Ryan Tannehill will start a football game for the Miami Dolphins again this season. That will happen. No one within the Dolphins organization that is sharing an opinion has doubts about that.
But to say there’s no doubt about Tannehill’s future with the team is not correct.
There is doubt now.
Regardless of how quickly or well Tannehill’s throwing shoulder heals, the die has been cast on 2018. But 2019 is a different matter.
Tannehill’s status with the Dolphins for 2019 and beyond is not settled. In fact, the first seven weeks of this season have made it quite unsettled.
In those first seven weeks, Tannehill has not lived up to the stated expectations the Dolphins set for him before the year began.
You remember those expectations, right?
Before the season began, coach Adam Gase said Tannehill would be better this season than he was in 2016, which was the last time Tannehill played before sustaining a knee injury that ultimately caused him to miss 20 games.
Despite a layoff that basically extended from December 2016 through the entire 2017 season, Gase said we would see an improved quarterback in 2018.
Why, I asked him?
Why such certainty?
“Just the reps and the experience,” Gase replied. “I know he missed last year but we went through the whole spring. We had a good amount of training camp practices. He’s stayed so engaged throughout that whole year, which is hard to do when you know you’re not going to play.
“He really took last year and used it to his advantage and taking a step back and being able to watch everything, listen to everything and kind of see how guys react to certain things. And then also just listening constantly about when we’re talking about plays, concepts, progressions and why we’re doing things, he was able to really take it all in.
“Now it’s processing faster for him.”
Then the games started. And Tannehill started five of them. And his overall production in those games was not an improvement over 2016 at all. Tannehill’s production was actually somewhat lower.
His 2016 quarterback rating before he got injured was 93.5. His 2018 quarterback rating before he got injured is 92.9.
He completed 67.1 percent of his passes before his injury in ‘16. He was completing 65.9 percent of his passes before his current shoulder injury.
He threw for more yards per game in 2016. His touchdown-to-interception ratio and yards per attempt are roughly the same.
There is no tangible evidence in this season’s games that Tannehill got better. There is, however, tangible evidence Tannehill is now a 30-year-old NFL quarterback fighting injury demons.
His shoulder injury didn’t let him play against Chicago last week and he’s out Sunday against the Detroit Lions. The Dolphins expect to decide by late Sunday evening or early Monday at the latest whether Tannehill can start against Houston next week.
(That’s unlikely barring an amazing recovery by Tannehill).
So you have a quarterback who is fighting just to stay healthy, and even when he’s healthy he’s solid but not consistently better than that.
What about all this suggests Tannehill should cost the Dolphins $26.6 million next season? Because that’s the scheduled cap cost for Tannehill in 2019 if his Dolphins career extends into an eighth season as the team’s starting quarterback.
So what does all this mean?
Start with the fanciful hope the Dolphins continue to hold that Tannehill will be 100 percent healthy before the end of this month and will play the final two months of the season without a setback or new injury of any sort.
And in that time, the team hopes, Tannehill will get better and actually live up to the expectations Gase set when the season began.
If this feel-good scenario fails to play out, however, the Dolphins will find themselves in a very uncomfortable situation with their quarterback position.
Because the situation they’re likely to face won’t be solved as simply as just releasing Tannehill.
Oh, yes, the team can release Tannehill after this season and that move would give Miami salary cap maneuverability to find a new guy. Cutting Tannehill would slice $13.2 million off Miami’s 2019 cap, and that money could be used to help sign the next starter.
And you know the question a team source asked when speaking on this topic this week?
“Who?” he said.
The problem for the Dolphins is if they reach that fateful decision to move on from Tannehill, they have to present owner Stephen Ross a viable plan for replacing Tannehill in the short- and the long-term.
Fans would simply say the Dolphins can cut Tannehill and draft a quarterback. And that would most definitely have to happen.
(It should have been happening every year, in every draft since 2013, but that’s another matter).
The problem with drafting the next heir to Dan Marino is that the Dolphins simply got lucky stumbling into Marino. And even Marino took awhile to settle into his own greatness. Folks forget he sat initially and it wasn’t until Year 2 that he began to blow up opposing defenses.
Fans should also see what’s happening with the current class of rookie quarterbacks selected in the first round of last April’s draft. All except Lamar Jackson are starting. None are actual stars yet.
All are playing like, well, rookies.
Ross, 79 next May, isn’t going to abide waiting a year or two for a rookie quarterback to settle in. He has told past and present Dolphins personnel people he expects to win.
That’s the reason even when the Dolphins undergo something of a rebuild, as they did when Gase arrived in 2016 and again before this season, the work is done in a way to continue to be competitive that same year.
Ross, who made his billions in construction projects, isn’t enthusiastic about totally rebuilding his NFL team.
So absent Tannehill, the Dolphins would need to find a veteran who can help them win in 2019 even as a draft pick matures. And again, that question:
Teddy Bridgewater will be looking for a starting job in 2019. Sam Bradford will, too. Even Brock Osweiler, who is starting for Miami on Sunday and already has an outstanding outing last week to his credit, is unsigned for next year.
But which of those guys is definitely an upgrade over Tannehill? That’s the tough question the Dolphins would have to ask themselves. So what am I telling you?
Well, the Dolphins have an uncertain quarterback situation now and it will be riddled with much bigger questions after the season. The drafting of a viable starter would come with pain. And there might not be a suitable bridge quarterback to mitigate that pain for one year.
There is, of course, another path.
The Dolphins could just keep Tannehill and pay $26 million for a quarterback whose production has leveled off while his durability issues are growing.