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Miami Dolphins

The Savior – Ryan Tannehill

August 3, 2017: The seventh practice of the new football season. Fresh off a playoff run that laid an eight-year drought to rest, the Miami Dolphins were branded as a team on the rise.

When starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, went to the turf on a routine scramble drill, Miami’s hopes for a playoff encore went down with him.

Miami was saddled with three options:

1.) Proceed with backup Matt Moore.

2.) Inquire about the ever-polarizing Colin Kaepernick.

3.) Convince Jay Cutler to give up a studio gig, and saddle up for one last ride.

Options 1 and 2 were never options in the mind of Adam Gase. Hindsight has taught us that Kaepernick has proven to be an untouchable commodity throughout the 2017 season, and Matt Moore had started just three games in his previous five seasons.

Gase’s prior work-history with Jay Cutler made the most sense. The much-maligned former Bears and Broncos quarterback agreed, and the Smokin’ Jay brand made its way to South Beach.

Two months later, the Dolphins offense has yet to find its footing.

Scoring just 15.2 points per game (last in the NFL) and averaging just 4.5 yards per play (31st in the NFL), Miami’s offense is a shell of what it was in 2016.

Under Ryan Tannehill, the 8-5 Dolphins averaged 22.7 points per game (17th in the NFL) and 5.8 yards per play (7th in the NFL).

Jarvis Landry’s yards per reception went from a career best (12.1) in 2016, to a career worst (7.7) in 2017.

Kenny Stills yards per reception number is down 4.9 yards. Even Jay Cutler’s favorite receiver, Devante Parker, has seen a slight regression in his average.

Tannehill’s absence isn’t felt exclusively via the aerial attack – the ground game has had its share of struggles. In 2016, running back Jay Ajayi averaged 4.9 yards per carry. In 2017, that number dropped a yard and a half to a paltry 3.4.

Numbers typically only tell part of the story when it comes to football. Context is paramount when dealing with this esoteric sport. The Dolphins made three changes to the offensive personnel from the end of 2016 to this season:

Anthony Steen in for Branden Albert (Jesse Davis now because of an injury to Steen).

Julius Thomas in for Jordan Cameron/Dion Sims.

– Jay Cutler in for the injured Ryan Tannehill.

While Steen and Thomas haven’t had particularly good years in 2017, their predecessors hardly turned in quality film.

The answer for the decline of the offense is glaringly obvious – it’s the quarterback change. Dolphins fans never truly appreciated Ryan Tannehill and what he meant for the organization. Before Tannehill, the Dolphins had just one quarterback start back-to-back opening days since Jay Fiedler in the 2003 and 2004 seasons (Chad Pennington 2008-2009).

Tannehill started five consecutive opening day games from 2012-2016.

Aug 10, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) is seen prior to a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The elusive quarterback (who just so happened to moonlight as a receiver in college) mitigated some of the black holes along the offensive line. Last year, Adam Gase cut Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas and Jamil Douglass, and he swung the hammer on all three, on the same day.

Combing back through previous years’ film conjures up haunting memories of just how bad some of the groups that played in front of him were.

Still, the offensive production never came close to the dip in production occurring in 2017.

Quarterbacks have long been described as the most important position in sports. If a case study were ever necessary to prove this theory, 2017 would be the year to examine. The drop-off in production isn’t just impacting the Miami Dolphins. The Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers went from contenders, to afterthoughts, after losing their respective starting quarterbacks.

Aside from the numbers, what are the big differences between Tannehill and Cutler? The laundry list is large, and ever-apparent on film. Mechanically and athletically, Tannehill is a far superior player. The decision making, the poise, all of these traits took considerable dips when #6 took the place of #17.

The lesser known aspect of the offensive struggles, are the quarterback’s ability to contribute in the running game. No one has ever mistaken Ryan Tannehill for a shifty runner. However, his straight-line-speed, and ability to chew up yards with his legs, presents an added element that defenses have to account for.

