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Blanket Coverage: Time running out for Tannehill to show Dolphins growth

According to two team sources, the Dolphins will evaluate the quarterback position in the off-season. Is time running out for Ryan Tannehill to take the next step?

And down the stretch they come with only five games left in the regular season… This week we’ll throw water on the Broncos hysteria, tamp down suggestions that Matt Hasselbeck should remain the starter in Indy and look at how the Seahawks will miss Jimmy Graham (at some point). And we’ll discuss how Gronk makes the rules at One Patriot Place, why low hits can and should be outlawed on defenseless players and the prospects of Brock Osweiler. We’ll also look at the fallout from major injuries, tip the cap to Devin McCourty and give our wide-ranging thoughts on Week 13. But first, we go down to Miami, where the Dolphins don’t appear to just be standing pat at quarterback.

The Dolphins are on their second head coach and, after Bill Lazor was fired and replaced by quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor this week, their third offensive coordinator in four years.

They’ll likely make it three head coaches and four offensive coordinators in the off-season when Miami finds a permanent coach.

That timeline just happens to coincide with Ryan Tannehill’s tenure as Dolphins quarterback. Some people within the organization don’t think that’s a coincidence.

According to two team sources, the quarterback position will be evaluated in the off-season. In fact, Dolphins scouts are sharpening their scouting reports on quarterbacks in this year’s draft. With the Dolphins right now sitting in the No. 6 draft position (and they could wind up higher), they might not want to pass on a quarterback in the first or second round of the draft.

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This might seem odd considering the Dolphins just signed Tannehill to a four-year contract extension in May, but it actually makes perfect sense. Tannehill’s extension was actually a two-year deal for modest money (a $4.87 million cap figure this season, $11.64 million next season). After that, the Dolphins can walk away from the deal at any time with modest cap ramifications.

The contract was smartly structured by executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum. If Tannehill proves himself down the stretch and next season, then the contract, which balloons from an $11.64 million cap hit in 2016 to $20.3 million in ’17, is in line with what a franchise quarterback should make.

If he doesn’t, and the team should definitely know after five seasons whether Tannehill is a franchise quarterback, then Miami can walk away. Perhaps Tannenbaum learned a lesson in the ridiculous extension he gave Mark Sanchez with the Jets, which basically led to Tannenbaum’s downfall in New York.

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What Tannenbaum can’t repeat is how he handled the backup quarterback situation behind Sanchez. Tannenbaum coddled Sanchez and left himself no outs with the likes of Mark Brunell, Greg McElroy and Tim Tebow on the sidelines.

Right now, the Dolphins have 31-year-old veteran Matt Moore, and 23-year-old Logan Thomas on the practice squad. The Dolphins can’t let Tannehill take off next season without drafting at least one legitimate prospect in this year’s draft to groom behind him.

Tannehill still has much to prove, which is problematic since he’s in his fourth season. You can only fire so many coaches and lay blame on the offensive line so much, especially considering the money and draft picks the Dolphins have spent surrounding him with talent.

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The fact is, Tannehill is largely the same quarterback he has been since his second season. He’s thrown his deep ball a little better, but overall his yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio, sacks, passer rating and fumbles have all been fairly consistent.

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The talk this week is how Tannehill, under unseasoned new offensive coordinator Taylor, is going to be given more audible control at the line of scrimmage. That’s usually reserved for players that have mastered the basics of the position, like reading defenses pre- and post-snap (which Tannehill continues to struggle with and will be his downfall if it’s not corrected).

Maybe Tannehill flourishes with more control over the offense in the final five games when he will face, according to Football Outsiders, the No. 26 (Ravens), No. 25 (Giants), No. 31 (Chargers) and No. 17 (Colts) pass defenses, followed by a resting Patriots team. Or maybe this little experiment will add more evidence to suggest Tannehill isn’t up to the task and Tannenbaum needs to make room for another possible starter.

Either way, Tannehill is and should be on the clock.

