Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Dolphins’ season hinges on Ryan Tannehill’s emergence

Ryan Tannehill, who signed a $96 million extension in the offseason, had good and bad moments in the Dolphins’ opener against the Redskins, including at least two passes that should have been intercepted.
Ryan Tannehill, who signed a $96 million extension in the offseason, had good and bad moments in the Dolphins’ opener against the Redskins, including at least two passes that should have been intercepted. Miami Herald Staff

This is on Ryan Tannehill.

This newborn Dolphins season and all its dreams are all about him.

What has begun, wrapped in the nostalgic feel-good of the franchise’s 50th season, and the hopes of Dolfans that this year might finally be different, and the dangling future of coach Joe Philbin — all of it starts with Miami’s fourth-year quarterback. Where it ends does, too. Mostly that.

It isn’t on Ndamukong Suh, the high-priced defensive import. Miami won its opener at Washington on Sunday despite the Redskins all but erasing Suh from the game and limiting him to two tackles. That was a nifty reminder that even the greatest defenders can’t do what the right quarterback can, which is why Houston isn’t taking that next step despite having J.J. Watt.

No, this Dolphins season isn’t about Suh or the defense, it isn’t on how well the guards play or how good DeVante Parker becomes. And it isn’t about coaching or bounces or luck.

It is about whether Tannehill can take this team and this city on his back and carry them all the way through January.

We judge quarterbacks by so much that is measurable, but there is an intangible quality to this position, something you know when you see it even if the describing of it is a challenge.

Your QB doesn’t have to top a 100 passer rating. Doesn’t even necessarily need to make the Pro Bowl every year.

But he does have to be on the right side of this question:

Does your quarterback take what defenses give him … or does he take what he wants?

It is this alpha-dog quality in Tannehill that we must see emerge in 2015 if Miami is to end its playoff drought and feel assured that it has the right leader moving forward, not just somebody who might be good enough.

We didn’t see it Sunday at Washington but didn’t need to. Tannehill, who lucked to not have two interceptions, was just OK/pretty good but that was fine because the Skins are bad and Jarvis Landry busted a 69-yard punt return.

Maybe Tannehill won’t need to be great this Sunday at Jacksonville, either.

Those games are coming, though. There will be a handful or more of them this season that change everything, and if some of them happen in the playoffs, he will have taken his career’s next big step, the one we are yet to see.

The AFC East-rival Bills and Jets might each have better defenses than Miami, but Tannehill is why the Fins are perceived as better. The Patriots and Tom Brady still reign, but Tannehill now is why Miami could be poised for a takeover.

That’s the idea, anyway.

We have seen improvement in each of his NFL seasons entering this one, and it’s quantifiable, starting with a passer rating that has climbed from 76.1 to 81.7 to last season’s 92.8.

He mostly passes the eye test, too, in areas such as improved accuracy and better decision-making, and even with intangibles such as leadership. This summer seemed to be his first in willing command of the team. You heard it in his confidence and in his eagerness to express it.

Tannehill’s running ability also conveys a toughness and resourcefulness. That and his likability will make him a very, very popular player here if the right kind of winning is added to the recipe.

There are anecdotal indications Tannehill is taking the next step.

That he is rising. Emerging.

His is the No. 23 top-selling jersey at nflshop.com (one ahead of Tony Romo) for the latest sales period. That hardly makes him Mr. Popularity nationally, but it is Tannehill’s first appearance in the rankings since just after he was drafted in 2012, when he enjoyed the perfunctory welcoming bounce every first-round quarterback sees.

This also was the first year Tannehill was seen as a credible fantasy football player, to some even the savvy, I-know-something-you-don’t draft choice. ESPN fantasy figures had him on 90.2 percent of all fantasy rosters as of Tuesday, and a starter on 46.4 percent. Both of those are high-water marks in his career.

He even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s fantasy issue for this region.

Joe Theismann anointed Tannehill as “special” last month; said he’s “climbing the ladder very fast.”

All indicators speak of a perception that Tannehill is seen as on the ascent.

So, of course, does the faith Miami placed in him with the pricey offseason contract extension that will keep him a Dolphin at least through 2020. The investment is $96 million, almost half of it ($45 million) guaranteed.

To the degree any athlete can earn such an amount, Tannehill will do so not with stats or a Pro Bowl, but with his team-lifting performances on those season-turning occasions this year when that question confronts and challenges and is aimed solely at him:

Here is what the defense means to give me, but what do I want to take? What do I need to have?

What is mine?

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