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No, Really, This Might Be Ryan Tannehill’s Year

Don’t jump off the bandwagon just yet

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Ryan Tannehill era in Miami has been a case study of the various ways to stunt the development of a young quarterback. The eighth-overall pick in the 2012 draft, Tannehill came out of Texas A&M as a raw-but-athletic prospect in need of a consistent developmental structure … and he’s already seen two head coaches (Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell), three offensive coordinators (Mike Sherman, Zac Taylor, and Bill Lazor), and two general managers (Jeff Ireland and Dennis Hickey) come and go.

Miami’s latest front-office reset tasks head coach Adam Gase with finally providing some stability for a quarterback — and team — that has known nothing but chaos. While Tannehill now must learn his third offense in five years, the Gase hire is a refreshingly smart move from a team that hasn’t made many.

Gase has been on a short list for a head-coaching job the past few years because of the success he’s had working closely with quarterbacks including Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler. So while we’ve been told that “this is Ryan Tannehill’s breakout year” before each of the past few seasons, Gase’s streamlined, logical approach to the passing game gives Tannehill the best chance he’s ever had to finally make that long-awaited leap into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks.

That breakout was supposed to come last year (and the year before that), but instead, Tannehill plateaued. He hit career highs in yards (4,208) and yards per attempt (7.2), but his completion percentage (61.9, 21st in the NFL), touchdown total (24, 15th in the NFL), and quarterback rating (88.7, 22nd league-wide) dropped as the Dolphins struggled, winning just six games and finishing last in the AFC East. He was sacked 45 times last year, and Miami’s offense finished 22nd in DVOA a year after finishing eighth.

That’s where Gase comes in. He made a name for himself as Denver’s quarterbacks coach in 2011, when he turned Tim Tebow into something resembling an NFL quarterback by taking what the defense gave them. Two years later, he became the Broncos offensive coordinator, and he and Peyton Manning engineered the most prolific offense in NFL history. After following John Fox to Chicago last season, he made Jay Cutler look consistent and calm, as Smokin’ Jay hit a career high in QB rating (92.3), throwing 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — the latter figure a career low for the quarterback aside from his injury-shortened 2011 season and his 2006 rookie season.

Gase runs a reasoned, coherent passing game that looks to take advantage of defensive mismatches and utilize his weaponry intelligently. It might seem obvious, but using the strengths of your players to consistently exploit defensive looks is a hard-to-find talent among NFL coordinators.

It’s a skill that Gase’s mentor, Mike Martz, the architect of the Greatest Show on Turf, recently praised. “He had an intuition that’s rare,” Martz said of their time together in Detroit in 2006 and 2007, when Gase was first an offensive assistant, then quarterbacks coach. “He understood concepts, how to attack defenses. Trust me, that’s rare.”

Gase wants to make his quarterback as comfortable as possible. Philbin and Lazor did not seek Tannehill’s input in game planning, and Lazor did not even give him the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage. But Gase plans to consult with Tannehill and prioritize the plays he’s most comfortable with.

For similar reasons, Gase doesn’t view “dink-and-dunk” passing as a negative.

“The whole league is 10 yards and under,” he said in August. “That’s what it is. Nobody is going down the field. There’s one team that does it really, maybe two: Pittsburgh and Arizona.”

Why?

“The [defensive ends] are too good. If you want to stand back there and have your quarterbacks get your brains beat out, go at it.”

Miami hasn’t been able to protect Tannehill — the Dolphins have been in the top 10 in surrendered sacks three years running — but Gase’s uptempo, get-the-ball-out-quick offense could change that. Adding veteran guard Jermon Bushrod and first-rounder Laremy Tunsil to the interior line will help, and if Tannehill can get the ball out quickly in that 10-yard area, he won’t even need his line to protect him for long. The Dolphins will frequently target running backs in the passing game — expect Arian Foster to be a beneficiary of this — and they’ll lean on Jarvis Landry, one of the best short-range receivers in the game.

Whether he’s lined up against a linebacker or a safety in zone or a cornerback in man-to-man coverage, Landry is dangerous. We’ve already seen the chemistry Tannehill and Landry possess, and in the preseason, Gase wasted no time reinforcing the connection between his quarterback and no. 1 receiver.

The implementation of more read-option looks into the offense could affect the passing game as well. It not only helps to slow down the pass rush a little bit (defensive ends have to watch for a handoff and can’t just burst upfield), the threat of the run can force defensive coordinators commit an extra defender to the box, which helps with the deep passing game. Simply run a play-action fake off of a read-option look, and you’ve got defenses thinking, not reacting.

If the defense becomes preoccupied with the run and the short pass, Gase can then dial up shots down the field. We saw that in Miami’s second preseason game when Tannehill rolled out on a play-action bootleg to hit Kenny Stills downfield for a 55-yard gain.

Tannehill completed 28 of 84 passes of 20-plus yards last year, racking up 951 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception on those throws, per the Football Outsiders Almanac. He’s plenty accurate downfield, and Gase will look to continue to utilize Stills’s field-stretching speed when the time is right. Tight end Jordan Cameron will provide an option down the seams, and DeVante Parker has the size–speed combination to become a featured weapon down the sideline.

Of course, the preseason is preseason, but Pro Football Focus had Tannehill as their top-graded QB in the league for the exhibition phase, as he finished 34 of 53 for 325 yards at 6.1 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and a pick (with two dropped passes in the end zone not showing up on the stat line). Tannehill’s been efficient thus far in Gase’s offense, and his comfort in the new system is apparent. But the promising early returns for the Gase–Tannehill relationship will be put to an early test — one of the toughest imaginable — as the Dolphins face off against the Seahawks in Seattle this Sunday. When playing at home over the past three years, the Seahawks have picked off 32 passes (second in the NFL) and given up an average of 16 points (first), 196 passing yards (first), and one passing touchdown (first) per game. But if Tannehill can acquit himself well in Week 1, then it might finally be time to strap into the breakout-year bandwagon.