Other than as a curiosity piece and an obvious barometer of how the NFL’s expansionist designs are progressing beyond this continent, the league’s London series games rarely pique widespread interest in terms of the actual matchup itself.
But you have to admit, this Sunday’s Dolphins-Raiders game at Wembley Stadium just got considerably more intriguing and pressurized due to something Miami head coach Joe Philbin refused to say or do at his regular Monday afternoon press conference: Namely, issuing a vote of confidence to struggling quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Given four opportunities by reporters, Philbin declined each time to confirm Tannehill remains the starter for his floundering 1-2 Dolphins.
“We’re going to get our 46 best players in the game, and we’re going to utilize them the best way possible,’’ Philbin said robotically, again and again, in some variation.
Ever the cryptic one, Philbin didn’t say Tannehill wouldn’t start and he didn’t say he would, but a coach choosing to leave an opening like that, inviting endless news cycles of conjecture and tea-leaf reading, is almost certainly a calculated move, the proverbial motivational club Philbin decided to take out of his bag and use.
It may not portend what would seem a shockingly hasty switch to veteran backup Matt Moore in time for this week’s across-the-pond date with the winless Raiders (0-3). But Philbin refused to rule out such a scenario, and that in itself speaks volumes about where Miami’s patience level is regarding its third-year quarterback. If nothing else, it clearly serves as a warning shot fired in Tannehill’s direction, with a quarterback change perhaps a given if Miami is 1-3 going into a bye in Week 5, returning to face Philbin’s former employer, Green Bay, at home in Week 6.
File this one under desperate times -- and desperate teams -- call for desperate measures. And that’s why there’s much more on the line in London this weekend than usual, with no quarterback in the NFL shouldering as much pressure to produce as Tannehill will in Week 4 (if he plays, that is).
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget Philbin and Raiders head coach Dennis Allen rank 1-2 in some order in everybody’s coaching hot-seat rankings, which adds another layer of urgency to a game featuring one team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002 (Oakland) and the other since 2008 (Miami).
• SI's complete coverage of NFL Week 3
The game definitely lacks glamor, but it might well be morbidly fascinating, if only for its potential to significantly alter the look and landscape of either franchise. Will the losing head coach be asked to get his own transportation home? Is it possible Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr somehow exits the game with more job security than either head coach or the opposing QB? And will a sellout crowd at an Oakland “home’’ game in London immediately prompt Raiders owner Mark Davis to begin relocation negotiations with city officials there? (The heck with San Antonio.)
For Miami and Tannehill, however, this is what a stunning 34-15 collapse at home to a previously winless Chiefs team can do for you: place you on the brink of crisis mode. Even the Dolphins’ impressive Week 1 beatdown of visiting New England doesn’t look as special in hindsight, given the offensively-out-of-sync Patriots just had to sweat out a 16-9 home-opening win over the same Raiders club Miami will engage this week.
The Dolphins enter the Oakland game on a two-game losing streak, their offense is struggling mightily (averaging 11.5 points per game the past two weeks) and Tannehill’s play is drawing criticism and concern. The No. 8 overall pick in 2012’s draft appears almost out of leash in Miami, with a starting record that has slipped to 16-19, and season statistics that put him on pace for career-lows in passer rating (74.1) and completion percentage (56.5). His 5.0 yards per pass attempt ranks last among the league’s 35 qualifying quarterbacks, and he could only muster 205 yards passing and one touchdown against Kansas City, with the Dolphins never holding the lead at any point in their consecutive losses at Buffalo and to the Chiefs.
This was supposed to be the year that Tannehill’s game took the next step, with Philbin having rid his coaching staff of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman’s conservative mindset and cast his lot with the up-tempo, push-the-envelope pace favored by new OC Bill Lazor, who was schooled in the Chip Kelly offense in Philadelphia. But the Dolphins‘ stated goal of averaging 25 points per game and dictating tempo to opposing defenses has been far from met. Tannehill has regressed rather than progressed in the season’s early stages, and including Miami’s two-game season-ending slide that cost the Dolphins a playoff berth last December, he’s just 1-4 in his last five starts, with the 23-0 second-half run in the 33-20 win over the Patriots in Week 1 being the lone offensive highlight in that span.
The problems in Miami obviously do not all trace to Tannehill, with the Dolphins struggling with numerous dropped passes (11, second in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus), pass protection (nine sacks in three games, including back-to-back four-sack games) and sloppy tackling issues. A Miami Herald report this week added some more spice, saying Dolphins defenders are “beyond furious" and "irate’’ at the gameplans and in-game-adjustments made by Miami’s defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
But one constant this season has been Miami’s slow starts in games, with the Dolphins outscored 43-13 in the first half, forcing it to play from behind and increasing the pressure on Tannehill to produce in the clutch. So far, he’s failing to answer that challenge, and thus the lion’s share of the blame for Miami’s galling consecutive 19-point losses is sticking to him.
Will all of it keep building and cost Tannehill his starting job and franchise-quarterback status in Miami? We’re about to find out. If not before this week’s trans-Atlantic road trip to London, then based on what transpires against the Raiders at Wembley.
Miami and Oakland didn’t look like much of a showdown when 2014’s three-game London schedule was announced, and neither club would seem to have playoff contention in its immediate future. But there’s suddenly a lot on the line for the Dolphins and Raiders. The heat will be on in London on Sunday night, and the NFL already has itself a Desperation Bowl that makes for somebody’s must-win, and maybe for a change, a must-see.