For as long as Ryan Tannehill has been in the NFL, he has played behind dysfunctional offensive lines. No quarterback has been sacked more times than Tannehill since he entered the league, no quarterback has been hit more often. Such is the nature of the NFL, Tannehill takes most of the blame for that even though Richie Incognito is the only player to have left that line and become a consistent starter elsewhere.
Even while playing in those conditions, Tannehill has never got happy feet.
Never in his career has Tannehill prioritized his health to the detriment of his performance. He hasn’t been someone who protects his body when defenders closed around him. He hasn’t been someone who has had issues planting his feet with bodies around him. The most consistent element of his play has been that upright posture, planted front foot and commitment to following through with his throwing motion.
Whether it’s getting hit hard in the chest or defenders arriving low to take out his knees, Tannehill has never backed down. It’s what has allowed him to consistently elevate the pieces around him. It’s what has allowed the Dolphins offense to remain somewhat close to functional. It’s what led to his injury. If Tannehill played the game with greater cowardice, his foot would never have been beneath Calais Campbell’s body nine months ago.
The cruel irony of sports.
Adam Gase had an excellent first season as the Dolphins head coach. He created accountability by benching and cutting players who didn’t execute their assignments. He detailed his reasoning for believing what he believed and altered the Dolphins play calling so it set its players up for greater success. None of that would matter without Tannehill. Although the the video suggested he could be out for the year, scans later revealed that Tannehill had avoided major structural damage.
Retaining an intact ACL and presumably avoiding cartilage damage is a win for the Dolphins, but that doesn’t mean Tannehill won’t miss time. And the scare should at the very least emphasize the quarterback’s value.
Matt Moore’s relative success from last season can be pointed to. Moore had good stat lines against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in regular season victories. The problem is those teams had two of the worst pass defenses in the league and Moore faced them at a point in the season when both had nothing to play for. When Moore faced a viable opponent, the New England Patriots defense in Week 17, he massively struggled.
More importantly, when Moore played in the playoffs against the Steelers, he completely took away their chance of competing.
He finished the game with an 80 percent completion percentage but that number was created by making the wrong decisions over and over again. Moore took the safe play, the checkdown, rather than trying to make the more difficult play that gave the offense a chance of sustaining drives and scoring points. Two things that typically matter when trying to win games.
It wouldn’t be hard to find an improvement on Moore. Ideally the Dolphins could talk Tony Romo out of retirement. Colin Kaepernick probably wouldn’t be signed but he’s a clear upgrade too. Jay Cutler would be less of an upgrade but a more likely acquisition because of his relationship with Gase. A trade for Mike Glennon might even make sense. Only Romo offers a skill set equivalent to or greater than Tannehill’s.
And Romo has even greater durability question marks.
Tannehill’s ability to stand in and deliver the ball against arriving hits is only part of the reason he’s such a valuable player. He possesses a wide skill set that he consistently plays to. That’s not something you find on the street in August. It’s difficult enough to find it during the draft in April.
Kenny Stills’ playing in a contract year became a more consistent Kenny Stills. The Dolphins acquired Stills prior to the 2015 season in the hopes that he would solve the receiving corps’ inability to function on vertical routes. Mike Wallace was fast in a straight line but couldn’t track the ball in the air or consistently catch it. Stills had similar drop issues during his first season with the Dolphins but those disappeared in 2016. At least, they did after one egregious error in Week 1 against the Seahawks.
Stills’ improvement catching the ball was significant for Tannehill because it allowed for an acknowledgement of his talent as a passer.
Instead of having perfect deep throws dropped or lost in the air, Tannehill’s ability to throw receivers open with precision and velocity deep downfield was reaping actual rewards. Stills caught deep shots against the Patriots, Browns, Bengals, Bills, Chargers, 49ers and Cardinals.
On a few of those plays Tannehill showed off his ability to not only complete the ball deep downfield but to make throws that few quarterbacks can make.
This play against the Steelers was particularly notable. Tannehill has always been a great passer moving to either side of the field. Yet no quarterback would ever be expected to make a 55+ yard throw while moving to his left with defenders chasing him. What you don’t see in the gif above is the initial pressure that forced Tannehill out of the pocket where he showed off great strength just to avoid fumbling the ball.
