The Dolphins were expecting the worst.
They hoped for -- and amazingly got -- the best.
Ryan Tannehill only sprained the ACL and MCL in his left knee, coach Adam Gase said at his Monday morning press conference. The fear after the game Sunday was that he tore it completely. However, an MRI revealed that Tannehill avoided a catastrophic injury.
While Gase did not know Monday if Tannehill could play again this year, the fifth-year quarterback is not expected to need surgery that would keep him out for six to nine months.
Instead, the Dolphins are planning to have Tannehill rehab the knee -- the best-case scenario after a scary, emotional scene on Sunday.
Tannehill went down late in the third quarter when Arizona defensive tackle Calais Campbell hit him low. Tannehill walked off the field under his own power but did not return to the game.
When Gase walked out of Hard Rock Stadium around dusk, Tannehill’s injury “didn’t look good.” Neither did Tannehill’s body language, both on the sidelines in the locker room. The usually stoic five-year passer was so overcome by emotion he was brought to tears.
Yet a few hours later, after Tannehill underwent a more thorough examination, doctors informed Gase that his player had avoided catastrophe. Gase then shared that news with Tannehill a short time later.
“I was happy for him,” Gase said. “That’s a tough injury to go through. You see a lot of guys go through those ACL injuries … they come back fast, but they always say like, you’re not the same and then you gotta go through another year. It’s a lot of work.”
As for Tannehill’s remarkable durability, Gase had this to say: “I don’t know if I’ve been around anybody tougher than him. The guy has taken a lot shots since I’ve been here, unfortunately. He just keeps bouncing back.”
Although Gase doesn’t have an exact timetable for return, Tannehill will be out more than one week. That means Matt Moore will start for the first time since 2011 this Saturday against the Jets, and at least the following week against the Bills. (Moore was away from the team Monday while wife in labor with the couple’s third child.)
But might Tannehill return this season, particularly if the Dolphins qualify for the playoffs?
It all depends on the severity of the sprain. There are three grades of ligament sprain: mild, moderate or severe/ruptured.
Tannehill’s diagnosis hasn’t been made public, but Dr. Bert Mandelbaum -- a Los Angeles-based orthopedist -- said it’s conceivable he could return in a few weeks, if his injury is on the lower end of the spectrum.
Mandelbaum, whose practice performed Tom Brady’s reconstructive knee injury, said the better way to evaluate knee sprains is on a scale of 1 to 10.
Based on what Gase told reporters Monday, Tannehill’s injury is probably closer to 1 than 10. And if that’s the case, the odds of Tannehill more severely injuring the knee in the future might be no greater than any other player.
Furthermore, Mandelbaum has seen some athletes return to action just a few weeks from that type of injury.
Step No. 1 for Tannehill is to have the pain and swelling subside. Then, his rehab will begin.
“It's not only strengthening, but getting his flexibility back, speed, conditioning,” said Mandelbaum, a surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute. “Then is he able to do his drop-backs and be able to run?”
If Tannehill’s sprain is more serious, he could have some instability in his knee that will push back his return from weeks to months.
But at the very least, Gase expects Tannehill to be able to participate in the team’s offseason program and his availability for the start of the 2017 season will not be in doubt.
“The more he does this offense, the better he’s going to be,” Gase said. “It’s telling throughout the season that he’s made improvements. Everybody has.”
The Dolphins (8-5) have proven to be one of the most irrepressible teams in football. This year, they’ve lost to injury some of their best linebackers, defensive backs, tight ends and offensive linemen. And now their quarterback is gone for at least a few weeks.
And yet, they’ve won seven of their last eight games and are tied with the Broncos for the AFC’s second Wild Card playoff spot.
Reaching the postseason “would be big for us, because we've had a lot of key injuries,” said Dolphins tackle Branden Albert. “I think this team is really resilient. We have a real good coaching staff. It's going to show what kind of guys, next-man-up mentality we have.”