Through his first two NFL seasons, the only thing consistent about Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was his inconsistency. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Texas A&M tossed 12 interceptions to 12 touchdowns in his rookie campaign -- fairly unimpressive, especially when you come out of the same draft class as Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.
Tannehill improved in his second season, throwing 24 touchdowns to 17 picks, but the Dolphins' season was waylaid by ineffective coaching and a ridiculous bullying scandal. More was expected of Tannehill in 2014, especially with the addition of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, a disciple of the Chip Kelly school of fast and decisive football.
Through the first month of the season, however, it looked like Tannehill was going to continue on the same inconsistent path. He completed just 60 percent of his passes in September, and while he did throw six touchdowns to three picks in that month, Tannehill also had stretches in which he threw indecisively and failed to read the field accurately.
But lately, Tannehill has played like a different quarterback. With an integrated set of targets and a completely redefined offensive line -- the most-sacked quarterback in 2013 has five new starters up front -- Tannehill upped his completion percentage to 66.3, and started to engineer more big plays. However November started with the biggest bang, as the 5-3 Dolphins shredded the San Diego Chargers 37-0, behind Tannehill's three-touchdown day (24-of-34 for 288 yards and no picks) and a very strong defensive performance.
Experience has helped Tannehill, as has Lazor. But the hidden factor in his recent development could be the most famous and greatest quarterback in franchise history. Dan Marino has had an on-and-off affair with the Dolphins' front office since his retirement in 1999 (he's currently listed as "special advisor to the owner"). It's been Marino as much as anyone who's taken Miami's latest hope to a level that everyone desperately hopes will stick.
"Dan has been great," Tannehill said this week, per the team's official site. "He’s been around a lot as of recent. Watched tape with him. He’s been in the quarterback room. He’s a great resource to have around, just his knowledge of the game [and] obviously the success that he had during his career."
These film sessions have happened just a couple of times, but you can see that something is taking root in Tannehill. Yes, he's faced less-than-impressive pass defenses during his recent hot streak (Oakland, Green Bay, Chicago, Jacksonville, San Diego), but if you isolate Tannehill's efforts over those weeks, it's fairly easy to see a player who is seeing the field more accurately, making better deep throws and distributing the ball with more clarity (and the Dolphins are 4-1 in that stretch and currently an AFC playoff contender, to boot). Many in the league will tell you that there are only a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL with more overall talent than Tannehill -- it's always been a matter of his football brains catching up.
With Marino's help, that may just have happened.
“I appreciate the knowledge he has of the game, just little insights that he can point out and just him being around showing that he cares, it’s nice," Tannehill concluded. “He’s always just pointing out little things on tape, whether it’s a receiver’s routes or something I’m doing. He’s good at picking up little things and passing them along.”
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said this week that Marino's involvement doesn't undermine the efforts of the coaches.
"He has sat in on some of our post-Monday morning film sessions, just to watch the tape with us and listen to things that we are doing," Coyle told Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald. "I think he likes the strategy of defense, and he likes to kind of see the different things that teams might be doing in the league now.
"He’s been involved, but he’s not given us blitzes he would like to run or anything like that. His presence is welcomed around here. Any time you have got a guy of that caliber, a Hall of Fame guy that has seen so many things, he can certainly help in every phase."
It's not an uncommon arrangement: Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who played for the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 and '98, now works as a team broadcaster and has advised Russell Wilson since he came into the league. Moon told me in October 2012 that he had talked with Wilson extensively during a time when many wondered if Wilson was up to the challenges of being a starter so early in his career.
"I remember right after the Green Bay game, with all the hysteria that went on -- I walked up to him, and the first thing out of his mouth was, 'I've got to stay in the pocket longer,'" Moon recalled. "He already knew it, and that's what I love about him. He assesses the things he does wrong, and he wants to correct them."
Sounds like what Tannehill might be telling Marino. And if it works, why not?