Wet Blanket Report

Settle down:

Broncos as AFC favorites: You have to hand it to the Broncos. They overcame injuries and a 14-point deficit to knock off the Patriots, and the offense looks completely different (read: competent) since the impressive Brock Osweiler took over for Peyton Manning. But for anyone to say anything has changed in the AFC because of that victory is completely nuts. The Patriots were playing without Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski for all or part of the game, and the Broncos, who were beat up but not close to the Patriots’ level, needed a home field, poor weather and curious officiating to eek out a victory. Unless those players don’t get back for the playoffs, which they should, the AFC still runs through Foxboro.

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Hasselbeck: Matt Hasselbeck, 4–0 as a starter at age 40, has been a great story, and he’s saved the Colts’ season. But this is Andrew Luck’s team as soon as he’s healthy, and any chatter about Hasselbeck staying the starter is ridiculous. Come on, Hasselbeck has beaten the Jaguars, Texans and Falcons (who were in free-falls at the time) and the Bucs. Luck, who hopefully has learned a thing or two about not being a hero while watching Hasselbeck, beat the best defense in football while dealing with a lacerated kidney in his last start. Leave the final word to Hasselbeck, ever the pro: “I know the truth. I know what reality is,” Hasselbeck said. “This is 100% Andrew Luck’s team. Not only is he the quarterback of the future, he’s been the quarterback of the past. He has earned every bit of respect he gets in this locker room. He has earned it. Nothing’s really been given to him. It’s his team, absolutely.”

No Graham is good for Seahawks? Jimmy Graham certainly has been a bust in his first season in Seattle after the trade from New Orleans, but the Seahawks are not better off without him. They weren’t trying to go out of the offense to call plays for him à la Percy Harvin, both Graham and the Seahawks just needed time to get used to each other. They were starting to get it. Not having a 6'7" target in the red zone is going to hurt down the stretch, no doubt about it.

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Go nuts:

Gronkowski rules the roost: Part of the Patriot Way has been how no player, including Tom Brady, was bigger than any other. Well, that was proved to be a fallacy this week when the team and the Rob Gronkowski Camp issued a joint press release not only detailing his injury, but how his return would be handled. It’s not going to have any ripples in the locker room, but there’s little doubt now that Gronk is his own show in Foxboro. From being held out of the preseason, to the team having no control when Gronk plays again, it’s safe to say that Gronk Rules are alive and well at Gillette.

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Low hits: Glad to see Tom Brady come over to my opinion from two years ago, that the NFL can and should outlaw hits to the knee when receivers are in a defenseless position. It would not apply to players that have established themselves as runners. There is no reason why there can’t be a strike zone from above the knee to the shoulders (and the foot area would be legal for ankle tackles). Players should be protected from someone taking out their knees before they can even turn around. The ironic thing is the hit that injured Gronkowski would be perfectly legal. Broncos safety Darian Stewart went for Gronkowski’s near hip and it was accidental that Gronkowski swung his leg into Stewart. The T.J. Ward hit that ended Gronkowski’s season in 2013, however, is the exact type of blow that should be outlawed.

Osweiler has it: It’s only two games and much is left to be played out, but Osweiler’s performance against the Patriots showed that he’s a player, and one that is getting better with every snap. One of the promising developments just from his first start to the fourth quarter against the Patriots, besides some of the big-time throws he made through full-field progressions, was his ability to go from frenetic in the pocket against pressure to almost serene. And just imagine what he can do when Demaryius Thomas actually shows up to a game.

Domino Effect

Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 12 injuries?

TE Rob Gronkowski, Patriots (knee bruise, week to week): Outside of Tom Brady, Gronkowski is the main cog in the Patriots’ offense. Scott Chandler is the so-called next man up, but not having Gronk will totally change the offense because the other two healthy tight ends (Chandler and Asante Cleveland) can’t block well enough to play on the line. Michael Williams, who is basically an extra tackle, was limited on Wednesday. If he can’t go, look for the Patriots to use a lot of spread formations against the Eagles.

