Greg Cote

Greg Cote: With QB greatness all over NFL’s final four, onus on Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins is clear

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) walks off the field after losing to the Giants on December 14, 2015.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) walks off the field after losing to the Giants on December 14, 2015. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The NFL’s newly minted final four — Patriots at Broncos, Cardinals at Panthers — makes clear that the most direct and reliable path to winning big is a special quarterback. Don’t the Dolphins know it! Unfortunately, they know it from the pain of absence. They have not seen a QB make the Pro Bowl since Dan Marino in 1995.

Miami enjoyed a near-continuous 32-year timeline of Hall of Fame talent at the most important position, from Bob Griese’s rookie season in 1967 until Marino’s retirement in 1999, but in the 16 years since has had 17 different starting quarterbacks.

Jay Fiedler, Damon Huard, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Moore, now Ryan Tannehill.

Yet, as another playoffs head to another Super Bowl, the spectator Dolphins still see what they are still missing more than what they have as they once again see other teams where they want to be.

Carson Palmer, the phoenix rising in Phoenix, leads Arizona’s dynamic pass-first offense and just had the best season of his career at age 36.

Cam Newton, the star rising in Charlotte, produced 45 touchdowns in the regular season, passing or running, as the game’s most exciting dual-threat QB, and he’s only 26.

Tom Brady, astoundingly greater than ever at 38, drives New England through all manner of surrounding injuries that would have crippled most other offenses.

Peyton Manning? Well, yes, Denver got this far with defense first as Manning missed six games and performed poorly when he did play. But, turning 40, in March, this man has spent a Canton-bound career defining what a great quarterback is, and means.

Who and what is Tannehill in the context of these four quarterbacks still standing? He is 27 now (older than Newton), and it is time to find out with certainty. It is time to raise his game to its optimum potential or, if what we see is what we get, then it will be time for this franchise to decide if that is good enough or if it is time to move on.

I think Tannehill will be better and prove good enough with the help of better coaching, a more inspired offensive scheme and play-calling, and (of course) better blocking after four seasons of leading the league in bruises.

It must happen now, though, and, prudently, Miami in its recent coaching decisions is giving every indication of that now-or-never mind-set.

The club would never heap added pressure on Tannehill or itself by admitting it, but, clearly, it’s 2016-or-bust for Tannehill and the Dolphins.

This marriage must elevate to a state of bliss (defined as an improved, reinvigorated Tannehill leading Miami to the playoffs) or it must end in divorce. What this marriage cannot continue to be is the coach-killer it has been in four seasons that have produced a 29-35 record, no playoffs and continuing questions (read: doubts) whether Tannehill is the long-term answer.

Finding out, now, is why the Dolphins hired Adam Gase as head coach and why Gase hired Clyde Christensen as offensive coordinator.

In Denver, Gase disguised Tim Tebow’s limited skills enough that even Tebow won a playoff game. Peyton Manning set NFL records in Gase’s system and calls him a “genius.” In Chicago last year Jay Cutler had the best season of his life under Gase.

Gase, at 37 the NFL’s youngest head coach, has a philosophy that seems simple but is not universal. He builds schemes to suit his quarterbacks; he does not try to make his QB fit an offense that does not suit his skills.

I found it interesting that Gase in turn hired Christensen, 59, another quarterback guru. They have Manning in common. Christensen, the former Colts offensive coordinator and QBs coach, coached Peyton and — this is notable — then helped develop Andrew Luck, who is from Tannehill’s 2012 draft class.

That’s notable because the Dolphins think Tannehill can be as good as Luck, or comparable. And they may be right. Luck has the Pro Bowls and playoffs, but when you pare the comparison down to individual performance the two are similar.

Luck has more TD passes, 101 to 87, but they are almost identical in career passer rating (Tannehill leads, 85.2 to 85.0) and interceptions (Tannehill has 54, one fewer), and Miami’s guy has a better completion percentage, 61.9 to 58.1.

There is much for Gase and Christensen to work with, in other words.

But the project mustn’t be gradual, or produce results that are ill-defined. Miami needs a quarterback good enough to see the Fins in the final four and fighting to reach a Super Bowl, just like Brady, Manning, Palmer and Newton are doing now.

Tannehill’s career must unmistakably regain its upward trajectory and be playoff-bound in 2016, or everyone will have failed.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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