Matt Moore can’t make these throws. That’s not necessarily a slight against Moore. Few quarterbacks in the league can make these throws with the consistency that Tannehill has.
Sam Bradford was the best deep passer in the NFL last year. Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue charting revealed that Bradford was accurate on 65.85 percent of his passes that travelled further than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Andrew Luck was second at 62.50 percent, Tannehill was third at 55.56 percent. He was far behind Bradford and Luck but roughly 15 percent over the league average.
Without Tannehill in the lineup, the vertical element of the Dolphins’ passing game will disappear. Finding a quarterback who can push the ball downfield is difficult. Finding one who can do it in suboptimal conditions the way Tannehill has is extremely rare.
Gase will be able to scheme receivers open but that means the big plays won’t come in the natural flow of the offense. It means they will be shot plays that are predetermined before the snap rather than decided by the quarterback after the snap. That makes it tougher to consistently attack the soft spots of the coverage.
Accuracy in general is a big selling point for Tannehill.
Only three quarterbacks had a higher overall accuracy percentage than Tannehill last year, Sam Bradford, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. His numbers aren’t warped by a reliance on shorter throws either. Tannehill was the third-most accurate passer on throws that didn’t travel further than five yards downfield and the eighth-best passer on throws that travelled further than five yards downfield.
Tannehill’s 78.26 percent rating on throws to the 16-20 yard range is notable for a couple reasons.
Firstly, he is only slightly less accurate to that area of the field than Carson Wentz is on throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage. That’s outrageous. Secondly, 22.38 percent (12th in the league) of Tannehill’s throws went into the 11-20 yard range last year. He allows the offense to attack the intermediate level of the defense on a consistent basis.
Intermediate routes are the biggest challenge for quarterbacks to live off of because there is a higher likelihood that a defender is waiting just out of sight to break on the ball before it reaches the intended target. Tannehill being top 10 in accuracy behind the line of scrimmage, in the 1-5 yard range, at one of the intermediate levels and on deep throws means that the defense is being picked apart at every level of the field.
Opposing teams can’t squash the field or sit on routes against Tannehill. They also can’t sit back in coverage and hope for him to miss the easier throws underneath. He keeps the whole field in play on every snap.
Part of the reason Tannehill’s numbers have never reflected his accuracy has been the state of his receiving corps. Unless Davante Parker takes a big step forward the Dolphins won’t have a receiving corps that can carry a subpar starting quarterback. They’re more likely to pull him down with their inconsistency. Tannehill has led the league in interceptions that weren’t his fault in each of the past two seasons. His receivers have been a big part of that.
Turning the ball over isn’t something Tannehill has been prone to over the course of his career. Even while playing under constant pressure and creating big-play opportunities for his teammates, Tannehill has consistently avoided interceptable passes.
Last year he threw an interceptable pass once every 25.93 attempts. That means 3.86 percent of his passes were interceptable, the same number as Drew Brees. Only 12 quarterbacks had a better interceptable pass rate than Tannehill and he was more than two attempts higher than the league average of 23.76 attempts.
These numbers aren’t coming in a system that babies the quarterback. Tannehill has played in three systems in his career. Adam Gase asked him to throw less often because of Jay Ajayi’s emergence and because the previous regime was incomprehensibly put off by running the ball. Throwing the ball less often doesn’t mean a reduced role. Throwing 20 passes to the line of scrimmage each game results in more attempts but less responsibility.
In Gase’s offense, Tannehill threw the ball further than 10 yards downfield 32.58 percent of the time, 17th out of 33 charted quarterbacks. That’s a good spot to be in to create a balanced passing attack.
Without Tannehill the Dolphins would likely become even more reliant on screens. If there’s one legitimate criticism of Gase it’s that he’s overly committed to throwing screen passes. 13.62 percent of Tannehill’s passes were screens last year, second-highest rate in the NFL, but only 8.01 percent of his yards came on screens, 18th-best in the NFL. If the Dolphins became an offense that was reliant on Jay Ajayi and their receivers they wouldn’t win many games.
The Dolphins and Tannehill are entering year six. The questions about his quality and his starting spot will likely linger until he plays in a playoff game that the Dolphins win, but they shouldn’t. Gase has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to his current quarterback, vociferously at times, and he’s proven that he’s not one to say things for the sake of saying them.