Turning around these Miami Dolphins doesn’t start with a head-coaching change, or with a new defensive coordinator. It doesn’t start with Dan Campbell playing musical chairs with the locker-room seating, or willing team-bonding by having players participate in a collegial game of tug-of-war before a recent practice.
Salvaging this season doesn’t even begin with a jump-start for Ndamukong Suh, or with more Lamar Miller, or a healthy Branden Albert.
All these things play a role as Campbell tries to rouse a team that at 1-3 still deserves time to show it has underachieved before we conclude it just isn’t that good.
Nothing is as important to Miami’s turnaround, though, as this:
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Ryan Tannehill has to be better — a lot, not a little, and consistently so.
It’s understandable why many might pin blame for the NFL’s first coaching change on the astonishingly low impact of Suh, the offseason free-agent bounty who a quarter into the season has been closer to a bust.
For me, though, it is Tannehill’s step back and the continuing questions surrounding him that is this team’s and season’s overarching issue.
His near $100 million contract extension, almost half guaranteed, underlined the franchise’s faith in Tannehill as its quarterback of the future as well as present. Four years in, though, many Dolfans rightly still wonder, “What do we have here?”
Is Tannehill special? Does he have a chance to become that? Does he have the ability unique to his position to take a team on his back and carry it?
He is now being paid as if he does.
Results — and I mean winning and playoffs first — have not been commensurate.
That’s on a lot of things, this season especially. But it starts with the QB, this season included.
Special quarterbacks rise above. They lift. They are not defined by surrounding problems. They are the solution.
Being that kind of quarterback is what this team and its interim head coach need Tannehill to be right now. That is his challenge and chance. Nobody should doubt yet that Tannehill, at 27, still could become that player. But potential must become proof.
“I don’t know specifically my stats,” Tannehill replied Wednesday to a gently worded question about his season thus far. “I know we’re 1-3 and that’s what I’m trying to get turned around here.”
Well, I do know specifically Tannehill’s stats, and they are not good. His 6.32 yards per attempt rank 32nd of 35 qualifying QBs. His 56.7 completion percentage ranks 31st. His 77.1 passer rating also is 31st.
There are ready excuses, sure. Albert’s injury. Poor guard play. Not enough run support. Not enough DeVante Parker. Bad defense. Whatever.
Again, though: It starts with the quarterback.
Miami has been outscored 37-3 in the first quarter this year, the main reason the Fins have been so imbalanced. Miami has not run badly — its 4.4 yard average is tied for eighth in the league — it has just run too little because the team is always trailing.
“The defense is playing from behind. We’re not even able to run our normal offense,” Campbell said. “We can’t continue to live in the world we’ve been living in. We have to start faster.”
Which once again starts (but doesn’t end) with the quarterback.
Miami must protect Tannehill better. Unleash Parker. Be more committed to the run even when trailing early. And roll out Tannehill more to take advantage of his legs.
Defensively, Suh must lead, just like Tannehill must on offense.
Clearly, newly promoted defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s priority should be a scheme that frees up Suh. It is a disgrace Miami’s D has one sack in four games. Denver has 22. No other team has fewer than six.
“My job is to go out there and create havoc,” Suh said Wednesday.
Feel free to begin, sir!
For now, we can’t know what affect the medicine will have, but interim coach Campbell has proved the perfect antidote to Joe Philbin. The departed coach presented the visual image of a funeral director greeting the bereaved, while Campbell comes off like a UFC fighter looking for an octagon.
Campbell speaks with a machismo Philbin never did, conveying a bravado that fans lap up and beg for more.
“We’re about to wake a sleeping giant,” promised Campbell — though it wasn’t clear if he meant the team in general or Suh.
Campbell wants enthusiasm, fire. Wednesday, rap music bounced off the walls of the indoor practice bubble as the Dolphins went back to work.
“I enjoy his energy,” Suh said of the Anti-Philbin.
Tannehill thinks Campbell’s approach already has sunk in.
“Definitely, definitely” the QB said. “The tone the head coach sets transcends.”
Campbell faces historical odds as he tries to make a playoff team of Miami. There have been 72 previous in-season coaching changes since the 1970 merger, and no interim guy — not one — has led the team he took over to the playoffs.
But the average of those 72 in-season changes has come after 8.4 games, just past midseason. So Campbell, with 12 games left, has much more chance to turn his team around than the vast majority of others who tried.
To do it, to make history, might require his own coaching smarts, Suh being Suh, good health and other factors — but none more important than the one most essential:
The Dolphins need Ryan Tannehill to emerge and to soar.
They need their quarterback to rise up, and to lift.