In 2014, offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, utilized Tannehill’s athleticism with the en vogue scheme of the time, the zone read. Coming from the Chip Kelly coaching tree, Lazor featured a high percentage of run-pass-options (RPOs).

Below are a few GIFs from a game played in Denver in December of 2014. Tannehill went back and forth with Peyton Manning in an old-west-style-shootout. The Dolphins loosened up a formidable Broncos defense with variations of zone-read and misdirection, and forced the Broncos to account for the extra body in the running game with designed quarterback keepers.

 

The threat of the quarterback keeping the football and sneaking out the backdoor on the weak side changes the way the defense attacks the running game. The outside zone scheme that Clyde Christensen brought to Miami, and heavily featured Jay Ajayi, thrived with Tannehill under center. It puts the linebacker’s feet in cinderblocks, and is the leading cause of false steps.

With Jay Cutler, the defense had no respect for the quarterback keeper, and allowed teams to fire off with A-gap blitz after A-gap blitz. Disrupting the timing and mesh-point of the outside zone scheme, Ajayi was constantly met behind the line of scrimmage.

GIF – Without the threat of the quarterback pulling it back, the defense can collapse the backside:

GIF -It isn’t exclusive to Jay Cutler — the same thing happened in Baltimore when Matt Moore was under-center:

Once the linebackers start respecting the quarterback run, that’s when play-action, bootlegs and rolling pockets can become even more effective. Rather than the defense flowing as one-way-traffic, the threat of misdirection and play action forces the defense to protect against each direction — both vertically and horizontally.

GIF- Tannehill’s athleticism allows the offense to leave a man unblocked since the quarterback is capable of creating his own throwing lane:

From his rookie year, a speed out to the boundary for a touchdown. This throw requires a short angle. Again, a mobile quarterbacks is required to get to the spot:

And, of course, escaping pressure on a standard five-step drop off play action:

Notice the linebackers. False steps are any steps taken that lead a player away from the action of the play. An athletic quarterback allows play callers to keep those linebackers in precarious situations throughout the course of a game.

When there is no threat of the quarterback winning with his legs, the defense can play fast and more aggressive.

GIF – If the defense doesn’t respect the ball fake, misdirection only slows the offense down.

Mechanically, Ryan Tannehill is as sharp as they come. His feet are always moving to stay in a threatening position, he squares his shoulders to his target, and he can let it rip from awkward arm angles when necessary.

GIF – Feet are always shuffling and following his eyes, shoulders squaring up to his target, searching for a passing lane. Perfect quarterbacking:

GIF – This incorporates everything. Zone read PA holds the LB, Tannehill slides away from pressure and into an open passing lane, and the throw is absolutely perfect moving to his left:

GIF – Pressure in his face, has to change the arm slot to deliver the football – no problem:

GIF – And here are some unbelievable gifted throws just as an added bonus:

Despite taking frequent abuse, (third most his quarterbacks since entering the league in 2012), Tannehill has never seen “ghosts” in the pocket. He always stands tall and climbs up the pocket as he surveys his options. In 2016, he improved his ability to recognize pressure early in the development of the play, and flee to either side. Unlike stationary pocket passers, Tannehill still presents a threat to throw regardless of which direction he is moving.

Jay Cutler, on the other hand, is not exactly a bastion of sound-mechanics. Below are a few GIFs showing poor footwork, as well as his propensity to drift in the pocket and take himself out of the play.

GIF – Any coach will tell you that you can point to feet when a throw isn’t accurate. Swings his hip wide open, no drive off the back leg.

In 2016, Tannehill flashed his play making ability on third down, and the Dolphins started piling up wins as a result.

During Miami’s 7-1 run last year, prior to Tannehill’s season ending knee injury, the Dolphins quarterback was man-possessed on the “money” down.

In those eight games, Tannehill completed 41/68 passes for 590 yards, 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions on third down.

