Skolnick: Adam Gase goes into critical season with no real backup plan
He’s known as the quarterback whisperer.
That’s why he is here. That’s why Steve Ross snatched Adam Gase from Chicago, why the Dolphins owner sought his counsel about Ryan Tannehill, why Gase has been given license to run an offense how he sees fit.
It might be time, however, to whisper something to the third-year Dolphins coach:
Second-string quarterbacks matter.
They don’t matter as much as starting quarterbacks or standout left tackles or shutdown cornerbacks or fearsome pass-rushers.
But they matter.
And the Dolphins may have the most problematic backup quarterbacking situation in the NFL, so poorly thought out that you almost think it’s part of the plan. As in, if Ryan Tannehill injures himself again -- which is certainly possible considering he’s coming off knee surgery -- the Dolphins want to be entirely vulnerable. That they want to go 3-13 or 4-12 so they can get the highest pick possible in the 2019 draft, in order to pluck Tannehill’s replacement.
Otherwise, if it’s unintentional, it’s gross negligence. Maybe Matt Moore’s arm was shot. Maybe Teddy Bridgewater, who’s from these parts, wanted a better shot to start. Maybe no one knew Robert Griffin III would again look reasonably functional. Maybe Colin Kaepernick is just too toxic, even for an owner who -- when he isn't worried about presidential tweets -- purports to support social justice.
But the Dolphins should have done something better than relying on David Fales, a sixth-round pick from 2014 with 48 career passes; Brock Osweiler, who has been absolutely awful since a dominant Denver defense carried him in 2015, when he was still underwhelming enough that a finished Peyton Manning replaced him in the playoffs; and Bryce Petty, such a Jets flameout that he couldn't replace one of the McCowns.
This appears to have been executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum betting on Gase, and that hasn’t been such a boffo bet. Yes, Gase coaxed Ryan Tannehill to perform at a career-best level in 2016, especially in the final six games prior to the knee injury. But he wanted Jay Cutler, at $10 million, after he’d been credited for reviving Cutler’s career once. That was a disaster. Tannenbaum wanted Osweiler as a stopgap backup option. Disaster so far. Fales? He’s OK. Maybe.
But while OK is good enough for a backup defensive tackle, someone to plug space until someone else checks in, it is not OK enough for someone who could be charting the direction of a team that, at best, will be scrapping for a wild card spot.
You don’t play games with the position that can directly, unequivocally cost you games. The Dolphins had the reliable Don Strock way back when, sure, to save David Woodley, and to rest Dan Marino’s rifle in practice. Scott Mitchell flashed enough to get overpaid elsewhere. But since then, they’ve had trouble enough finding a starting quarterback. Backups? Hardly a bonanza.
The Dolphins have actually been incredibly fortunate most seasons when it's come to availability, at least when compared to the rest of the league. Marino started at least a dozen games 13 times between 1984 and 1999; he started every game in 11 of those seasons. Tannehill started all 16 in each of his first four seasons, from 2012 to 2015.
But that’s not normal. Not in the modern NFL. Not even with the league babying quarterbacks. And since 2002, here are the backups at the beginning of the year who have started at least three games in that season for the Dolphins: Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon (twice), John Beck, Chad Henne (before he became the regular starter) and Matt Moore (twice).
Last season, Moore started twice.
The Dolphins’ collective record in all games started by backups since 2002?
And that includes a couple of passable stints from Moore.
That also includes the 2002 season, which was wrecked when the underappreciated Fiedler -- who was having his best start to a season -- hurt his thumb in Denver as the Dolphins surged to 5-1, and appeared to be the top team in the AFC.
The loquacious Ray Lucas, who had gone 6-3 as a Jets starter, filled in for Fiedler. That was deemed a better backup option than any the Dolphins have now, to the extent that some fans felt he should have been given a chance to start. Lucas himself believed that.
He committed six turnovers in his first start, at home, in a 23-10 loss to Buffalo -- on his way to a 2-4 record with a 69.9 passer rating in those six games. The Dolphins were still in position to make the playoffs before falling apart in the final two games, under Fiedler, in Minnesota and New England. That part wasn’t Lucas’ fault. But his poor play left the team little margin for error.
“It’s embarrassing,” Lucas said after the Bills debacle. “I embarrassed myself. I embarrassed everyone. I probably won’t sleep the next three days.”
Now, 16 years later, it’s Dolphins fans who won’t sleep if Tannehill is hurt.
“Obviously, he was pressing and made some mistakes that were costly,” then-coach Dave Wannstedt said of Lucas.
The Dolphins have made plenty over the past two decades. Not getting Tannehill insurance may count as another. Don’t be surprised, should No. 17 goes down, if someone in a suit whispers that ever so softly, and sternly, to Adam Gase.
Ethan J. Skolnick is the co-founder of Five Reasons Sports Network, and co-host of its flagship podcast. He is also the senior manager of Dolphin Maven. He has covered the Dolphins, Heat and other South Florida teams for more than two decades for all the local newspapers.