Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill approaches crunch time

The season’s final month is about to begin for the Dolphins, and although the team isn’t necessarily causing a stir because a postseason berth isn’t a serious consideration at this point, there should be enthusiasm about what is coming the next few weeks.

Those weeks will speak volumes about what the Dolphins have at quarterback.

The next few weeks, the season’s final five games, might actually tell us more about Ryan Tannehill than everything we’ve learned since August when the rookie first stepped into uniform or onto a professional field and was still learning about his teammates or the speed of the game or the speed on our expressways.

The next few weeks offers no such excuses.

It only promises difficult challenges.

Think about it: In the coming weeks, Tannehill will be in the same game opposing arguably the NFL’s best quarterback in Tom Brady. Twice the Dolphins play the Patriots between Sunday and Dec. 30, and in those game we’ll see if Tannehill can keep up with a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback better than all those other Miami quarterbacks who were never quite good enough to answer Brady’s brilliance.

No, Tannehill won’t actually be playing against Brady. But the need to score enough points to keep the Dolphins ahead of Brady has been discussed internally by the Dolphins and will offer a test for Tannehill.

After that challenge, Tannehill will face a more ominous problem because when the Dolphins visit San Francisco, he will face an ornery, snarling 49ers defense that believes itself the best in the NFL. The 49ers not only allow fewer points than anyone this year, but they also are allowing fewer points per game than anyone has since 2008.

Yes, another test for Tannehill.

And, of course, the return game at New England, where the Patriots have outscored their opponents by an average of 10 points the past decade, also glows on the calendar as a date for Tannehill to show his mettle.

The great thing is that, into this difficult stretch the Dolphins will take a rookie quarterback, yes, but one who is far removed from the baby that opened the season at Houston with three interceptions.

Since being named the Dolphins’ starter, Tannehill has had his welcome-to-the-NFL moment (a bone-jarring sack against Houston), he has struggled with tipped passes, he has largely resolved the issue of the tipped passes, he has thrown for more than 400 yards in a game, he has thrown three interceptions in one game (twice), and he has been knocked out of a game because of an injury.

Tannehill also has failed in multiple fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and last week finally succeeded when given another such opportunity, helping Miami beat Seattle.

Tannehill has thrown 334 passes and taken more than 600 snaps. He has come a long way.

“I feel more comfortable out there,” he said. “The game has really slowed down more than I can say going back to the first game. I’m more comfortable in the pocket stepping up, finding a throwing lane and I’m more comfortable with the guys that are around me.

“More trust is being built every rep that we take, whether it be in practice or in games and I hope we can just continue to grow as an offense and I can continue to grow as a player.”

Last Sunday was a watershed moment. Tannehill’s first comeback win not only buoyed his confidence but it also showed teammates and fans he’s got the stuff to play big in big moments on at least some occasions.

No, it’s not the playoffs or the Super Bowl. But it was still a step.

“The next step for him is to continue to believe in himself and have the confidence that he had and demonstrated to the rest of the team, particularly the offense,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “When we had the ball there at the end of the game, they all believed in him and trusted him.

“Building on that confidence is the biggest thing.”

None of this suggests Tannehill has arrived. He is much like the rest of the Dolphins — a work in progress. Even coach Joe Philbin says that and he’s as invested in Tannehill as anyone.

And Tannehill resists the idea that it’s all on him or all about him.

“I don’t have to put the team on my shoulders,” he said. “I think we have good players and I’ve just got to do my job. I need to do it well. I need to go out and make plays and make the plays that are there, but I don’t need to try to take the whole team on my back. We can go out and do this as a team.”

But eventually it will be all about him. The NFL is a quarterback league and the Dolphins need to know if they have one or not.

The next five games might tell us.

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