Greg Cote: Against shadows of perfect past, Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins offer slight glimpse of brighter future

It was in microcosm, sure. And it might have been mostly symbolic, yeah. But this day would be a small referendum, one way or another, on the Dolphins’ decision and direction at the most important position. That is why what happened Sunday here mattered for this club — no matter that the playoffs are out of play, and no matter that the opponent was all but an NFL imposter.

Ryan Tannehill outplayed Chad Henne.

It hardly qualified as en epic duel. Nothing about it stirred echoes of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. This was just a rookie quarterback vs. another team’s journeyman in a game well off of the league’s marquee.

Yet it was more than that.

Henne was the four-year Dolphin and former starter who Miami decided wasn’t good enough, back for the first time to face the team that dumped him. Tannehill was his replacement, the kid drafted high to be a better answer.

Fun times

And if you don’t think Sunday’s 24-3 victory mattered, imagine if the opposite had happened? If Henne had risen and shone and Tannehill had failed and lowly Jacksonville had won. It would have been Miami’s worst loss of the season and it might have, for the first time, enflamed concerns about Tannehill.


“It was fun!” said the rookie.

It was a quiet relief, too. And a little bit more cause for a Dolfan to not only hope in the future, but maybe to start to trust it.

This also was a very good day for Tannehill to be very good in part because the franchise’s 1972 Perfect Season team was on hand being honored at halftime on its 40th anniversary — the latest curtain call for the old ghosts who cast the constant, impossible shadow. This is the only club whose perfect past serves to make its far-from-perfect present seem that much worse.

Curmudgeonly Nick Buoniconti, the old linebacker, reminded the one-quarter-empty stadium how the old magical Orange Bowl used to be filled every Sunday, “and you cheered and you cheered and you cheered,” he exhorted the crowd, “and we won and we won and we won!”

Later Buoniconti privately allowed as how the current Dolphins — now 6-8 with Sunday’s win — “are not a good team.”

Fair enough. But what matters, what this season essentially is all about, is whether they will get there with Tannehill piloting. And that is a bit easier to feel positively about today than before, weak opponent or not.


Tannehill led this well-balanced rout of the woeful Jags every way a quarterback can. He was a sharp 22 for 28 for 220 yards. He had his first two-touchdown-pass game since October. He had the highest passer rating (123.2) of the season and thus of his career. A 37-yard strike to Brian Hartline on the first down of the second half, on a bootleg roll to his right, set the tone for a strong finish.

Tannehill even rushed for a season-best 52 yards, showing an athleticism that won’t supplant Robert Griffin III when one thinks of mobile QBs — but that will serve his overall game and development very well.

After a rough patch for the rookie, this game marked a reboot of sorts. Progress.

Along the way Tannehill even saw to it that Hartline surpassed 1,000 yards receiving for the season.

“Hopefully I get a good Christmas present,” the QB joked.

Defeated defenders tend not be effusive in praise of the quarterback who just beat them, but the Jaguars were Sunday.

Veteran defensive end Jason Babin said of Tannehill, “He was really fast for as tall as he is, and, being so young, how quickly he was able to get rid of the ball.”

Jags linebacker Russell Allen added: “He’s got a bright future. He’s talented. He’s got all the tools.”

It starts with the quarterback, emanates from him, but Miami’s balance is what most impressed Sunday.

Our complements

Reggie Bush topped 100 yards rushing, including a 53-yard burst, on 21 carries. (Two thoughts there: 1. The ball in Bush’s hands, a lot, is generally a good thing. 2. Don’t let this guy go too easily in free agency, Dolphins. He is a playmaker, on a team with too few of them.)

Defense and special teams (but for a comically failed fake field goal) also were solid Sunday.

“We played complementary football,” as linebacker Kevin Burnett put it

“The type of game we need to have more of,” understated Bush.

The snarky remedy might be to suggest the Dolphins simply schedule Jacksonville more often. And it bears repeating and underlining that all of our praise here for this victory, and for Tannehill’s performance in it, is delivered in the context of the opponent being very bad.

Don’t dismiss win

You know what, though? It is too easy to be too dismissive and just say, “Ah, the Jaguars stink!” When a team like Miami is mediocre-ing its way to a 10th nonplayoff season in the past 11 years, you don’t ask a victory to explain itself, or to apologize for itself. You don’t say, “Yeah, but…” You appreciate it, take from it what you can, and move forward.

And if all you take from this game based on a first head-to-head comparison is that Ryan Tannehill is better than the guy he replaced, well, that’s not nothing.

It is the baby steps, the small signs, that begin to build the body of evidence.

Can you feel a little better today about Tannehill — about the football and the future both being in his hands — than you did before Sunday?

You can.

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