Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Pressure builds on Miami Dolphins’ faltering quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks for a receiver in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks for a receiver in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

They gave aqua Dolphins T-shirts to fans arriving for Sunday’s home game. A more prescient giveaway might have been team-colored paper bags with cutout holes for eyes that forlorn Dolfans could have fixed over their heads as the day’s embarrassment wore on.

At one point receiver Brian Hartline incurred an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a 1-yard touchdown catch, the officials ruling that his pretending to putt a golf ball in the end zone amounted to excessive celebration.

A far more fitting allusion to golf on Sunday would have been Dolphins players shouting “FORE!” in unison to warn fans they were about to be clobbered by an errant game.

Awfulness was just about everywhere in the 34-15 loss to a mediocre Kansas City Chiefs team missing its two best players. The second 19-point point defeat in a row dragged the season record to 1-2 and made that ebullient feeling after the opening win over New England seem like a long time ago. Or like a figment of a taunting imagination, perhaps.

For a second consecutive game the Miami offense produced all of one touchdown, a dearth that makes the pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill immediate and large, and an intensifying heat.

Tannehill has yet to have an above-average performance three games into his crucial third season as a top-10 draft pick expected to be an NFL star. On Sunday, he completed only 21 of 43 passes for 205 yards, again struggling with his accuracy.

In the fourth quarter — when games are won or lost and QBs define themselves as special or not — Tannehill had chances to lead his team back from a 21-15 deficit but could not. The opportunity was there for him to be a hero, to leave the home crowd cheering. He didn’t.

“It’s a close game in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t come out on top,” Tannehill summarized it.

It is easy to know when and how a quarterback loses a game.

It is far harder to pinpoint exactly when a quarterback loses his team, or the faith of fans, or his future. Those things are lost by degrees, and they are lost with games like Sunday’s, when special quarterbacks are supposed to marshal all of their physical skill and decision-making and leadership and seize control of days like this.

Dan Marino spoiled us, no doubt. But the question isn’t whether Tannehill will be Hall of Fame great like No.13 was. The evolving question is whether Tannehill will be better than average, whether he will be good enough, whether he will still be here in five years.

We don’t know yet.

There is an increasing urgency to know.

Fans are restless

His team and coaches still profess support for Tannehill, which they must, publicly.

Coach Joe Philbin, asked after the loss if he was concerned Tannehill is regressing, said, “No. I thought he threw the ball well. I don’t think [the problem is] one person.”

You can hear the fans’ increasing restlessness, though. More than once Sunday there was scattered booing for series-ending incomplete passes that brought the punter back out. Tannehill’s offense converted only 4-of-15 third downs.

To his credit, Tannehill, 26, says everything right. Does not duck responsibility. But “we have to get better” is a declarative of diminishing returns. The eventual reply is, “Quit talking about it and do it!”

“I have confidence but it has to happen now,” went Tannehill’s familiar postgame refrain. “I said that last week, and we didn’t get it done.”

Don’t get this wrong. I still support Tannehill on the either/or scale. It is not time for Miami to make a quarterback change. There is little reason based on an unreliable sample size to think that backup Matt Moore is better. And there is insufficient cause at this point to think the Dolphins should be impatient enough to ponder his eventual replacement — even though the Jameis Winston draft rumors might only increase in volume.

All of that is coming though, if not-good-enough comes to gradually harden as the phrase that sticks to Tannehill, a perception encouraged by games like Sunday’s.

For now, it isn’t all on Tannehill by any means.

Losing 34-15 never is about just one guy.

The Dolphins defensive tackling was lousy Sunday. Tannehill’s blockers gave up four sacks. His receivers dropped at least four catches by my count.

“A hold here, a drop there,” as Hartline put it.

Said Philbin: “I don’t think any phase played well enough to win.”

That would include Philbin and his own staff.

Poor time management late in the first half forced Miami to settle for a short field goal on third-and-1 from the KC 4 with two seconds to play.

“I thought we had five or six seconds left, but they said we didn’t,” Philbin said.

There were grumblings about some of defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle’s strategy.

I also wonder about offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s ratio on run/pass calls, considering Lamar Miller’s running — 108 yards on 15 carries — was consistently the best thing about the Dolphins on Sunday. Trailing by only 21-15 with an entire quarter left, Miami ran the ball only four times in the fourth quarter. Tannehill passed more than twice as many times Sunday as Miami ran. That’s strange when your young QB is struggling with accuracy and your ground game is solid.

And I wonder how much coaching and preparation play a part when — for three consecutive games now — Miami has trailed by an average of 10 points each time at halftime.

Is there Melatonin sprinkled in the pregame meal? Is Philbin’s pregame speech a sleep-inducing Gregorian chant?

Tannehill’s task

All said, though, it distills to Ryan Tannehill, who plays the one position that is supposed to overcome deficits and adversity. He must become the guy who makes his teammates better and lifts his team and abides no excuses.

“It’s a long season, we’re only three games in,” Tannehill said. “No chance we’re giving up yet.”

The point is, many more results and performances like Sunday’s and it might become time to wonder who’s close to giving up on Tannehill.

He must lift this team, validate his future and begin to earn back the flagging support of fans.

And he must do it soon.

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