There are Dolphins fans and some local media members, and you know who you are, who assert we’ve seen enough after four years to know that Ryan Tannehill won’t be a top-12 caliber quarterback, that his ceiling is merely “pretty good.”
The Dolphins believe they absolutely have not seen enough to make that judgment, that the skill set is there to be a top-12 quarterback if he can develop under Adam Gase.
Which all leads to this question, days away from the start of the season: How often does a pretty good quarterback suddenly become great after four seasons as a starter, or at least improve appreciably after his first 50-plus NFL starts?
We found at least four prominent examples of major jumps, in recent years, for players entering their fourth season or fourth season as a starter. Consider:
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• Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, who had numbers very similar to Tannehill over their first four seasons, both improved dramatically last season, year five for both. Yes, we know Tannehill isn’t Newton by any stretch, but check this out:
Tannehill, through four years, has 87 touchdown passes, 54 interceptions and an 85.2 rating. Newton had a nearly identical rating through four years and very similar TD/INT numbers (82, 54). Then Newton blossomed last season (99.1 rating, 35 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) and won the NFL MVP award.
Of course, Newton – a former No. 1 overall draft pick – has more physical gifts than Tannehill. But Andy Dalton does not, and look what happened to Dalton.
Dalton’s passer rating in his first four years was nearly identical to Tannehill’s and his TD/INT ratio was similar (99-66). Last year, Dalton soared to 106.2 and went 25-7.
• Newton and Dalton are hardly the only recent examples of quarterbacks who didn’t spike until year five.
Eli Manning had a worse passer rating and TD/INT ratio than Tannehill through his first four years as a full-time starter but blossomed in year five, which was actually his sixth season overall (93.1, 27 TDs, 14 picks).
Drew Brees had 79 touchdown passes and 53 picks his first four seasons as a starter with San Diego (compared with 87, 54 for Tannehill), then became a Hall of Fame caliber player in New Orleans.
• Some quarterbacks need even more time than five years to take off. Alex Smith, a pretty good but far from great NFL starter, had dismal passer ratings his first four seasons as a starter (37 touchdowns and 43 picks) and never topped a 90 rating until year 7. Over his past three seasons, he has 61 touchdowns and 20 picks.
In years four through 10 of his career, Carson Palmer topped an OK 87 passer rating just a single time before playing some of the best ball of his career the past two in Arizona (95.6, 104.9).
Rich Gannon, the poster child for late developing quarterbacks, didn’t blossom until the 13th year of his career (his fifth as a starter).
• None of this is meant to suggest that all quarterbacks who were pretty good for four years suddenly become much better. Some don’t.
Jay Cutler, who had passer ratings of 88, 88, 86 and 76 his first four seasons, never topped 90 in nine seasons until last season, when he had a 92.3 in one year under Gase.
Matt Ryan, whose career stats were strikingly similar to Tannehill’s through the first three years of each of their careers, jumped to 99.1 in year five but has stalled somewhat since.
Sam Bradford, in year five, didn’t make a jump (86.4 rating/ 19 touchdowns, 14 picks).
• And aside from Brees and Newton, most of the high-end NFL quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo) were clearly better in their first four years as starters than Tannehill. So the odds remain against Tannehill becoming elite.
But the point of all this data is this: The Dolphins are absolutely correct in believing that Tannehill still has a chance to become a clear-cut top-15 quarterback. There are no assurances, obviously.
But recent history with other quarterbacks, combined with Tannehill’s skill set, coupled with Adam Gase’s ability to extract more from quarterbacks than many of his peers, at least provide hope.
Even longtime GMs aren’t exactly sure how long to wait before giving up on your quarterback.
“I don't think there is any ideal time frame [to know]; in Tannehill's case, he's been in three offenses,” ESPN analyst and former Colts executive Bill Polian said. “This is third offense in four years.
“You've got to give him time to adjust to Gase's offense and be in a position he feels comfortable without having to worry about reads or things of that nature. Yes, he's had four years but they have been a little disjointed. It’s difficult to master them when changing all the time. Another couple years in this offense and we'll get an idea. His skill set is such that he can be a very good quarterback in this league.”
For chatter notes from today’s buzz column, including a bunch of newsy UM and Marlins nuggets, please click here.