After nearly five seasons, the moment we finally came to realize that Ryan Tannehill is valuable and beloved and not just another piece of the Miami Dolphins' puzzle that may or may not fit was when he was red faced, tears streaming down his cheeks, and embracing heir Matt Moore late Sunday afternoon.
That was before Tannehill grabbed some black crutches and limped out of the Dolphins’ locker room for the last time in 2016 because his season ended on this rainy, slate gray day.
Arizona defensive lineman Calais Campbell crashed all 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds of himself into Tannehill’s left knee during the final moments of the third quarter and the Dolphins believe that the low hit, at minimum, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee Tannehill plants in front when he throws.
So this team, this offense, everyone’s fate the rest of this season belongs to Moore now. He takes over for the man who started 76 consecutive games. And we shall see how that goes.
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But what is about to happen didn’t quite register immediately after what we saw happen Sunday.
Amid the excitement of the Dolphins stirring 26-23 victory over the Cardinals and the team’s still palpable playoff possibilities, it was this Tannehill injury that most moved players and coaches alike.
I’m talking moved as in grown men crying.
Coach Adam Gase, who announced the team’s worst fears about the Tannehill knee injury to reporters, found himself at Tannehill’s locker stall after his press conference. He hugged the quarterback he’s defended so fiercely the past 10 months.
And the hug lingered.
Then Moore, who led the winning scoring drive Sunday, came over. He talked to Tannehill. Then they hugged.
Then Moore told Tannehill he loves him.
“My heart breaks, man,” Moore said later, echoing the sentiment of several teammates.
This is where you must remember that Moore is about to get a chance of a lifetime. After sitting on the bench for nearly five years, he is the new starter for a team vying for a playoff spot. It’s a dream moment for Moore.
It’s also a nightmare because he’ll be replacing his injured friend.
Already other teammates had paid their respects to Tannehill either on the field when he returned to the sideline in street clothes to witness the fourth quarter, or in that locker room before it was opened to reporters.
Receiver Kenny Stills told Tannehill he would pray for him.
Left tackle Branden Albert, who was blocking Campbell on the play that led to the injury, went to his quarterback with a heavy heart.
“There was a lot going through my head because at the time that was the guy I was blocking,” Albert said. “I was more frustrated for him because I know where he’s at now. I’ve been there. The guy hit him low and I was more frustrated for Ryan, to be honest with you.”
Albert missed much of the 2014 season with a catastrophic knee injury that threatened his career. It was a long, difficult recovery for Albert and, even as he played games last year, he knew he wasn’t totally right. Albert didn’t get fully out from under the cloud of his knee injury until this offseason.
So he knows how difficult the journey is about to become for Tannehill as he has surgery and rehabilitates from his knee injury.
“It’ll be very difficult, “ Albert said, his eyes reddening with emotion. “Very difficult but he’ll get through it. Very difficult. But he’ll be fine.”
This universal outpouring, you must understand, doesn’t come because Tannehill is important to the team, although he is. It doesn’t come because he’s Miami’s most talented player, because he probably isn’t.
It is because the Dolphins this year have come to realize how valuable Tannehill is. They’ve recognize how hard Tannehill works, how long he prepares. They understand how little he complains, which is to say not at all, even when he was sacked those 213 times since his rookie year.
For nearly five years, fans, some coaches and, yes, some teammates have wished Tannehill wasn’t the Dolphins’ quarterback anymore. Remember Joe Philbin wanted him replaced two years ago. Remember last year some practice squad players and Tannehill got into something of a squabble. Remember the classless manner in which cornerback Brent Grimes’s wife went after Tannehill on social media.
Even last week when Tannehill threw three interceptions in a terrible loss to Baltimore, sports radio skewered him and fans didn’t exactly jump to his defense.
This is the quarterback so many have loved to hate. This is the quarterback so many have wanted to replace.
But that guy was nowhere to be seen Sunday if you measured the reaction of these coaches, these teammates, this locker room. This team was mourning its leader.
The Dolphins, like all NFL teams, have been beset by significant injuries and Gase has insisted on everyone talking about “next man up,” as the rote response to injury questions. That, no doubt, will take hold this week as the team begins preparation for the remainder of this season.
But on Sunday there was a pall in that locker room. The victory was good, but it was bittersweet. You could feel it.
You could see it in the tears that welled up in some players’ eyes.
Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero