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Sink or Swim

May 07, 2012
May 07, 2012

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May 7, 2012

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Sink or Swim

Think Andrew Luck has it tough? All Ryan Tannehill has to do is be Dan Marino and make the Dolphins forget the past decade

As Ryan Tannehill walked into an autograph session last Saturday at the Dolphins' inaugural Fin Fest celebration, a crowd of fans in the Sun Life Stadium concourse caught sight of Miami's newly minted first-round quarterback and rained greetings on him. "Good luck, Ryan!" said one. "Need you, Tannehill!" said another. And one voice said, "Better be good!"

This is an article from the May 7, 2012 issue

Not every team in the NFL has to do what the Dolphins and owner Stephen Ross did last Saturday: open the home stadium to fans and let them roam free on the turf, kick field goals, throw passes, tour the locker rooms, meet players. But in Miami, where the Dolphins have made the playoffs just once in the last 10 years, fewer than half of the stadium's 75,000 seats have been sold to season-ticket holders, and the team has failed repeatedly in attempts to bring in big-name players or coaches who could fire up the fan base. "The apathy is high," said former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper, who covers sports for Miami's CBS TV affiliate. "After failing to get so many guys they went after—Jim Harbaugh, Jeff Fisher, Peyton Manning—they've lost the benefit of the doubt with the fans. These fans are dying for someone to believe in."

Fans like 40-year-old Greg Rosen, in the autograph line for Tannehill and other Dolphins past and present. A lifelong South Floridian, Rosen has a photo stored on his cellphone of himself when he was three, alongside Larry Csonka. He goes to four or five games a year and wonders if he's doing right by imbuing his young children with the same despairing love of the Dolphins he has. "Tannehill's the first shot of hope we've had in a while," Rosen said.

The NFL draft is a time of optimism for the 32 NFL teams, particularly those who take quarterbacks in the first round. Four teams did that last Thursday—Indianapolis (Andrew Luck at No. 1), Washington (Robert Griffin III, No. 2), Miami (Tannehill, No. 8) and Cleveland (Brandon Weeden, No. 22). Each of those QBs will face pressure to start soon, Luck and Griffin on opening day. But none of the others face the weight of history in quite the way Tannehill—the first Dolphins quarterback picked in the first round since Dan Marino in 1983—does in Miami.

This is the place where quarterback hope goes to die. Can you blame Manning for giving the Dolphins only a cursory look last month before signing with Denver? Since Marino retired after the '99 season—except for a one-year detour to competence with Chad Pennington in 2008—the Dolphins have lurched from Fiedler (Jay) to Feeley (A.J.) to Moore (Matt). They squeezed out a 1--15 season with a Lemon (Cleo). They drafted John Beck 40th overall in 2007 and gave him four starts before dumping him. Two years later they drafted Pat White 44th in a burst of misguided obsession with the Wildcat formation; White threw five passes (completing none) in 2009 and was cut in camp the next year. The last three coaches before current head man Joe Philbin all went down in part because of the QBs they hung their hats on: Nick Saban with Daunte Culpepper, Cam Cameron with Beck, Tony Sparano with Chad Henne.

Then there's G.M. Jeff Ireland. During the final home game, fans hired a plane to fly over Sun Life, towing a banner that read MR. ROSS: SAVE OUR DOLPHINS, FIRE IRELAND. In March about 30 fans protested at the team's practice facility, some carrying signs reading fireland.

In other words, Mr. Tannehill, you are going to have to make up for the sins of a whole lot of people you've either never met or barely know. Good luck.

"We dominated football in the '70s," Ross told SI last Friday. "That's where I want to be again. You need a franchise quarterback to do that, and certainly no one knows if Ryan will be that. But I am hoping this [pick] starts us back on the road to becoming again what the Yankees are to baseball."

The fall season can be exhausting for NFL general managers, with constant road trips to college campuses and games to watch in person on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, though, you see the future. On a Monday in late October, with the Dolphins 0--7 and the prospect of a high first-round pick very real, Ireland made the most important trip of the year. He flew to Texas to spend a week investigating Tannehill and Griffin, watching tape and talking to coaches at Texas A&M and Baylor. That weekend he saw Tannehill throw three interceptions for A&M in a 41--25 loss at Oklahoma.

"But after that week," Ireland said in his office last Friday, "I kept coming back to thinking, This guy's going to succeed. I liked his stroke, his presence, his decision-making, his athletic ability. He did the things a pro quarterback does—change protections, sight-adjust at the line. I like the way he fought through adversity. When everyone in the world thinks you just suck, you've got to get back in the huddle and prove you belong. That huddle has to believe in you. I have that belief in Ryan."

By the time of that trip it was becoming clear that Griffin would be a high first-round pick, and by February, Luck and Griffin were certain to be taken one-two. When St. Louis auctioned off the second pick of the draft in March, Ireland dipped his toe in the water but didn't jump in. "I didn't see a huge separation between Griffin and Ryan at the time," Ireland said on Friday. "I just didn't see it."

There were some nagging issues with Tannehill. Twice at A&M he lost the starting quarterback competition, and he played receiver for half of his college career. Last fall the Aggies lost three games they led at halftime. Over those three second halves Tannehill completed barely 50% of his throws. His overall completion percentage fell from 65% in 2010 to 61.6%.

Ireland, Philbin and college scouting director Chris Grier separately broke down every throw of Tannehill's from 2011. "He loses to Oklahoma State and throws an interception where his receiver falls down," said Philbin. "He loses to Kansas State [in overtime] when he hits his receiver in the numbers on a two-point conversion and he drops it. He loses to Texas after leading [A&M] to a touchdown late, and his defense lets Texas drive down for the winning touchdown in a two-minute drill. I looked at every third-down throw, about 140 of them, and liked his decision-making. I counted 72 drops by his receivers."

In January, when the Dolphins hired Philbin, he brought in Tannehill's college coach, Mike Sherman, as offensive coordinator. During an interview at the combine, with Sherman in the room, Ireland asked Tannehill how he felt when Sherman twice picked another quarterback to start over him. Tannehill is a polite kid from West Texas, and Ireland wanted to know if he'd be comfortable speaking about two uncomfortable periods in his life. "I told Coach Sherman he was making a mistake, that I was the best quarterback he had," Tannehill said that night in Indianapolis.

As a last check, Ireland sent tape of Tannehill to several close friends in the business, to be sure he wasn't seeing just what he wanted to see. The reviews came back positive.

Projecting whether a first-round quarterback will hit it big or bomb is the greatest mystery in pro football. Much depends on forces beyond his control—quality of teammates, of coaching, of the front office. But Ireland, who had the final say on Tannehill, expressed no doubts last Friday. "I am pumped, excited, ecstatic," he said. "We got our guy. I am willing to put my name on it."

Tannehill has some advantages from the jump. Sherman is his coordinator. Zac Taylor, a former A&M assistant, will be a quarterbacks coach in Miami. When Tannehill walked into the Dolphins' offices on Saturday morning, the first thing he said to Taylor was, "Let's get to work." They spent about 90 minutes going over the playbook, and Tannehill figured about 75% of it is the same as he had at A&M.

"It'll definitely speed up my development," Tannehill said as he strolled with wife Lauren around Sun Life Stadium on Saturday. "I've already looked at tape to see different things, and I'm comfortable with them. Route combinations, some of the five-wide and three-by-one [three receivers on one side, one on the other] combinations, those are things you can adjust to."

For two days after the draft Tannehill said all the right things, and seemed to believe them. "Ryan's like this," Lauren said, putting her palm out and drawing a straight line. "Nothing bothers him. Whatever happens, he'll deal with it."

Now a spring shower fell over the stadium. In the Florida Marlins' old bullpen, Ryan Tannehill waited to be called out for a presentation on the field. He was asked about the burden of expectations he'd be shouldering on a team on a very long quarterback losing streak, and about the pressure he'd have to deal with on and off the field.

"It is what it is," Tannehill said, and he walked out into the rain.

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"I DIDN'T SEE A HUGE SEPARATION BETWEEN GRIFFIN AND RYAN," SAID IRELAND.
PHOTOPhotograph by David BergmanPHIN DE SIÈCLE Can Tannehill (center, with Roger Goodell) handle the spotlight in Miami, which hasn't had a franchise QB this millennium?PHOTOGREG NELSON (TANNEHILL)LIES AND STATISTICS Tannehill's completion percentage fell in his final season at A&M, but the Dolphins' staff counted 72 dropped passes by his receivers.