Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Two games not enough to fairly assess Dolphins

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) is taken down by the Buffalo Bills defensive end Manny Lawson (91) after gaining 5 yards on the play in the fourth quarter as the Buffalo Bills host the Miami Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) is taken down by the Buffalo Bills defensive end Manny Lawson (91) after gaining 5 yards on the play in the fourth quarter as the Buffalo Bills host the Miami Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. STAFF PHOTO

A reporter at Joe Philbin’s post-mortem at Dolphins camp Monday asked him if he had a birthday message for Dan Marino, who was turning 53.

“It’s Dan’s birthday?” said the coach, taken aback. “Happy birthday, Dan!”

Probably good he played it straight. For a delicious millisecond I thought Philbin might choose deadpan humor and that his message to Marino might be, “How’s your arm, Danny? Got a comeback in you?”

It is instantly fashionable now, in the wake of Sunday’s 29-10 collapse at Buffalo, to cast disproportionate blame on quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Not most but too many fans think a two-game slice of his third season is sufficient to justify impatience. Not all but some in the local media are biding time, circling, eagerly waiting to be the first on their block to call for Tannehill’s benching.

So strange, the NFL. Emotions soar high and plummet low with every win or loss. The league’s parity begs for a moderate reaction to either, but it’s impossible. So an exhilarating comeback triumph over New England all but incites a giddy civic parade and seven days later a huge letdown in western New York has Dolfans morose and reaching for the Dramamine.

Bill Lazor, Miami’s first-year offensive coordinator, said something interesting Monday. It is a concept we find difficult to comprehend.

“We’re the same team that we were last week,” he said. “We have some of the same issues. Some of them from the first week we fixed, though you might not know it watching this last game. And some we didn’t get fixed.”

In other words Miami was not the superpower it looked like in dominating the Patriots in last week’s second half, and it is not the collection of inept bums it sometimes seemed to be Sunday against the Bills.

The Dolphins are exactly what they seem in the nebulous expanse of gray in between the too-easy extremes. They are an imperfect 1-1, capable of playing really well, capable of looking really bad, not a lock for the playoffs, but a contender to get there. Nothing has changed, beyond Knowshon Moreno’s injury making the whole climb a few degrees steeper.

We are hardly alone in struggling to figure out our NFL home team from week to week.

Only six of 32 teams carried a 2-0 record into Monday night’s game. Everybody is beatable, any time. The champion Seahawks just lost. The Saints are 0-2. The 49ers were beaten at home. The mighty Broncos needed a goal-line stand at home to beat the Chiefs, who looked wretched in Week 1.

Does anybody really think they know whether we’ll see the Good Chiefs or Bad Chiefs in Miami this coming Sunday? Or which Dolphins team will appear? (No, and no.)

Miami’s defense allowed only one touchdown drive Sunday and mostly played well against the run, although the pass defense was erratic. I continue to think the Dolphins have a playoff-caliber D overall.

The special teams were a fright, giving up a 102-yard kickoff-return TD, a blocked punt and a muffed punt return. If that wasn’t an aberration, coordinator Darren Rizzi will soon be looking for work.

The offense continues as the wild card, still getting comfortable with Lazor’s new system. The receiving corps is a plus. Moreno’s injury hurts. The line regressed Sunday but remains a big upgrade over last year.

That gets us back, always, it seems, to Tannehill.

Philbin obviously doesn’t quite trust him yet, as we saw late in Sunday’s first half.

Miami had the ball at its own 12 with 2:21 left in the half, trailing 9-0. Philbin had all three timeouts plus the two-minute warning — plenty of time to attempt to score. Instead, Miami surrendered to the half, running out the clock.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go down 16-0,” Philbin tried to explain Monday. “I’m not pounding my chest, but I feel like in the third quarter we were exactly where we needed to be.”

Sorry, Joe, but by running out the clock with 2:21 left and four time-stoppages to burn you were showing zero faith in your offense or the QB leading it. What team, trailing by nine, lays down at that point with six straight runs?

Might that damage a young quarterback’s confidence?

“That’s up to Ryan” said Lazor.

You know the offensive coordinator wanted to throw, to attack.

“It has nothing to do with my wishes,” he said diplomatically. “I thought what Coach Philbin did worked.”

Me, I thought it was a slap in the face to Tannehill, a message that he is trusted only to manage games, not to go win them.

Some of that is on him, yes. Through two games he ranks 28th of 35 qualifying NFL passers in accuracy, 29th in passer rating and 34th in yards per attempt — ahead of only Tom Brady, of all people. Both his performances so far have been so-so, not terrible, in an unreliably small sample size.

“Our passing game is not where it needs to be, those are the facts,” Philbin said. “But it’s a unit issue, not one player.”

Said Lazor: “No doubt Ryan would tell you he needs to improve.”

He does. So trust him to.

This isn’t the time to restrict Tannehill, to limit his deep throws or to put handcuffs on him with 2:21 left and all of his timeouts.

If this is the season to learn, once and for all, if he is the long-term answer, then let him loose. Tannehill, unleashed, is the only way you find out.

Time to take the training wheels off for good, treat the guy like a fully grown NFL quarterback, and see where it leads.

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