Entering the 2012 season, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill was supposed to be a project for the Miami Dolphins. Folks were excited to see what fellow first-round draft picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III could do with the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, respectively, but Tannehill wasn't even expected to see the field for a year or so. However, after his first five games as Miami's starter, I think Tannehill has proven his doubters wrong by showing he's nearly as good as his higher-profile peers.
After a rough welcome to the NFL, with the Houston Texans picking him off three times in a season-opening loss for the Dolphins, critics began to question whether he had what it would take to get the job done. But since then, he's improved significantly, especially in the last two weeks, lighting up the Arizona Cardinals' tough pass defense for 431 yards (the second most by a rookie QB and the most in team history) and a touchdown in Week 4 and guiding Miami to a hard-fought 17-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.
Watching the game tape on Tannehill, I can really see the progress he's made since Week 1. Tannehill's development goes beyond stats. He's a smart guy, and he's making important adjustments from one game to the next in a way that suggests very good things about his future.
For example, in a tough overtime loss to the New York Jets in Week 3, Tannehill threw a pass to the incorrect shoulder of a receiver who was running a particular route. The receiver caught the pass, so Tannehill got away with the mistake, but it was a mistake nonetheless. Some rookies might fail to recognize or fix that kind of miscue, but in the following game, when he attempted to go to a receiver running the very same route, Tannehill threw to the correct shoulder. He hasn't repeated that mistake since.
Dolphins personnel know he has the skills to become a special player, and they notice his leadership abilities when it comes to his veteran teammates. After all these years, it would seem that Miami has finally found a true successor to Dan Marino.
But why was he overlooked heading into the draft? And even after he was drafted eighth overall, why did most football people think it was going to take him some time to become a starter?
I think the issue is that sometimes we try to find everything wrong with a player, and really dwell on the flaws we find. Two of the big knocks on Tannehill were his relative lack of experience (he'd started just 19 games at quarterback for Texas A&M, while Luck started 38 at Stanford and RG3 started 40 at Baylor) and a high number of tipped passes.
But as I said, Tannehill is a very smart guy. After all, according to his old Texas A&M biography, becoming an orthopedic surgeon was one of his career goals. And while smart guys don't necessarily make for smart football players, Tannehill is a smart guy who really gets football. He's a highly focused person who appears to have a better feel for the game every week, learning to avoid those tipped throws and correcting things like pass location.
Something that's also helped Tannehill a great deal is the fact that his old coach at Texas A&M, Mike Sherman, is the Dolphins' offensive coordinator. Sherman knows Tannehill and the kinds of throws he can make, and Tannehill likely knows much of the terminology the Dolphins use. Going to a relatively familiar situation with Sherman likely helped Tannehill cut down on the time it took him to adjust; if he'd gone to a different team, perhaps he would have struggled a bit more in his first season.
Perhaps folks should have seen Tannehill's success coming, given that he has a history of defying expectations. Playing for a high school team in Big Spring, Texas, that threw the ball sparingly, he was not heavily recruited, even though he had the size, speed and mental ability to be a big-time college quarterback, and even though (like most signal-callers who come up in Texas) he worked on his passing game intensively in 7-on-7 football. When he landed at Texas A&M, he spent his first two seasons as a receiver. But when he finally got under center in 2010, Tannehill thrived, setting a school record by passing for 449 yards and four touchdowns in his first start.
So maybe folks shouldn't have expected David Garrard or Matt Moore to be starting for the Dolphins this season, as so many of us did. And after Tannehill won the job and seemed to struggle in his first game against the Texans, maybe folks shouldn't have been so quick to wonder about him. After all, two of the three interceptions in that game came on tips by Texans defender J.J. Watt, who has made a habit out of victimizing quarterbacks like that all season. And Tannehill has really cut down on those kinds of mistakes.
Unfortunately, because he was in the same draft class as Luck and RG3, Tannehill will probably always be sort of the third guy. But Tannehill has performed almost as well as them, even though he doesn't have the equivalent of Colts receiver Reggie Wayne or Redskins receiver Santana Moss to throw to (though Brian Hartline could eventually get to that level). While Luck entered the league light-years ahead of everybody, I think Tannehill is about on the same plane as RG3.
We've seen just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Tannehill can do, and I think time will show him to be a very good NFL quarterback.
» Luck, who dazzled in the Colts' surprising win over the Green Bay Packers, is another guy who really has a great feel for the game. On Saturday, I saw Bob Bowlsby, the former Stanford athletic director and current Big 12 commissioner, in the press box at the West Virginia-Texas game. I mentioned that Stanford is having a bit of a hard time this year. He said of course they are, because they don't have the human computer anymore. That's the only way you can describe Luck. I think in the future, we're going to be talking about Luck in the same way folks talk about Peyton Manning now.
» When Johnny Unitas' record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass was broken by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday, I was reminded of an outing he had shortly before his 47-game streak ended. On Oct. 30, 1960, Unitas completed just eight of 16 attempted passes against the Dallas Cowboys, for whom I was working at the time, but racked up 270 yards and four touchdowns. Interestingly, when his streak ended five weeks later, it was in a game against the Los Angeles Rams -- the Baltimore Colts' opponent when Unitas started his historic run on Dec. 9, 1956.
» My defensive unsung hero for Week 5 was Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who had 20 tackles against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Fletcher was an undrafted free agent from John Carroll, a small Division III school near Cleveland, and is still a defensive leader in his 15th season. My offensive unsung hero was New York Giants rookie receiver Ruben Randle. Targeted nine times -- more than any other Giants receiver -- in New York's win over the Cleveland Browns, Randle caught six passes for 82 yards, and also was trusted as a punt returner.