MIAMI GARDENS — The thing about Ryan Tannehill is, he’s always gotten up.
Time after time, game after game, year after year, the Miami Dolphins quarterback has taken brutal, vicious shots to every part of his body. Never complained. Barely limped. Always got up.
But on this play, Tannehill didn’t. It was a low blow to his left knee from the former University of Miami star Calais Campbell, now a standout defensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals.
And something was different. His teammates could sense it.
“I could see it in his eyes,” Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills said of Tannehill.
On the Dolphins sideline, Tannehill used a white towel to wipe tears away from his eyes. One by one, teammates consoled him. It was quickly feared to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
And suddenly it was evident to anyone at Hard Rock Stadium or anyone watching on Fox television, that Tannehill, who had started his first 77 games, often criticized, would likely be out for a long, long time.
And suddenly it was evident to me, in the press box at this stadium where Dan Marino once shined in a way no quarterback since has ever been able to, that Tannehill will be missed.
As in, Tannehill is underappreciated.
As in, Tannehill is over-scrutinized, and over-criticized, and maligned to a point of ridiculousness.
“Too quickly judged,” Dolphins tight end MarQuies Gray said.
No, Tannehill is not Marino and he is not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but he’s pretty damn good.
And, it occurred to me at that moment, the Dolphins may have just lost their most important player for the season.
Before the game, I was engaging another reporter in debate: who is the most important player to the Dolphins 2016 season? Is it injured center Mike Pouncey? (Whose absence was once again glaring on Sunday afternoon). Or is it the remarkable Cameron Wake, who once again stirred the stadium with sacks and forced fumbles?
Earlier this week, I used Twitter to ask fans, just who is the Dolphins’ Most Valuable Player of 2016? Was it Jay Ajayi, Ndamukong Suh, Jarvis Landry or Kiko Alonso?
I didn’t even include Tannehill.
Perhaps that was a mistake.
Nearly 1,200 readers of the Palm Beach Post’s Daily Dolphin voted and an overwhelming 60 percent chose Ajayi, who surely is deserving of strong consideration.
But what now?
Do we now learn that those who chanted, “We want Moore!” in an early season game at Hard Rock Stadium, demanding backup quarterback Matt Moore, were right?
Unlikely. Moore is an excellent NFL backup quarterback. And who knows, maybe he wins two or three of the final three games and Miami sneaks into the playoffs.
But what we learned about Tannehill this season is this:
- Tannehill, with the aid of coach Adam Gase, produced the highest passer rating of his five-year career.
- Tannehill is without question, coming back as Miami’s quarterback in 2017. Three games short of a complete 16-game referendum, yes, but Tannehill didn’t need all 16 to prove his worth. Or his upside.
- The thing that garners Tannehill the respect of his teammates, more than anything, is his toughness.
“I’ve seen big hits,” Dolphins tight end Gray said. “Every game he takes a big shot, and he gets back up. He’s our field general. And he doesn’t want to show weakness. So he stays in there and fights through pain.”
But from this play, late in the third quarter, it appears to be no fighting back. The knee buckled.
“That was a weird feeling,” tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “He always gets up and limps it off. But when I saw everybody run out there, and I looked at him, I’m like, ‘OK, this could be serious.'”
The Ryan Tannehill that is expected to end 2016 on injured reserve is a different quarterback than the one that was seen in the first five games of this season.
As Tannehill adjusted to yet another offense, and yet more coaches, and yet more new teammates, he struggled.
As Miami started 1-4, Tannehill posted six touchdowns an seven interceptions.
But as Tannehill began to trust Gase’s plans, trust Gase’s mechanical adjustments and trust teammates like wide receiver DeVante Parker more, he blossomed.
Miami is in AFC playoff position today because of many things. Gase’s leadership. Ajayi’s tackle-breaks. Suh’s back-breaking tackles. Alonso’s sideline-to-sideline speed. And Landry’s dogged determination (see him break two tackles on a 71-yard run on Sunday.)
But what was overlooked, too often, too easily, was the growth Tannehill has made.
Just when it seemed Tannehill could not possibly be the long-term answer, he appeared to become just that.
The Dolphins stand 8-5. And Tannehill is as much a reason for that as any of the others.
Tannehill began to throw downfield as effectively as he had at any point in his career. He began to change plays at the line of scrimmage. He began to throw effectively on the run.
And he even began to run for first downs on third down, a critical, vital sign of his development.
When it looked Miami was dead in the water, Tannehill led his team to a stretch of 7-1.
In those games, he threw 13 touchdowns and five interceptions, and showed more frequent (frequent enough glimpses) to justify his pedigree as a first-round quarterback.
“He throws a good ball,” Gase said in his post-game news conference, the one in which he confirmed the fear is Tannehill tore an ACL.
Gase has said he took the Dolphins job (and there were other options) in part because of his belief in Tannehill.
At times this season, Tannehill has made a decision or attempted a pass or fumbled a ball that led doubters and skeptics and critics to suggest that this is why he cannot be the long-term solution.
It appears that Tannehill will not finish this season.
But it appears very likely that with Gase’s support and belief, Tannehill’s Dolphins story is far from complete.