The first month of this Dolphins season could not have been scheduled any more perfectly if the goal was to get a read on how much Ryan Tannehill has improved and how high his NFL career might be headed. (And that is and will be the goal, until the answer comes clear. Nothing remains more important to this franchise than the plane of its young quarterback’s ascent.)
The first four games offer an incremental gauge, each test greater than the last.
We began with lowly Cleveland and its lower-tier quarterback, Brandon Weeden. Here was an opponent Miami should beat, and a passer of the type we expected Tannehill to be better than without debate.
Next came a better opponent, Indianapolis, a 2012 playoff team, and a better opposing arm in Andrew Luck. Here was a direct rival of Tannehill’s, a draft-class contemporary. Here, too, was the No. 1 overall pick, the designated star that fate has Miami’s guy chasing. This is how you gain ground, in these head-to-head meetings.
Now, Sunday’s home opener brings an even better opponent in Atlanta, which thinks itself a Super Bowl contender, and a more established quarterback in Matt Ryan. We could wrestle with semantics — what is “elite”? — but suffice to say Ryan is a star quarterback of a level the Dolphins would readily accept if that were to be Tannehill’s upside.
Symbolism also is in play Sunday, of course.
Miami could have drafted Ryan No. 1 overall in 2008 but then-personnel boss Bill Parcells opted for tackle Jake Long, with Ryan going third. Miami letting Long go in free agency over the summer seemed to admit that 2008 draft decision as a mistake.
But it will seem less a mistake (at least symbolically) on Sunday if Tannehill can outduel and beat Ryan in their first head-to-head faceoff. Can Tannehill perform like his equal or perhaps like someone with the potential to be even better?
I might not have said so a year ago. Now I am eager to find out.
The week after Atlanta comes a whole different test, at New Orleans, and a whole ’nuther level of opposing quarterback in Drew Brees. No semantics debate here. Brees is elite. He is a superstar. You mention Tannehill with him only if you dare to hope or believe that Tannehill will be not just solid or good or even very good — but great.
More symbolism, here, too. Miami could have signed Brees prior to the 2006 season but then-coach Nick Saban, betrayed by dubious medical advice, opted for Daunte Culpepper.
Bypassing Brees has haunted Miami ever since.
But maybe that ghost finally gets the boot a week from Monday night if you watch Brees and Tannehill go head-to-head for the first time and you come away thinking you’d rather have Miami’s guy and all that future, at age 25, than Brees at 34.
So we have verified that Tannehill is better than Weeden and can go toe-to-toe with Luck. Next we compare him directly for the first time with Ryan and Brees — the two guys Miami bypassed or else Tannehill wouldn’t be here at all.
That’s a pretty substantial month of measuring stick right out the gate.
Clearly, two games into the new season — admittedly a small sample size — Tannehill’s progress and improvement have been unmistakable as blinking neon.
His passer rating is 94.2 after last year’s 76.1. His accuracy is 65.3 percent after 58.3. His yards per attempt is 8.21 after 6.81.
Better accuracy was one of the three goals coach Joe Philbin mentioned for Tannehill, and that spike in completion percentage is a sign.
Philbin also mentioned better decision-making, and one interception in 72 attempts reflects that.
The third goal was better closing, improvement when games were late and in the balance. Better in the clutch, in other words. Well, Tannehill led a fourth-quarter rally at Cleveland, and a second-half comeback at Indianapolis. His passer rating is 113.9 when trailing.
Philbin calls Tannehill “a very good student of the game,” which is mostly important because the sophomore pro is still learning the position after only one full season as a starter at Texas A&M.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said this week of his quarterback, “He has grown into the position and he has tremendous confidence. He shows me great composure.”
There has been a strange tendency to undersell Tannehill, to be modest when divining his potential.
Maybe that’s natural with a franchise and a fan base forever looking for “the next Marino” but seemingly gloomily resigned that there never will be one.
Or maybe it’s because Tannehill was a converted receiver who, even as a second-year pro, remains relatively inexperienced at his craft, by definition a project.
Or maybe it is that Luck and Robert Griffin III (and Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton ) have shunted Tannehill to shadowed “other guy” status among this impressive new generation of NFL arms.
Lost in all of that disregard is something that has become easier to see so far this season, and harder to ignore. They are still only glimpses and hints, right now, the future drawn as a developing charcoal sketch. But an emerging portrait takes shape by degrees.
We begin to see a Ryan Tannehill who could be special.
We begin to see a quarterback who could be better than any of us thought.