Greg Cote

Greg Cote: With new contract, all excuses are gone for Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) on the sidelines as the New England Patriots host the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 14, 2014.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) on the sidelines as the New England Patriots host the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 14, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The money says superstar. Says franchise quarterback. The money proclaims to the rest of the NFL: “We got next” – that the Dolphins believe Ryan Tannehill is ready and able to step up as the aging likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady begin to peel away and football invites a new wave of stars to its glamour position.

There has been little question in Miami that Tannehill is good, and last year we began to see a leap to very good.

The question now is whether $96 million buys you great.

Asked Tuesday how he wraps his mind around such a sum, Tannehill smiled and said, “I’ve never had a real job, honestly, crazy as that sounds. I was always in sports.”

He has a real job now. Pays really well. But it isn’t easy.

His job is to make the Miami Dolphins matter again, to win a Super Bowl, to lift a city. Nothing less.

Is he a championship-capable quarterback?

“Yes,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Miami has made a six-year commitment to Tannehill through 2020 and made him the league’s sixth-highest paid QB. The deal is both smart and something of a risk.

It is smart because stability at the one position that steers the league is surprisingly uncommon. If you have a keeper, you pay to keep him. Miami has “good,” maybe “very good,” and it’s a wise gamble that he’ll continue an ascent toward “great.”

The risk? Tannehill is now the only one of the NFL’s top-15 highest-paid quarterbacks who has not had made the playoffs or finished above .500. Small sample. Three years. But this is the one position that most judges you by winning – why draft contemporaries Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are held in higher regard.

So the risk is Miami is paying Tannehill to put a team on his shoulders and carry it far, something he has yet to do. There is the promise; we await the proof. He is aware.

“We’re here to win. That’s the ultimate factor in judging quarterbacks,” he said.

I like that Tannehill does not shy from the opportunity at hand.

“I’m so excited for this team. I think we have all the pieces to have an exciting 2015,” he said. “I think we’re going to win a lot of games.”

Tannehill progressed to very good last year with 4,045 yards, a 66.4 completion rate, 27 touchdowns and a 92.8 passer rating, a rating Dan Marino topped only three times in 17 years, by the way. The young man began to look like a parting triumph for former general manager Jeff Ireland, who drafted him in 2012.

The Dolphins would take those statistics every year, but they need even more from him. The big money only focuses the heat of the spotlight on that. What’s left is the next level. Tannehill must improve on his deep passes and avoid sacks better, but most of what he must do is the stuff that makes you think of a quarterback as “clutch.”

What does Tannehill do in the two-minute warning, during fourth quarters, in the biggest games, on third-and-long and late in a season? How does he perform when Miami is trailing in a game it must win? When is he seen as such an asset and force that he alone gives the Dolphins national stature and makes them a contender?

This has been a team that hasn’t finished strong. That has let the playoffs slip.

“We want to be going up at the end, hitting the playoffs at our highest point,” he said. “We haven’t done that.”

Tannehill still must prove he is not a product of the talent around him, but instead is able to make what surrounds him better. That’s a crucial distinction.

Enough with being a passenger, it’s time for him to seize the steering wheel, own the gas pedal and drive.

His teams have been 7-9, 8-8 and 8-8. Not good enough.

The onus on him now (and it weighs $96 million) is to be the first Dolphins quarterback since the 2000 season, the first post-Marino, to win a playoff game.

Not someday, maybe. Now. This year.

No excuses are available to him anymore.

Tannehill turns 27 in July and enters his fourth season. He is coming into his prime. Inexperience is not an excuse.

He begins his second year in the system of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Unfamiliarity is not an excuse.

He has a retooled receiving corps led by DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landy and Kenny Stills, three really good linemen and a 1,000-yard runner. Lack of weapons is not an excuse. (“It’s going to be tough to cover us all,” he said).

The new contract also means that lack of faith in him or doubts about his future are excuses that have disappeared.

Tannehill is now a fully formed, newly enriched quarterback gifted with the future of a franchise that has needed a hero for a long, long time.

Now all he has to do is win, and win big.

That is his one great challenge, the only one that matters.

He lives with the Marino shadow, says, “I don’t measure myself up against him, but at the same time I’d love to have a career that stands up to him.”

He can have a career that stands even taller in one major way. It is his dream.

“Being able to win a championship,” he said Tuesday. “To hold that trophy and celebrate with my teammates.”

It is not statistics or commas on a contract that will define Ryan Tannehill.

It is that ultimate winning and bringing the Dolphins new glory – or the falling short – that will write his Miami legacy.

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