Fact or Fiction: Reaching a Verdict on Key Judgments Faced by Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill

Ryan Tannehill is one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. For most quarterbacks, a simple misfire or poor read can be shrugged off as a single play (and rightfully so). However, this is not the case for the Miami Dolphins’ quarterback.

Every single play is a judgment. Fans (and often analysts) express sentiments of finality with Ryan Tannehill, looking to answer the question we all still have after four full NFL seasons.

Who is Ryan Tannehill, and is he a franchise quarterback?

Many have not taken the time to answer this question in a way that dissects the multiple facets of Tannehill’s game. It is difficult to truly diagnose whether or not Ryan Tannehill is the Dolphins’ quarterback of the future, mostly because one cannot assemble a coherent vision of him up to this point. 

In the case of Ryan Tannehill, the sum of his parts isn’t indicative of the whole picture. His career has been a rollercoaster, mirroring the circumstances he has been surrounded by.

Judgment rains down upon Tannehill each and every Sunday (then often Monday through Saturday as well). Many of the blanket statements do not truly depict Tannehill’s weaknesses, or strengths for that matter. In this article, we have taken the time to dissect these statements that are thrown around frequently about Tannehill to see what is fact, and what is fiction.

Ryan Tannehill can’t throw the deep ball: 

This is one of the most commonly spewed statements about the Dolphins’ quarterback. The narrative began when Mike Wallace arrived, struggling to develop chemistry and a true rapport with Tannehill. Then, the narrative ballooned. Every time Tannehill misfires, it’s because he “can’t” throw the deep ball.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

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In formal NFL categorization, a deep pass is one that travelled more than 20 yards in the air (a distinction used to eliminate yards after the catch).

In 2015, Ryan Tannehill was tied with Tyrod Taylor as the 5th best quarterback in the NFL in terms of deep ball accuracy percentage. This refers to passes that were placed well by the quarterback, regardless of whether or not the receiver was able to complete the process of a catch.

Tannehill and Taylor both were accurate on 54.4% of their deep passes. The only quarterbacks with a better rating in this category were Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger was the only passer to clear 60% (posting an absurd 65.9%).

In addition to Tannehill being one of the league’s better quarterbacks throwing deep in 2015, he is one of the top passers in terms of catchable passes over the entire field. Out of 586 passes thrown by Tannehill in 2015, 80.8% were catchable, accurate throws according statistics compiled by Pre Snap Reads. Tannehill’s receivers failed to make catches 63 times throughout the season.

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So, the narrative that Ryan Tannehill can’t throw the deep ball is clearly overblown. He has solid ball placement but sometimes misfires deep because he is being run down by a defensive lineman right off of the snap. Tannehill has also had receivers, such as Mike Wallace, who demonstrate a clear refusal to fight for the ball down field.

Accuracy is not the end-all-be-all for a quarterback, but Tannehill is an example of someone who manages to display solid ability in the category.

Verdict: Fiction

Ryan Tannehill struggles going through reads:

One of the most frustrating elements of Ryan Tannehill’s game remains the amount of time he holds onto the ball, and subsequently poor decisions he makes, when he does have time in the pocket.

This is partially caused by poor route concepts designed by Bill Lazor, which took almost no level of ingenuity or forward thinking into consideration when determining receivers’ roles on any given play. However, part of the blame when issues would occur surely can be placed on Tannehill.

In many cases, Tannehill struggles to make a quick decision when the play opens up in front of him. The team’s Week 1 game against the Redskins provided an example of this.

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Here, Tannehill had two options. He could have dumped the ball off, or he could have taken off with it. However, he took the third option, which is to wait for a deep receiver to come open. This is not always the best approach, especially with a line that struggles as much as Miami’s does.

Once Tannehill steps up and Dallas Thomas executes his block (surprisingly), there is a wide-open hole for Tannehill to run through. However, he decides to hold onto the football and attempt to allow receivers to come open deep, which was surely the wrong call on this play.

