Greg Cote

NFL’s final four invites us to wonder, again, if Dolphins’ Tannehill is close enough to great

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill clearly took a step forward under new coach Adam Gase this season before his knee injury, ranking a career-best 12th overall in passer rating and eighth in yards per attempt.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill clearly took a step forward under new coach Adam Gase this season before his knee injury, ranking a career-best 12th overall in passer rating and eighth in yards per attempt. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

What the NFL’s four surviving teams still in the Super Bowl tournament have in common is about as subtle as a slap in the face. It is a reminder more than a revelation, and it should be sobering to Miami Dolphins fans trying to figure out, after the franchise’s first playoff season since 2008, how near or far their team still is from playing into February.

Great quarterbacking.

That is the difference that gets you there most assuredly, most directly. It is the ultimate answer and solution. It has the ability to overcome deficiencies elsewhere on your roster. It has the power to lift and carry cities and teams.

Not pretty solid quarterbacking. Not maybe-good-enough quarterbacking.

Great quarterbacking.

Pittsburgh at New England and Green Bay at Atlanta are this Sunday’s AFC and NFC Championship Games mostly because of Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.

The matchups intrigue from a broader view, too. Green Bay, with a record 13 NFL championships including four Super Bowl wins (most recently 2010) contrasts with an Atlanta franchise born the same year as the Dolphins but still seeking its first crown. Pittsburgh’s six championships (all Super Bowls, the last in 2008) is challenged by the four Super Bowl wins since 2001 (most recently 2014) that make New England the closest thing King Sport has to a modern dynasty.

But what’s compelling about this final four starts with the men taking the snaps and in charge. With Brady, the all-time great who seeks to raise the Vince Lombardi trophy as a metaphorical middle finger to the NFL for (he believes) wrongly suspending him four games over Deflategate. With the swaggering gunslingers Roethlisberger and Rodgers. And with Ryan, having one of the greatest individual seasons ever to lead the league’s highest-scoring team.

All four made the Pro Bowl. Brady, holder of every significant postseason passing record, is a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer and so is Rodgers, of the highest career passer rating ever. Big Ben, two-time champion, is on a likely path to Canton. Can’t say that yet of Ryan, although the season MVP award he should be getting and the Super Bowl ring he might could invite him into that conversation.

These four averaged 4,186 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and a 107.2 rating this season. No final-four teams’ quarterbacks have ever had composite averages that high in all three major categories. By measure of career résumés or season dominance, this is the most pedigreed quarterback final-foursome we have ever had playing to reach the Super Bowl.

This foursome personifies an NFL air-first era that soars on unabated, and it invites every franchise that didn’t get this far, including Miami, to wonder and assess if it is good enough at the most important position — or great enough in other areas to make that matter less.

Miami lost in Pittsburgh with backup QB Matt Moore, of course, but would have been a big underdog even if Ryan Tannehill were healthy. People who believe a Tannehill-led Miami would still be alive today after winning in Pittsburgh and then in New England could hold a meeting in a phone booth, if phone booths still existed.

Tannehill clearly took a step forward under new coach Adam Gase this season before his knee injury, ranking a career-best 12th overall in passer rating and eighth in yards per attempt. Still, through five seasons he has yet to make a Pro Bowl, has not yet led a playoff win and still has not entirely answered the overarching question of whether he is the needed answer for this franchise.

The question is especially pertinent right now, because 2017 is the first year Miami has the contractual option to create salary-cap room by moving on from Tannehill. In essence, there is an opt-out clause, an escape hatch.

Tannehill remains the man if Miami believes he is worth $18 million or that an upgrade cannot be had in the draft or free agency. There is every reason to think the team and Gase, a QBs guru, think highly of Tannehill and will keep him. I’m just saying that if the Dolphins did think he was becoming pricey or the team was enamored of a free agent or draftee they believed was better, then the time to explore trading Tannehill and moving on would be soon.

The Patriots, Steelers, Falcons and Packers are still alive, dreaming of a Super Bowl title, because all have had great seasons from great quarterbacks.

As Tannehill enters his sixth season and turns 29 this coming summer, Miami fans look around at what better teams have and still are entitled to wonder if their guy is good enough — or close enough to great.

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