When Miami Dolphins‘ tight end Dustin Keller went down with a knee injury in the third preseason game of the season, a collective groan from fans was heard from around the world. If you were watching at the time it was the kind of injury that made you sick to your stomach and feel terrible for the man, simultaneously. And while an injury should never be thought of as insignificant, fans instantly touted that the season was in peril and that the Dolphins were sure to have a losing record.
What some people had forgotten is that football is a team sport, and that rarely does the loss of a single man result in catastrophe. Just ask Tom Brady how the New England Patriots did the year he went down with the knee injury. Or the Indianapolis Colts how well they’ve fared since replacing a future hall of famer with a then-rookie quarterback.
Keller was, without question, expected to do big things this year. Between offseason practice and a few preseason games, he had shown more chemistry with Ryan Tannehill than most any other skill position player. That is why, as Tannehill enters his critical second season, it was important that he lose his security blanket before the season began.
Miami, as you may have heard, offered substantial contracts to receivers Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and incumbent Brian Hartline in free agency. If Tannehill is to help Miami avoid a fifth losing season in a row, he must improve upon his 12 touchdown, 13 interception performance from last year by building an early trust with his three wideouts. I firmly believe that his growth would have been stunted if Keller were still on the field.
Go ahead and call me crazy, but if practice and preseason revealed anything it was that Tannehill just wasn’t connecting with Wallace on any level. Keller’s presence allowed Tannehill to dump the ball when he got the slightest bit antsy. If he felt pressure, he didn’t even attempt to get it to his receivers; he just took the short, easy gimmes, never going through his progressions. That’s simply not good enough when you’ve invested so much money to improve the field stretchers but you can’t use them effectively because the tight end became your crutch.
It’s early, but Tannehill has looked sharper and more confident since Keller’s been out. He’s started to find his receivers — the ones that pile up the big yards — down the field. Tannehill, sans Keller, even threw for 150 yards and a touchdown while picking up a respectable 90.0 passing rating. A rating which could have been higher had a number of those passes not been dropped — one was for a touchdown — or wasted on what looked like purposely forced passes to tight end, Charles Clay.
The biggest problem last year wasn’t the dump off passes, the screens or the comebacks; it was the lack of long gains that led to scores. If Tannehill and the Dolphins hope to keep pace with the high scoring teams out there — I’m looking at you, New England — they have to get the ball down the field. They should feel lucky that Keller went down now, because their points-per-game ratio just went up.