Three weeks ago, after soundly beating the New York Jets 30-9 on their own field in New Jersey, the Miami Dolphins had the look of a potential playoff team, with a rookie quarterback leading them back to the promised land.
However, as is often the case when rookies start at quarterback in the NFL, Tannehill hit a wall and the Dolphins followed suit. The Dolphins lost their third consecutive game on Thursday night, dropping a 19-14 decision to the Buffalo Bills. Thus ends the playoff talk, and we're all reminded to have a little patience.
Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde said it best back in the 19th century: "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." Tannehill and the Dolphins clearly need more experience; therefore, they need to make more mistakes.
Tannehill is one of four quarterbacks who were taken in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft in April and one of five rookie signal-callers to start since opening day. However, it was never the intention of the Dolphins to have Tannehill lead the team this entire season; not because they worried about his talent level, but rather because they wanted to allow him time to grow into the game and adjust, since he was entering pro football with just 19 college starts at quarterback. But in this league, injuries force teams to make adjustments. When David Garrard went down early in training camp, Dolphins coaches called upon Tannehill to start, and he looked surprisingly poised and ready to handle the challenge.
He was not effective on opening day against the Houston Texans. But starting with the Week 2 game against the Oakland Raiders, Tannehill began showing progress, growing each week, gaining more confidence with every throw and leading the Dolphins to three wins in the first six weeks. Not to mention, two of their three losses in that span occurred in overtime. It was clear: Tannehill was rapidly improving.
But suddenly, over the past three weeks, Tannehill has not progressed. He has hit the proverbial "wall" that all rookies hit. What is the wall and why do rookies hit it?
When a rookie starts at quarterback, defensive coaches have to prepare for anything and everything. But after five games the rookie signal-caller's strengths and weaknesses become crystal clear on the game tape. What types of throws he likes, what part of the field he targets the most, how he reacts to the speed of the game, how he handles pressure and how he performs under pressure. Because most rookies are limited in terms of the volume of offense at their disposal, defensive coordinators can get a good read on the young passer and take away what he does best. This cat-and-mouse game is much like a rookie basketball player who loves to go to his right all the time; naturally, the defense learns to force him left. How does he respond? Better question: Can he respond?
Teams now have a read on what Tannehill likes to do, as well as how the Fins have set up their offensive game plan around him. With limitations at wide receiver -- most critically, nobody who is able to stretch the field -- opponents have played more man-to-man against the Dolphins, taking away the easy throws. During the current three-game losing streak, Tannehill hasn't been able to make big plays down the field -- with only two plays over 25 yards -- and Miami has gone just 9-for-34 on third-down conversion attempts. Also, defenses have loaded up on the left side, as most teams realize Miami likes to run behind Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long. And in the last two weeks, the Dolphins have gotten behind quickly, putting their offense in catch-up mode, which takes away balance in play calling. Adding to the problem: The Dolphins' defense has regressed of late, allowing both the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills to run the ball effectively and control time of possession.
All of these problems are interrelated and certainly not solely the fault of the inexperienced Tannehill. To understand the struggles of Tannehill -- or the effect of "the wall" -- is to understand the Dolphins' broader team problems. Yes, Tannehill has to improve, he has to grow within the offense, but the Fins also have to improve around him in terms of their overall talent level. This was always going to be a rebuilding year for the Dolphins -- and a learning experience for Tannehill. So while these past three losses are painful in terms of their playoff hopes, they also serve as a reminder of what Miami must do to improve.
When the Dolphins can play their style -- which is playing from in front, stopping the opponent's run game and making a few big plays -- Tannehill will look like the best thing to happen to Miami since LeBron hit South Beach. But when they get behind early in games and fail to make big plays, they will struggle. This is the reality of where they are as an organization, so don't get down on Tannehill. Just know that as the team around Tannehill improves, so will he. He can break through this wall -- he just can't do it alone.