From an efficiency stand-point, that’s good for 8.68 yards per pass, a 9% touchdown rate, and a 3% interception rate. His passer rating on those downs was 105.6. For comparison’s sake, from 2012-2016 (since Tannehill entered the league), the best in football on that all-important-down, was Aaron Rodgers – his rating, 105.9.

Any scout will advise looking at how a quarterback performs on 3rd and 6 or longer. This is when windows are tighter, the pass rush is fiercer, and the volume is turned up by the opposing crowd. In these particular scenarios, the league average conversion rate is right around 30%. Tannehill converted 43% of his 3rd and 6+ opportunities during that eight game stretch.

A lot of measurements can be used in the case against Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins record in games he starts is just 37-40. Before 2016, his volume statistics were never all that impressive. Both of these arguments require a certain deal of context, and 2017 should be all the context Dolphins fans need.

Ryan Tannehill’s tenure with the Miami Dolphins is one that, to this point, is remembered as average – nothing special. Dolphins fans have been longing for the next “guy” ever since Dan Marino’s last game in 1999.

One could reasonably ascertain that Tannehill’s numbers, compared to the numbers of the offense in 2017 would be proof enough that he’s been something of a miracle worker given his surrounding cast. His talent jumps off the film, the flash plays are simply brilliant, and he was finally starting to put together consistency prior to the knee injury.

Still, there remains a large contingency of Phins fans that are imploring the Dolphins brass to seek his replacement.

Perhaps 2018’s return, and Tannehill’s empathic vengeance on the entire league, will finally put the debate to rest.

But probably not.

@WingfieldNFL

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Travis is a lifelong Dolphins fan that bases his writing on film study and analytical statistics. His passion for football is rivaled only by his passion for journalism. Specializing in all things Miami Dolphins and quarterback play, Travis also owns and operates Thirdand10.com, a QB grading site.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Nb901

    November 16, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    Interesting. But the fact is… Tannehill is not elite. He is an 8 -9 win QB. I want elite. Unless the dolphins build an elite defense (not easy to do) all we can ever hope for, with Tannehill as QB is 8-9 wins and every once in awhile get lucky and sneak in as a wild card

    • zeke

      November 16, 2017 at 3:02 pm

      Yeah, that’s kind of how team sports work. Go through the past 2 decades of SB winners and tell me how many of them did not have a top or even an average defense to work with? Hell, go through all of the SB winners and see how many, I’m willing to bet it’s less than 5 if that.

      Wilson, Eli, Peyton, Brady, Brees, Ben and others would never have won those titles without the defense. But you expect Tannehill to be some miracle worker and do it by himself while playing behind quite possibly the worst o-line situation ever and a bottom ranked defense….gotcha.

      I’m willing to bet you didn’t know that in the 14′ season, Tannehill gave the team a late lead against GB and Det and in both games the defense allowed a game winning drive to lose them. They would have been 10-6 if not for those blown leads. Another one in 15′ against Carolina which would have them at 9 wins and others in his rookie season.

      The only QB’s in the game right now that get their teams to the playoffs just from their talent alone is Rodgers, Stafford and soon to be Wentz. Goes to show how important the whole team is when you get that far.

    • Travis Wingfield

      Travis Wingfield

      November 16, 2017 at 6:50 pm

      There are two elite quarterbacks in this league. They don’t exactly grow on trees.

  2. zeke

    November 16, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Everything I’ve been saying since his second year in the league. Well done, sir.

    He is by far the most underrated/underappreciated QB in the game. It drove me nuts that fans and the media kept writing this kid off like he was a nobody and I’m willing to bet none of them ever watched any games he’s played in or understood that the team was just so bad. All they did was just look at the record and draw their conclusions from that, or another way of putting it, the easy way out. This year should silence all of the critics about how vital he is to that team and what he could do for another team….but it won’t, like you said.

    Put Tannehill on teams like the Jags or the Vikings and he’s going to win a SB sooner than later. IF he gets cut or Miami throws trade feelers out there, I would be on the phone in a heartbeat if I’m one of those teams.

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