He has become the 207-pound elephant in the room.
What to do with Ryan Tannehill? How do the Miami Dolphins move beyond him in a way that makes sense?
As 1995 wound down, back when Tannehill was navigating second grade, this franchise was figuring out how to part with the great coach Don Shula in a way appropriate to all he had meant to Miami. They failed. Owner Wayne Huizenga had a man-crush on an available Jimmy Johnson and so Shula was nudged awkwardly out the door in an exit that hits a raw nerve with Shula to this day.
Four years later, as 1999 bled into 2000, the Dolphins decided it was time to move on from the beloved icon Dan Marino. It didn’t much matter who; Dave Wannstedt decided Marino’s knees were shot. Marino wasn’t ready to quit, but the Dolphins were ready to quit on him. They signed a journeyman named Jay Fiedler.
Today, Tannehill at 30 is in his prime in a way Shula and Marino were not, but there is even greater cause for Miami to move past him, in that Tannehill in seven seasons has yet to win a playoff game and now bears the additional burden of damaged goods.
The Dolphins are where they are because, post-Marino, the franchise has steadfastly underestimated the importance of finding another elite quarterback.
Miami had the draft’s No. 2 overall pick in 2005 and settled for an OK-but-low-impact guy in running back Ronnie Brown. Somebody named Aaron Rodgers went 24th overall that year, so, in fairness, the Fins were at the front of the line but hardly alone on teams that missed big on Rodgers.
A more obvious misfire, one felt to this day, came in 2008, when Miami had the No. 1 overall pick and decided left tackle Jake Long would mean more long-term than quarterback Matt Ryan, who went third overall.
As recently as last spring, when five quarterbacks went in the first round and owner Stephen Ross lobbied to get one of them, Miami doubled down on Tannehill instead — again wrongly believing he was good enough — and drafted a safety 11th overall.
With this team and its current regime it seems there are always reasons to hope for a belated epiphany from Tannehill while steering resources and commitment elsewhere. The result: Tannehill has now missed 23 of the past 28 games with knee and now shoulder injuries as the 4-4 Dolphins, losers of three of the past four, host the New York Jets on Sunday, likely sans Tannehill again.
“Before I got here it was, ‘Hey, he’s played however many games [in a row],” coach Adam Gase noted on Monday. “That narrative swings so fast.”
It isn’t just eroding durability, though. The dynamic imprint Houston’s Deshaun Watson had on Thursday night’s game — Miami sorely lacks that, and there is no great substitute for it.
With this team it never seems the right time to upgrade at QB and, unfortunately, it may not be now either.
Simple logic says Miami will divest and jettison Tannehill after this season, because his salary cap hit triples to $26,611,666 in 2019, and Miami could pocket about half of that total for future spending simply by letting him go.
But reality says the Dolphins also might find themselves stuck keeping their 207-pound elephant and trying to renegotiate his deal down to a level commensurate with his accomplishments and durability.
Why? Timing. There is no easy, immediate avenue to relief from the Tannehill era. Let us explore:
▪ Finding a buyer: Ideally you would think Tannehill might have some trade value. Scan the NFL, though. So many teams have recently top-drafted a QB or otherwise prioritized the position that options are few. I count only two teams that might regard Tannehill as desirable as a potential starter: the Giants (with fading Eli Manning and raw inexperience behind him) and the Jaguars (with a worse option in mistake-addled Blake Bortles).
▪ Drafting a QB: Only Oregon’s 6-6 Justin Herbert is seen as a first-round certainty in the 2019 draft, so, even assuming avid Dolphins interest, odds of getting him may be dubious. And would other maybe first-rounders (including North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley and Missouri’s Drew Lock) have a potential clearly greater than Tannehill?
▪ Trading for a veteran: Three names jump out (at least to me) among current NFL backups who have either the resume or upside to argue they are better than Tannehill: The Eagles’ Nick Foles, Saints’ Teddy Bridgewater and Browns’ Tyrod Taylor. But are they appreciably better weighed against the asking price? Would Joe Flacco be an answer if the Ravens committed to Lamar Jackson next season?
None of the above three avenues for moving past Tannehill are well-timed for Miami right now.
That’s why the 207-pound elephant in the room may be tough to budge.
That’s why the Dolphins may be be headed into next season just like they have been and are now:
Hoping Ryan Tannehill is healthy.
Hoping he’s good enough.
Hoping for a way out of this quarterback morass eventually.