During the pre-draft evaluation process, NFL executives spend countless hours assessing whether or not pro-quarterback hopefuls have the necessary measurables to play the position at the next level.
Attributes like arm strength, accuracy, size and athleticism are put under a microscope. But one area that can’t be definitively gauged is how a young quarterback will respond to adversity and how they will play in high-pressure situations.
When a franchise drafts a quarterback, it is always rolling the dice. Passers who possess the ability to make every throw oftentimes still fail in the NFL because of the inability to bounce back from mistakes and handle big moments.
So when the Miami Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick of the 2012 draft, it was apparent they were getting a quarterback who had the size, arm and athleticism a top 10 selection should embody. Tanehill looked the part, but the odds were still stacked against him in his bid to become the Dolphins’ first legitimate franchise quarterback since Dan Marino.
That’s because there was just no way of knowing how he would adjust mentally to the demands of the NFL. Well, the Dolphins know now. So do the New England Patriots. And so does the rest of the league.
On Sunday in Miami, Tannehill made a statement. He out-dueled one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history with 312 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and by engineering a nine-play, 60-yard game-winning touchdown drive. He did so by utilizing the elite talent that enticed the Dolphins to select him eighth overall almost 20 months ago. But more importantly, Tannehill got better the bigger the moment became.
Sunday’s game wasn’t the first time Tannehill responded in a positive way to adversity or led a fourth quarter comeback. He’s been doing it all season, actually. There have been some miscues, but Tannehill’s resilience and poise have seemingly exemplified a fifth-year veteran, not a quarterback with only 30 starts under his belt.
Tannehill’s numbers make a compelling case that the Dolphins have finally struck gold at quarterback. Through 14 games, he ranks 10th in the NFL in passing yards with 3,627 and ninth in touchdown passes with 23, having already greatly exceeded his rookie statistics with two games to play.
But Tannehill’s most impressive statistic is four, as in four fourth quarter comebacks. If he was less equipped to handle the pressure that comes with having the ball in his hands while trailing with precious time fleeting, the Dolphins could easily be 4-10 at the moment. Instead, they’re 8-6 and on the cusp of their first postseason berth since 2008.
Poor decisions still occur, like the interception Tannehill threw in Week 14 that was returned for a touchdown by Troy Polamalu. Most young quarterbacks would have crumbled after a similarly devastating blunder. Not Tannehill, who responded by leading two go-ahead touchdown drives that earned the Dolphins a win in snowy conditions.
The signs have been there all along, but on Sunday, during a game that was deemed the most important for the Dolphins in years, Tannehill reached a new height. It was an affirming performance that has seemingly signified the eventual changing of the guard.
The Patriots are one win away from their fifth consecutive AFC East title, but their reign finally appeared to have an expiration date on Sunday. New England may go on to claim the division again in 2014, but for the first time since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady‘s dominant run began, a legitimate challenger has been born.
Said berth become official on Sunday during the Dolphins’ four-point win. In a team game, all of Miami’s pieces deserves credit for that. But in a quarterback’s league, there is one piece that stands above the rest — his name is Tannehill.
Many NFL teams are fortunate enough to employ a solid starter at quarterback, but very few teams are lucky enough to have an elite one. The Dolphins aren’t one of those lucky teams yet, but Tannehill has showed why they eventually could be.
Like so many others, Tannehill has the arm to make almost every throw, but unlike most, he improves when the stakes are amplified. That’s a rare quality to have and one Miami could ride to years of prosperity. Sunday’s win over the Patriots might only be the tip of the iceberg for Tannehill and the Dolphins.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.