Sometimes, Tannehill is able to go through his progression well and make the right decision.

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Here, Tannehill doesn’t bite on the check down and waits for Jordan Cameron to come open down the field. However, there were more instances in which Tannehill didn’t make the correct call than ones in which he did.

In Week 16, the Miami Dolphins played a closely contested game against the Indianapolis Colts. With under a minute left, the Dolphins found themselves on the goal line needing a touchdown to take the lead. The four plays that would ensue truly encapsulate the decision-making issues that have plagued Ryan Tannehill.

On 1st down, there is a designed rollout called.

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Tannehill is looking to his right and almost makes a critical mistake that could have resulted in an interception. He ends up clutching back onto the ball, trying to give Jarvis Landry a chance at a jump ball on what is ultimately his second decision (he simply didn’t execute the first). What he misses is DeVante Parker coming across the field with a step on the defensive back. If the read had been made earlier, this would have been a better option. However, it ends up as an incompletion.

Two things are true on this play: 1) Ryan Tannehill missed on a potential touchdown. 2) This abysmal route design is indicative of the issues that plagued Bill Lazor’s offense.

On 2nd down, Tannehill misses another chance for a touchdown.

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Ryan Tannehill doesn’t see Lamar Miller come open out of the backfield on his blind side. Yes, it was in the direction he can’t easily see, but the quarterback is responsible for being aware of his options. This is a case in which Tannehill is not, and it results in a missed opportunity.

On 3rd down, Tannehill isn’t even given a chance.

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Here he feels the backside pressure and quickly gets the ball out of his hand. There is no fault to Tannehill on this play, as he did what any good quarterback should do when the play breaks down: give your best receiver a chance. However, the play design was poor enough that you can’t place blame on Miami’s quarterback.

Then, we all know what happened on 4th down.

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Ryan Tannehill displays the full nature of the frustration that has plagued evaluators throughout his career on this possession. Yes, he misses reads that could have allowed him to throw touchdowns to win the game. However, the play design is poor enough that one has to feel bad for the fourth year quarterback given the circumstance he is placed in.

At the end of the day, missed reads are missed reads, regardless of situations. Ryan Tannehill needs to improve vastly in his decision-making and field vision.

Verdict: Fact 

Ryan Tannehill is overpaid: 

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(Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle)

The price of an NFL quarterback is at an all-time high. Nobody will argue this, as players like Sam Bradford and Brock Osweiler receive huge contracts despite inconsistent (and in Osweiler’s case, insufficient) bodies of work. The spike has occurred somewhat recently, with foreboding signs appearing as early as 2012 when the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a big money contract despite his career consisting of riding the pine and one strong outing (against a horrifyingly bad Detroit secondary).

In 2013, Aaron Rodgers signed a contract worth $110 million. In 2015, Russell Wilson’s deal came in at $87 million. However, the important number is not total value. The most valuable figures to use when examining contracts are guaranteed money and the salary cap hit (because nobody cares how much he makes if it isn’t counting against the cap).

So, when examining the context of Ryan Tannehill’s contract, one should begin with the guaranteed value.

Tannehill’s 2015 extension features $45 million of guarantees. For scale, the NFL’s two highest guaranteed figures on QB contracts are Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers, both tied at $65 million. Tannehill has less guaranteed money on his deal than Colin Kaepernick ($61 million) and Jay Cutler ($54 million), and has the same amount as Alex Smith. Out of the quarterbacks drafted in the 2012 class, Tannehill will end up as the third highest paid in terms of guaranteed money, presuming Andrew Luck finishes up what is expected to be the largest deal in NFL history.

Salary cap hit is another important number to consider during contract examination.

Ryan Tannehill has a fluctuating contract, with a cap hit designed to correspond with Ndamukong Suh’s deal. When Tannehill is underpaid, Suh is overpaid. When Suh is underpaid, Tannehill cashes in.

