anger for the way Luck, Griffin and even Wilson were so quickly and roundly seen as better than him — even if it is nothing he would ever admit aloud.

One gets to “great” by any means necessary, after all.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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