TE Jimmy Graham, Seahawks (torn patellar surgery, injured reserve): The big off-season acquisition saw his season end against the Steelers. Luke Willson will be the starter, and he fits the style of the Seahawks a little better as a blocker and solid all-around tight end.

OLB Justin Houston, Chiefs (hyperextended knee, day to day): Hasn’t been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Raiders, but it’s probably a long shot. Dee Ford, the team’s 2014 first-round pick, would get the call despite dealing with a back injury. He’s been underwhelming so far in his career, but to be fair, his snaps have been limited.

Humanitarian of the Week

CB Devin McCourty, Patriots

McCourty, the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for the second straight year, has been a pillar in both Boston and his hometown of Nyack, N.Y., since he entered the league. McCourty teamed with twin brother Jason, a cornerback for the Titans, to form Tackle Sickle Cell in 2013 in honor of their Aunt Winnie, who has the disease. Both host events and blood drives throughout the season to raise awareness and funds about the disease.

McCourty also often visits Boston Children’s Hospital and hosts a free football clinic in his hometown each off-season.

10 thoughts heading into Week 13

1. Tough week, with the Jets’ vaunted defensive line on the docket, for the Giants to be beat up on the offensive line. Guard Justin Pugh (concussion) and center Weston Richburg (high ankle sprain) were inactive last week, and then guard Geoff Schwartz broke his leg and has since gone on injured reserve. The Giants could really use Richburg back in the lineup.

2.Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has very much regained his form after dealing with the slow recovery from ACL surgery recovery last season, is coming off perhaps his finest game, when he absolutely dominated the Rams last week. That’s bad news for Browns rookie left guard Cameron Erving.

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3.Russell Wilson has finally made a conscious effort to stay in the pocket and within the confines of the offense, and it has made a huge difference the past two games. The even better part is that he has maintained his ability to improvise, he’s just picking his spots more.

4.Matt Ryan, who has thrown five interceptions the past two games, does not look right. The Falcons’ offensive line has not been as good since the 5–0 start (it allowed a 26.4% pressure rate over that span, compared to 35.1% in the last six games), and that has probably affected some of his decision making, but Ryan looks like something physically is bothering him.

5. Don’t understand why the Jaguars called only 13 designed runs in 71 plays against the Chargers, with T.J. Yeldon only getting nine carries for 36 yards. Jacksonville didn’t trail by more than one score until the fourth quarter. You would have thought they learned last season not to leave Blake Bortles out to dry. The Jaguars have to run the ball more.

6. Gee, I wonder if Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who both interviewed for the 49ers’ head coaching job after Jim Harbaugh was pushed out/left but lost out to Jim Tomsula, will be looking to exact a little revenge against the 49ers? Fangio, especially, has an ax to grind, considering Tomsula was his defensive line coach.

7. New Dolphins offensive coordinator Zac Taylor (does he get the interim label too, like Dan Campbell?) has to be about the least experienced coordinator you’ll ever find on the NFL level. The 32-year-old former Oklahoma quarterback was a graduate assistant at Texas A&M from 2008 to ’11 until Mike Sherman brought him to the Dolphins after Sherman was fired. Taylor has only been a QB coach for two years and has never called a game on any level.

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8. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who retired in March, was using basketball to keep in shape when he was signed this week by the Panthers with Charles Tillman out with a hyperextended knee. Finnegan is known as a feisty player, but many around the league thought it was wise that he retired because he had lost more than a step.

9. Chiefs could have a big edge on the interior with nose tackle Dontari Poe if Raiders center and former Chief Rodney Hudson (mostly out of the lineup since Nov. 8 with an ankle sprain) can’t return. Tony Bergstrom has done a decent job filling in, but this is the type of matchup the Raiders signed Hudson to a $44 million contract for this off-season.

10. After allowing average of 321.3 passing yards and a total of 10 touchdown passes, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin indicated there could be changes in the secondary, with Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell the prime candidates for demotion. Maybe former Eagles corner Brandon Boykin, who has been on a milk carton since being acquired for a fifth-round pick, could make an appearance.