During 2016, Tannehill will count for just over $11 million against the salary cap. This comes out to the 22nd highest QB cap hit in the NFL, clearly under his true value. Ahead of Tannehill will be Brock Osweiler, Sam Bradford, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, and Andy Dalton, all of whom are believed to be in Tannehill’s neighborhood of value.

In 2017, Tannehill will be slightly overpaid. His cap hit will reach just over $20 million, putting him in the neighborhood of Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, and Matthew Stafford. However, Tannehill is still less expensive than Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford and is barely $1 million more expensive than Colin Kaepernick.

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(Matt Lduke/AP)

So, let’s average this out. During the down years in Tannehill’s contract, he is underpaid vastly. He ranks among the lowest figures of tenured quarterbacks during those seasons, behind players who signed deals much earlier before values skyrocketed. In years when he is overpaid, he will be making figures that would actually become the minimum value annually if he were to have reached the free agent market.

If Ryan Tannehill were to hit the open market, think about what he would be able to command after the contracts given to Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford.

In a world of inflated quarterback value, Ryan Tannehill is an anomaly. He gave the Dolphins a hometown discount and signed his deal early. Had he waited until after other quarterbacks completed deals, or even until Luck signed, his payday would have been higher. However, the Dolphins managed to create a very team-friendly deal with Tannehill, despite the headline value that many fans often cite.

Do not believe the “almost $100M” crowd. Do not believe the “he isn’t even a top 15 quarterback” crowd. If the Dolphins were for some reason thrust back into the quarterback market in 2017 or 2018, they would be praying to return to what they have now with Ryan Tannehill in terms of contract value.

Verdict: Fiction

Ryan Tannehill hasn’t been put in a position to succeed: 

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This is the easiest narrative about Ryan Tannehill to come to a conclusion on. Say it with me folks…

Of course he hasn’t been placed in a position to succeed.

We can start with the offensive line. Ryan Tannehill has played for four seasons, and has been sacked 184 times. That makes him the 98th most-sacked quarterback in NFL history. For scale, Matt Stafford, who has been playing for three more seasons than Tannehill, has been sacked 205 times. This is only a difference of 21 sacks. Tannehill took 58 in 2013 alone.

The Dolphins’ coaching staff also has been unable to put Tannehill in a position to succeed. Mike Sherman’s voyage back into the NFL resulted in the famed “Go/Go-Go” offense (one call for run, one for pass). Obviously, success against NFL defenses is impossible with such a simplistic system. Then, Bill Lazor arrived with the team. Lazor struggled mightily with balance of play calling, most notably during 2015 when he seemed to display a general refusal to give Lamar Miller carries.

All the while, Tannehill was reportedly faced with a very sour coach/quarterback relationship, as Joe Philbin blamed Tannehill for the offense’s struggles when he was forced to fire Mike Sherman. Philbin then reportedly asked for the team to select Derek Carr in the 2014 NFL Draft.

The front office didn’t help, trying to turn Mike Wallace into a number one receiver after trying out Brian Hartline, recently cut by the Browns, as the primary option. This year, the front office finally seemed to get it, drafting Laremy Tunsil following the DeVante Parker pick in 2015.

Yes, the circumstances surrounding Ryan Tannehill seem to be improving. However, there is no denying how bad his situation was before.

Verdict: Fact

You can’t make a playoff run with Ryan Tannehill: 

This is another example of a statement that has some parameters paired with it.

Who are we discussing?

If we are talking about the Miami Dolphins as they exist currently, obviously you cannot win a Super Bowl with Ryan Tannehill. The offensive roster is in decent shape, but to win in the playoffs the Dolphins would need to score 40+ points per game given how opposing teams could exploit their secondary.

You also have to consider coaching. I am not speaking to Adam Gase’s ability, because he hasn’t set foot in Sun Life Stadium for a game yet. I am referencing Joe Philbin and his regime. With that coaching staff, the 1972 Dolphins could have gone 8-8 (Well, they were only playing 14 games, but Philbin would still manage).

