Championship Contemplation: Can the Dolphins Win a Super Bowl with Ryan Tannehill?
I would like to preface this by saying that I am not a “Tannehill hater.” He has put in a lot of blood, sweat, and more blood (in his urine to be precise) for the Miami Dolphins organization. He has been under intense scrutiny since day one and has not had the luxury of competent coaching until very recently. However, to say he is anything more than an average quarterback at this point is misguided. Not quite a game manager, Ryan Tannehill has showcased serious ability in the past but has yet to truly put it together entering his 6th NFL season. His improvement under Adam Gase is noteworthy, but at the end of the day we need to ask ourselves one simple question: Can Miami win a Super Bowl with him at quarterback?
Super Bowl Winning Quarterbacks:
Outside of very few exceptions, Super Bowl winning teams have had elite quarterbacks on their side. To illustrate this point, I am going to list the winning quarterbacks of the last 25 Super Bowls: Troy Aikman (3 times), Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway (2 times), Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, Tom Brady (5 times), Brad Johnson, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning (two times), Eli Manning (two times), Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. So, a combination of 15 quarterbacks have won the last 25 Super Bowls. While none of them did it without the help of championship caliber teams around them, it is noteworthy that most of these quarterbacks were considered elite. Five of them (Aikman, Young, Favre, Elway, and Warner) are Hall-of-Famers. Two of them (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) cemented themselves as two of the three best quarterbacks of all time and will be first ballot Hall-of-Famers. Four of them (Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Brees, and Rodgers) will be Hall-of-Famers.
That leaves us with four non-Hall-of-Fame level quarterbacks. Trent Dilfer is widely known as the worst quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, and for good reason. He needed an all-time 2000 Ravens’ defense and a dominant running game to hoist the Lombardi trophy. Brad Johnson was a decent quarterback, but he needed a dominant Dungy-built Buccaneers’ defense and an excellent Jon Gruden offensive scheme. Joe Flacco, the quarterbacking equivalent of margarine on white bread, needed a great defense and running game as well. Russell Wilson is the only outlier here, but even he needed the Legion of Boom and Marshawn Lynch. So, based on the last 25 years, you either need a Hall-of-Fame/elite quarterback or a transcendent defense (2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, 2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos, etc.) in order to win the golden game. Unfortunately, as it stands now, the Dolphins have neither.
How Tannehill Stacks Up:
If the Dolphins had a transcendent defense, perhaps Tannehill could afford to be “just a guy.” While the defense has pieces to be sure, it is still a couple of years away from truly championship caliber. The coaching under Adam Gase has been phenomenal. The running game and receiver corps seem to stack up, but the difference between playoff contender and Super Bowl winner comes down to the field general. Tannehill has shown flashes of true talent and seems to be a good fit for Adam Gase’s system, but can he become elite? While rapid advancement at age 28 isn’t out of the question, it isn’t something we can really bank on.
Ryan Tannehill had arguably his best season in 2016; he got the hang of coach Gase’s offense as the season progressed. While it is unfortunate that his year was cut short by injury when he was really hitting his stride, I feel as though his numbers paint a fairly accurate picture. Since he did not finish the season, I will only measure his success by percentage based statistics instead of end of the year numbers:
Of 30 qualifying starting quarterbacks, Ryan Tannehill ranked:
12th in Passer Rating (93.5)
24th in QB Rating (54.6)
7th in Completion Percentage (67.1%)
11th in Touchdown Percentage (4.9%)
26th in Interception Percentage (3.1%)
8th in Yards Per Attempt (7.7)
23rd in Yards per game (230.4)
15th in PFF’s QB Player Grades (80.8)
Outside of QB Rating and Interception Percentage, these aren’t bad statistics. The statistics paint a picture of an average quarterback who doesn’t throw the ball a lot but connects for big plays when he does. However, we have seen that average quarterback play typically won’t win you a Super Bowl unless you have an elite defense. Tannehill could and should continue to improve under Adam Gase. Heck, he’s already a playoff caliber quarterback. The question still remains: Can he become elite? Considering the path to the Super Bowl crosses through New England until further notice, we don’t have the luxury of waiting much longer.
What Can Be Done:
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there is an easy solution. The Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals have been in this position for years without finding one that works. The Chiefs, already a playoff team with Alex Smith at quarterback, elected to trade up in the first round to grab a quarterback. In essence, they’ve become so desperate to improve the quarterback position that they used two first round picks in the hope that Patrick Mahomes can bring an end to their stay in quarterback purgatory.
Barring a Peyton Manning-esque free agent in the near future, the Dolphins are not going to find an elite quarterback on the open market (they probably couldn’t afford one anyway). Trading for a Jimmy Garoppolo or a Kirk Cousins in the future probably isn’t the best move either as they would probably represent only marginal improvements over Ryan Tannehill. Drafting a quarterback early in the draft in 2018 or 2019 could work, but I’m sure we’d all prefer that the Dolphins continue to address more immediate concerns like interior O-line, linebacker, or cornerback.
The way I see it, there are two semi-realistic approaches to improve the Dolphins’ quarterback play. Ideally, Ryan Tannehill continues to improve under Adam Gase to a Pro Bowl level while the defense continues to improve. This is the easiest and least controversial way to contend with New England in the immediate future. If Tannehill does not make any major strides this season, then the second option becomes viable. The second option is drafting a quarterback in the 2nd or 3rd round in the 2018 draft to sit behind Tannehill for a few years. In this unlikely scenario, the young quarterback would learn from Adam Gase at a reasonable pace instead of being thrown into the fire the way many high round rookies are. Then if Gase deems the drafted quarterback ready to play, Ryan Tannehill could either play out the end of his contract or be traded. Whichever scenario pans out, one thing is for certain: Improvement in quarterback play is a must if the Dolphins want to make the leap from playoff Wild Card to Super Bowl Contender.