Greg Cote

What makes this the ultimate defining season for Dolphins' quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, seen during training camp last August just before suffering a season-ending knee injury. His comeback returns to the practice field this week.
Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, seen during training camp last August just before suffering a season-ending knee injury. His comeback returns to the practice field this week.

If disrespect and doubt were wings, Ryan Tannehill would be ready to take off and soar. He would be poised to fly higher than we have ever seen him, with the Miami Dolphins on his back and along for the joy ride.

No starting quarterback in the NFL faces more pressure than Tannehill as the team begins its offseason on-field work with practices Tuesday through Thursday at the Davie training facility. But no QB should be armed with more motivation, either.

Miami's internal enthusiasm over Tannehill's return after a year lost to a knee injury is not shared by most others. Coach Adam Gase expects a healthy Tannehill to lead a 6-10 to playoff contention. The betting public, unimpressed, has Miami's over/under at 6 wins again, and 5 1/2 at some sportsbooks.

Tannehill is said to be fully recovered and ready to go this week, though he can be expected to ease back in and be treated gingerly by his own defense. "He looks good," said Gase recently. "Smooth." Says new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains: "There's not a throw he can't make. I'm really fired up to work with him."

The Dolphins are so fired up about Tannehill they didn't bother to draft a quarterback last month.

The outside view does not share the enthusiasm.

Miami Dolphins VP Mike Tannenbaum and GM Chris Grier, say they are happy with QB Ryan Tannehill as they talk to the media about the upcoming 2018 Draft Day.

ESPN just came out with its post-draft "Quarterback Confidence Index," ranking NFL teams 1 through 32 in how each should feel about their QB depth chart entering the 2018 season. It isn't scientific, but it does offer a glimpse of outside perception.

The Dolphins are ranked No. 28.

"Confidence [in Tannehill] isn't easy to come by," says writer Dan Graziano. "You just wonder about the sustainability of the whole situation in Miami."

It's interesting to note the only four teams ranked below Miami for their QB situations. Cleveland is 29th, but drafted Baker Mayfield. Arizona is 30th, but drafted Josh Rosen. The New York Jets are 31st, but drafted Sam Darnold. And Buffalo is 32nd, but drafted Josh Allen.

In other words the only teams deemed shakier than the Fins at the most important position all spent a high first-round draft pick on a QB last month, recognizing a weakness and dealing with it forcefully.

The Dolphins' safety net for Tannehill? Brock Osweiler, of the 76.5 career passer rating; David Fales, the free agent former sixth-round draft pick; and Bryce Petty, the recent Jets discard.

A different ESPN piece had Miami prominent in a story about teams that have had the biggest decline since last season. Writer Kevin Seifert: "Their plan is difficult to discern. They've parted ways with most of their best players, from Ndamukong Suh to Jarvis Landry, and added a crew of aging veterans that include Frank Gore, Danny Amendola and Josh Sitton. Their faith in Ryan Tannehill, who is returning from ACL surgery, is risky at best. The Dolphins aren't rebuilding in a functional way."

Miami Dolphins new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is excited about working with quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the upcoming season.

Not every outside opinion is as harsh as ESPN's, but none is glowing.

USA Today ranks Miami's QB situation 21st but notes Tannehill is coming off a major injury and adds, "Brock Osweiler being the backup isn't helping matters." ranks Tannehill a subpar 23rd among starters, noting he "has yet to prove he can lift the fortunes of the players around him."

Everything rides with this season for Tannehill, who turns 30 in July. He must stay healthy, because a third straight season affected by injury — especially if it is the same knee — would brand him as damaged goods, a stamp tough to erase. Tannehill also must prove, in a way he hasn't before, that he is capable of carrying a team, lifting it.

I've said and written a lot over the years that Tannehill is a satisfactory quarterback to front a good team. He isn't bad. Might even be pretty good. The question, still unanswered six years in, is whether the man with the 37-40 career won-lost record is capable of transcending and winning even when what's around him may be lacking.

Gase's faith in Tannehill is publicly unwavering, but this, to me, looms as a crossroads season that will either affirm that internal faith, or find the club finally thinking beyond No. 17.

In May 2015 Miami lavished a $96 million contract extension upon Tannehill that runs through the 2020 season. This needs to be the season the player justifies that extension, and earns the right to believe Miami will be interested in keeping him beyond its expiration.

Tannehill will be 32 when his contract expires and he can become a free agent. Will he be highly sought and command mega-bucks as Kirk Cousins did this offseason? Or will he have devolved by then into being the veteran backup you want as insurance, not as your starter?

That is to be determined. Six years in, we might finally find out how good (and healthy) Ryan Tannehill can be in his defining season at the crossroads of pressure and motivation.

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