So, who could make a playoff run with Tannehill? Plenty of teams.

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(Photo: Pro Football Weekly)

Let’s take Denver as an example. If the Broncos were to have traded for Ryan Tannehill this offseason in a hypothetical universe, they would have swiftly been installed as favorites to reach the Super Bowl once again. Ryan Tannehill is surely an upgrade over 2015 Peyton Manning and is probably also an improvement from Brock Osweiler based on the inconsistency Osweiler showed during his starting stint.

Would Bill Belichick be able to install Ryan Tannehill as his quarterback and take a team deep into the playoffs? There isn’t much doubt in my mind.

For fans expecting Ryan Tannehill to take the Dolphins deep into January in their current form, don’t hold your breath.

Ryan Tannehill isn’t going to be Cam Newton. He definitely won’t become the next Dan Marino. He is not the quarterback who will score 40 TDs in a season throwing for 5,000 yards. He fits a different mold.

I do not believe in the game manager label. The NFL’s greatest quarterbacks were all game managers at the right moments. Being a game manager is a skill, not a detriment or (most notably) a state of existence.

Having a quarterback like Tannehill means you need to account for requiring a stronger supporting cast.

Ryan Tannehill’s circumstances do not put him in a position to compete against Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, because he isn’t that type of player. Look at Drew Brees and Tom Brady, who both were considered underwhelming players until they fell into the proper systems (Brady with Belichick, and Brees with the offense of Sean Payton).

If you take Ryan Tannehill for what he is, abandoning unrealistic expectations, then it is entirely possible to construct a winning roster with him. However, at this point it seems unrealistic to form your team under the expectation that Tannehill will carry it on his back.

If the Dolphins were to build their team as the Broncos did (easier said than done), then Ryan Tannehill, with the Dolphins’ current crop of pass catchers and projected improvements on the offensive line, could be the quarterback to lead a team towards the promised land.

Verdict: It depends (sorry if you skimmed this) 

Ryan Tannehill faces a make or break year in 2016: 

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(Photo: Sun Sentinel)

Please, answer this question for me:

When in NFL history has there been a make or break year for a player in which a threshold was set and not meeting that threshold had a set consequence prior to the season beginning?

The idea of the 2016 season being the year that decides Ryan Tannehill’s fate is ridiculous. One could argue that you will soon see his maximum ability and that he might not be able to grow much as a player beyond his fifth season. However, it doesn’t make sense to argue that Tannehill is bound for a year in which he will for some reason be cut if he doesn’t reach an expectation.

One massive logical flaw in the idea of a make or break year is this concept of expectations. Does Adam Gase have a post-it note on his wall with stats that Ryan Tannehill has to reach if he wants to keep the starting quarterback job?

Also, after the earlier review of quarterback value, it is fairly clear that entering the open market would be a very bad idea going forward. If the Texans signed Brock Osweiler for as much money as they did, just imagine what Ryan Tannehill would fetch on the market.

The other element to this is when a make or break year is declared. In the NFL, every year can be a make or break year if you’re bad enough. It’s the reality of a “what have you done for me lately” league. However, nobody can know heading into a season. Declaring a make-or-break year in June is just another way to say that one doesn’t know how a player will perform but they want to make it sound more exciting.

A make or break year cannot be declared until the year starts because setting expectations for an individual without knowledge of the system or surroundings is ridiculous, but in the NFL your play can turn any season into a make or break year.

We simply cannot make that determination in the summer.

Verdict: Fiction

There are no excuses for Ryan Tannehill:

If someone hits you in the face 10 times in a row, what are you going to do when they swing for an 11th?

Chances are you’ll flinch.

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Games do not occur in a vacuum for NFL quarterbacks. A massive part of playing the position is having good reflexes and playing with a cerebral reactiveness. This refers to the ability to use reflexes to account for your surroundings without becoming jumpy.

