Greg Cote

Who wins opener won’t matter, but how Tannehill, new Dolphins offense looks will

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill during a passing drill at the Miami Dolphins training camp in Davie, Florida, Aug. 4, 2016.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill during a passing drill at the Miami Dolphins training camp in Davie, Florida, Aug. 4, 2016. ctrainorjr@miamiherald.com

The Dolphins’ soft-opening of the Adam Gase coaching era happens Friday night in East Rutherford, New Jersey, assuming the game is not canceled because the field paint inside the Giants’ stadium dried so hard it is deemed a health hazard.

That, of course, caused the NFL last week to not play its annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Anybody else find it hilarious that a sport that can leave its players debilitated with brain injuries saw a safety issue in a layer of paint presenting an abrasion risk? It also reminded us how relatively meaninglessness preseason games are, that the very first one might be canceled with such little cause or outcry.

Please don’t come at me bleating about how the first exhibition game is a barometer of a season or about how you only get one chance to make a first impression, et cetera. I am armed for ultimate rebuttal: I’d note the one perfect season ever, the 1972 Dolphins, introduced itself with a loss in its preseason opener. And that the worst season in franchise history, the 2007 team that went 1-15, won its maiden exhibition game. So there.

Miami could go 4-0 or 0-4 or shades of gray in between in its fake games and it’ll all disentegrate to irrelevance. All that will matter is the preparedness the Dolphins show starting Sept. 11 in Seattle — the grand opening for Gase, not the soft one. No team in the NFL faces a tougher season launch than Miami, because “at Seahawks” and “at Patriots” (even sans Tom Brady) might be the scariest four words in the sport.

And yet!

The next month very much does matter for Miami even if it doesn’t count. And how the team looks Friday night very much does matter, too, even if the result does not.

For the rut-stuck Dolphins, more than for most teams, August is going to set a tone. It is going to indicate whether naysaying oddsmakers are right and Miami is still around a Fortune .500 team unlikely for the playoffs — or whether Dolfans can muster the bravery to believe things are (finally) different.

League powers have nothing to prove in August, and awful teams can’t change perceptions in one preseason.

It is teams in that fragile in-between, like Miami, that have the chance to reshape themselves in August, changing the confidence level that comes out of the locker room and that is reflected in the way fans feel.

This is especially true of franchises whose head-coaching change has broadcast a new direction. And doubly so if that coach, Gase, got hired because his skill set was particularly suited to extract the dormant potential from fifth-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

No matter who wins or loses Friday or the final score, how Tannehill and Gase’s new offense look and perform will be the most obvious takeaway from this preseason opener.

Nobody wants to hear cliches about “work in progress” or about a coach and QB still trying to get on the “same page.” Not when the season will be here in about a minute. Not with “at Seahawks and “at Patriots” approaching like twin locomotives. Fans will hope to see progress on Friday. To come away feeling Gase and Tannehill together have found that elusive same page.

The new offense, in layman terms, is mostly quicker and shorter, aimed at Tannehill avoiding the sacks that have plagued him with check-downs when needed.

Gase, who calls the plays, does not apologize for this. And shouldn’t.

“There’s a time and place [for deep throws],” as he put it. “But there’s also a time and place to not get sacked 60 times in a year. If you want to stand back there and have your quarterback get his brains beat out, then go at it.”

That’s prudent.

At $11.6 million this year Miami is paying Tannehill star money.

The Fins have spent more No. 1 draft picks on offensive linemen than any team. The receivers are good.

The new coach is a QB guru. Tannehill, at 28, is in his prime.

There are no more excuses. (This time we mean it!) So avoiding sacks seems a logical way to help Tannehill take that next step.

Results in training camp have been spotty though.

Defense has dominated at times.

The offense looked bad in last Saturday’s scrimmage.

“Wasn’t acceptable,” in Tannehill’s words.

Now we get to see the new-look offense against an actual opponent, at game speed. Gase admits he has a “better idea” and “less concerns” on defense right now, and that “we probably need to try to play a little more” with the first-team offense in the preseason.

Though the sack risk has decreased, the burden on Tannehill has increased. He has more freedom to audible. And there are more demands on him to display overt leadership, “jumping in the huddle, chirping a little bit,” as Gase put it.

Tannehill said something this week that caught my ear, because I hadn’t heard anything like it from him the previous four years.

“I think I have the credibility now to demand excellence out of these guys,” he said.

Showing excellence yourself, of course, remains the best way to encourage it in others.

We get our first full look at this emboldened Tannehill and his new offense on Friday night.

And, first preseason game or not, what we see will matter.

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