Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Year 3 means proving ground for Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill

Mike Wallace is one of the few guys in the Dolphins locker room willing to let his personality come out and play once in a while, and he did so Friday, on the first day of training camp, when the subject turned to the doubts dogging his team.

It was mentioned to the receiver that Pro Football Talk, an arm of NBC Sports, this week listed Miami No. 31, next to dead-last, in its NFL team rankings.

The Dolphins believe they’ll be a playoff team.

So somebody here is way wrong.

“They’re asleep on us,” Wallace said Friday of the doubters. “We’re gonna wake their [butts] up!”

Cha-ching! Money quote. But if Wallace is right and Miami is to surprise the skeptics and escape its rut of mediocrity, it will start with one man disproving his own doubters with a breakout season.

That would of course be Ryan Tannehill, the quarterback, the most essential of all Dolphins.

Miami opened camp at its Davie practice facility on a morning hot enough to fry an egg still in the chicken. Patches of shade were prime, rare real estate as an estimated 1,000 Dolfans showed up to cheer a team that hasn’t been much fun to watch or very easy to like lately, with no playoff victory since 2000 and only one winning season (in 2008) over the past eight years.

Tannehill, the man who they hope is the tourniquet to stop all of this losing, happened to be the last player on the practice field Friday, spending 20 minutes signing autographs with fans. He smiled, made small talk, posed for photographs. He bent to greet a boy in a wheelchair.

Tannehill is, by every indication, a genuinely good guy.

He also is a good quarterback – although you won’t hear a full chorus on that.

A recent survey of 26 “league insiders” ranked Tannehill only 23rd among 32 starting QBs, slotting him in the third of four tiers.

Turning 26 on Sunday and entering his third Dolphins season, Tannehill claims blinders to such external doubt. He has evolved into a leadership role and bears the self-assurance the role demands. For the first time since he was drafted eighth overall out of Texas A&M, he is a fully grown NFL quarterback.

“I have a lot of confidence in myself that we’re going to get this thing done,” he said Friday, after obliging waiting fans. “Now it’s just time to go play. The pressure’s off. I understand the NFL. I understand how it works.”

I’d quibble only with “the pressure’s off.” He’s way wrong on that.

The pressure really is just beginning for Tannehill.

In 2012, he was an inexperienced QB even by rookie standards. It was a mulligan year.

In 2013, still learning, he had the excuse (and the bruises) of a shambles of an offensive line that saw him sacked a league-worst 58 times.

Now, in 2014, his surrounding offense should be clearly better in many ways. Let us count them:

An invigorated Wallace states “first-team All Pro” as his personal goal for the season. The team drafted LSU’s exciting Jarvis Landry into an already talented receivers corps. (After one catch Friday, Landry did a pirouette-reverse move that left cornerback Walt Aikens spinning in place like a dreidel). Charles Clay has blossomed into a dynamic young tight end. Miami made a major free agent signing in quality left tackle Branden Albert, and spent a No. 1 draft pick on right tackle Ja’Wuan James. Adding Knowshon Moreno beefs up the ground game. And new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor should bring life to the attack as what club owner Stephen Ross on Friday called a “major improvement” over predecessor Mike Sherman.

That better cast and 32 games of experience means the excuses available to Tannehill have fallen away. Also, Year 3 is supposed to be magical for an NFL quarterback, the epiphany when everything clicks and the engine begins to purr, then roar.

Tannehill has shown enough in two seasons to leave most Dolfans hopeful, but not yet convinced. Nobody is demanding the second coming of Dan Marino or the next Peyton Manning. But is a winning quarterback in the mix for a Pro Bowl most seasons too much to ask or expect? San Francisco just lavished a six-year, $126 million contract on Colin Kaepernick. If Tannehill is to raise himself up to be held in such regard, the proving must start this year.

Slight, arguable, imperceptible improvement won’t be enough. This must be a (big) leap year for Tannehill. And that doesn’t always start with statistics. That starts with winning, with making the playoffs. Want proof? Compare Tannehill and Andrew Luck’s first two seasons.

Many of their key stats are comparable. Luck has an 81.5 passer rating, a 57.0 completion percentage and 6.8 yards per attempt. Tannehill’s numbers are 79.1, 59.4 and 6.7. Yet Luck has made two Pro Bowls and is everybody’s future superstar while Tannehill languishes 23rd in that experts poll. Why? Largely because Luck has led Indianapolis to two straight playoffs, while Tannehill has fallen short.

Now comes Year 3 and the onus of expectations.

“Usually quarterbacks in the third year really take the next step and that’s what we’re expecting,” said new general manager Dennis Hickey.

I asked him why Year 3 tends to be the key that opens everything.

“So much is going on, so much to digest. In the first year you’re just trying to adjust to the speed of the game,” he said. “In the second year you’ve made strides, but you’re still not comfortable or know everything. You’re still getting used to defenses, and developing a rapport with your own team. In the third year you reach a comfort level and it all begins to fall into place.”

Lazor’s new offense will spread the field, fly on timing passes, and see the quarterback rolling out and throwing on the run more. Tannehill is excited by it. Hickey thinks his QB will flourish in it.

“He has all the tools,” the GM said. “And he’s athletic, which has not been shown that much but is something we’ll see more of in this new offense.”

Coach Joe Philbin said Friday he wants to see Tannehill improve in three specific areas. He included decision-making and a quicker release as one, and “continued development in his accuracy” as another. The third is that great quarterback intangible that defines who’s clutch, who rises to meet a moment.

“Making big plays when the team needs it,” as Philbin put it.

Tannehill will need to start consistently making a lot of those to chase away his doubters, to ensure his long-term future here and also to meet his own big hopes for the season ahead.

“We want to play deep into January and February,” he said. “We want to go out and win the division. We think we have a big season ahead of us. Anything less than that is not up to our standards.”

Well, of course the Dolphins’ standards have been sadly less than that for a long time. Establishing a new standard is what Tannehill is talking about.

And that starts with him.

Not someday, maybe.


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