Ryan Tannehill has been beaten and battered so often in the pocket that these instincts require resetting. However, there seems to be an unfortunate perception that he is the only quarterback that requires this type of natural reconstruction of rhythm.

For an example of other NFL quarterbacks suffering from the same issues, we can turn to the golden standard: Tom Brady.

When Brady and the Patriots went into Mile High Stadium to take on the vaunted Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game, most knew that it would be a difficult day for New England’s line. They struggled all season and were about to be faced with the league’s best pass rush.

Throughout the game, it was clear that Tom Brady simply didn’t look right. Until the last drive, he struggled mightily to put his offense in a position to consistently move the ball. Why? Because his rhythm had been disrupted by a season under pressure and, 17 games in, it appeared he reached the point of requiring a reset.

Take this play for example:

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When you spend an entire season under pressure, the feel for the pocket can be altered. Here, Brady held onto the ball longer than he should have. Had Ryan Tannehill taken that sack can you imagine the backlash from fans?

Overthrowing receivers is only an issue for Ryan Tannehill? It most certainly is not, especially when pass rushers are heading start for the quarterback as he winds up.

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Rhythm is important.

Don’t believe me?

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Under pressure, even great quarterbacks will falter. Tom Brady, who I believe all players at the position will be measured against for the next several decades, suffered from the same fate Ryan Tannehill did. The difference? Tannehill’s game has been altered because he is pressured so frequently. What is a hiccup for most quarterbacks has become a serious issue for Tannehill (even though it is one I believe that Gase/Christensen will be able to fix).

Yes there are clear flaws in Ryan Tannehill’s game. However, that doesn’t mean excuses for them are not valid. Discrepancies in Tannehill’s game are, for the most part, a product of his surroundings rather than a lack in ability.

Verdict: Fiction 

The Skinny: 

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Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Ryan Tannehill is an enigma within a league full of players whose strengths and weaknesses are usually fairly apparent. Whether a quarterback is good or subpar is usually evident after four years as a starter. In Tannehill’s case, we are still looking for an answer as to how we can define the Dolphins’ signal caller.

The problem with that task? You cannot define Ryan Tannehill.

Accepting Ryan Tannehill as the Miami Dolphins’ quarterback means accepting conditionality.

He is not going to overreach his poor supporting cast; this much is evident. However, it is unclear how good Tannehill could be with that proper unit. It is unlike the situation for quarterbacks such as Ryan Fitzpatrick or Sam Bradford where you see a clear ceiling even when surrounded by a strong group. With Ryan Tannehill, nobody knows how high his ceiling is when the stars align from a personnel standpoint in Miami.

However, we do know one thing: He will not underperform his cast. This is an important element to the position, however an unsatisfying one for fans. While it is comforting to know that Tannehill is able to avoid falling below the abilities of his cast, it is frustrating to be unsure of whether or not he has to ability to rise as high as his supporting unit could.

In 2016, the Miami Dolphins should be vastly improved on offense. The team is returning three of their four top receivers and tight end Jordan Cameron. DeVante Parker looks to be fully healthy coming off of foot surgery (despite being held out of OTA’s in a precautionary fashion), and Adam Gase has said that Kenny Stills picked up the offense faster than anybody.

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(Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Not to mention the fact that the Dolphins were able to draft the best player in the 2016 class, who also happens to play on the offensive line, a massive area of need for Miami. Last season, Branden Albert was not healthy until after the Week 5 bye, and he will now enter Week 1 ready to roll. With one guard position shored up, the Dolphins should only have one less-than-stellar area in their unit.

If everyone around Ryan Tannehill rises to the level they are capable of, how far will he be able to rise with them?

That is something we will not be able to reach a verdict on until this September. However, there is one thing we do know heading into 2016 with a barren defensive depth chart, only one defender in Miami’s draft class, and an offensive minded head coach:

The Miami Dolphins will only go as far as Ryan Tannehill can carry them in the 2016 season.

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