In the days before analytics and all-22 video packages, too many people’s football takes came piping hot.
Even a decade ago, Ryan Tannehill’s 2014 U-turn would have one prevailing explanation: Joe Philbin lit a fire under his quarterback’s backside.
See, Tannehill was simply off through the first three weeks of the season. He was on pace to set career lows in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. Fans were turning.
Then Philbin threw gasoline on a simmering situation by refusing, again and again, to name him the starter ahead of the Oakland game. Tannehill took it to heart, calling it the “most challenging” week of his career.
And then he went out and shredded the Raiders, Packers and Bears in the span of a month. Since the quarterback “controversy,” Tannehill has completed 72 percent of his passes for 799 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating for the season is now over 85 — and climbing.
There are many reasons for his breakthrough. Play-caller Bill Lazor has shrunk the field, all but eliminating those pesky long passes that vex Tannehill. There has been much more read-option, and Tannehill’s legs have accounted for the team’s two longest plays from scrimmage.
Plus, he has grown more confident in Lazor’s offense by the week.
But, just maybe, Philbin’s strangely handled week leading into the Oakland game had an effect, too, however small. If it did, Tannehill had no appetite to discuss it Wednesday.
“I’m just glad we’re playing good football, myself and the team,” Tannehill said. “You want to improve every week, and you know I think we’ve done that. Sometimes it’s been obvious, sometimes not so obvious. But I think we’re improving consistently, and that’s what you want is guys getting more comfortable on the field, myself included, and things start clicking.”
Tannehill added: “It’s fun to go out and play and not think about it.”
If nothing else, Tannehill has proven that he doesn’t fold when his career has gone off script. As a rookie, he bounced back from consecutive midseason duds to beat the playoff-bound Seahawks with his arm.
During the height of the team’s 2013 bullying scandal, when the team had lost five out of six games, he got hot, throwing 12 touchdown passes to just five picks over the next five outings.
“Inevitably, if you are in the game long enough or you walk on the planet long enough, you are going to have things happen to you that maybe you didn’t plan on happening, didn’t want to have happen, and you have to deal with them,” Philbin said. “I think that happens, and that is part of the maturation of all of us I think at various points in time.”
On the flip side, another word for resilient is inconsistent. His re-emergences have been so dramatic because they have followed some true clunkers.
Tannehill’s struggles in the last two weeks of the 2013 season helped keep the team out of the playoffs. But that was under a far less imaginative system and one that didn’t play to his strengths. Lazor has tailored this offense to fit Tannehill’s abilities.
Still, growing pains were inevitable with anything new. Many in the organization believe the learning curve played a significant role in Tannehill’s early season swoon.
“That makes me excited for Weeks 10, 11, 12, when hopefully he’s going to be right at the top of his game,” guard Daryn Colledge said. “Hopefully, we get rolling going into December, and we start putting the team on his back and put ourselves in the situation where we’re going to be playing in January.”
Tannehill has already become the team’s best offensive weapon. In the 254 snaps where he has been the offense’s focal point (including passes, quarterback runs and sacks), the Dolphins have averaged 5.9 yards per play. In the 148 snaps where he has not been, the average drops to 4.5.
For comparison’s sake, the Patriots have gained 6 yards every time Tom Brady has thrown, run or been sacked.
Tannehill has been better at protecting the football, too. He is on pace to turn the ball over just 13 times this season, compared to 22 times in 2013.
His Achilles’ heel remains the deep throw. Tannehill has connected on just 5 of 18 attempts thrown 20 or more yards this season, with only one touchdown.
Lazor’s solution: Don’t call those plays. Just 1 in 12 Dolphins passes have been of that length this year; only Green Bay takes fewer deep shots than Miami.
“We’re doing great on short and intermediate routes,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “We have to be able to take the top off coverage. We have to score those long touchdowns.”
No better time than the present. This Sunday’s opponent, the Jaguars, have allowed 34 of 62 deep passes to be completed this season.
“It’s our offense now,” Tannehill said. “It’s our time to go out and play, and we’re doing that.”