The gravity of the situation would have been difficult for the Miami Dolphins to fathom a month beforehand. But there the football and season bounced, at Miami’s own 35-yard line in a moment that symbolized that a 3-0 start had been fools’ gold and mediocrity had returned from a brief hiatus for the franchise.
Ryan Tannehill had been sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams for the second time in a span of about five minutes of game clock. The first sack looked like something out of an arcade-style video game as the 6-foot-6, near 300-pound Williams fired out of his stance, exploded through the line of scrimmage and engulfed Tannehill a mere 1.71 seconds after the ball was snapped. The second sack wasn’t as visually stunning, but its repercussion was potentially catastrophic to the Dolphins’ season.
Williams was able to jettison the football from Tannehill’s grasp in about 2.07 seconds after the snap, causing it to ricochet nearly 10 yards backwards. Tannehill helplessly watched as Buffalo’s Kyle Williams pounced on the live ball, which meant an almost certain defeat as the Dolphins were only leading by one and the recovery point of the fumble was already in range for the winning field goal.
After Dan Carpenter split the uprights on a 31-yard try, Miami dropped to .500 and had squandered an opportunity to emerge as a contender after their 3-0 start. The Dolphins played arguably their worst game of the season and Tannehill threw two costly interceptions in the first half, yet with the way it ended, one man wore the majority of the blame.
Right tackle Tyson Clabo was the culprit of those two devastating fourth-quarter sacks, and he didn’t shy away from owning up to it. “I have to take full responsibility,” Clabo shamefully told reporters afterwards. “Those sacks are my sacks.”
And those mishaps weren’t mere slip ups for the 32-year-old veteran but rather a reoccurring trend. After signing a one-year deal in Miami after a solid seven-year stay with the Atlanta Falcons that was highlighted by a Pro Bowl berth in 2010, Clabo had given up a league-high eight sacks during the first six games of the 2013 season. He had ostensibly become a revolving door on the right side of Miami’s offensive line and was a big reason why Tannehill was once on pace to be sacked more times in one season than any other quarterback in the history of the NFL.
A change was in order. The Dolphins acquired left tackle Bryant McKinnie in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens in an effort to stop the bleeding. McKinnie took over on Tannehill’s blindside from day one, and Jonathan Martin, who started the first six games at left tackle, switched to right tackle. The odd man out was Clabo, who missed his first game in six seasons when the Dolphins took on the New England Patriots in Week 8.
Miami conceded a season-high six sacks to New England. Then, the unexpected happened. Martin left the team, claiming to be a victim of bullying by Richie Incognito, which stirred an unparalleled national controversy.
Amidst the turmoil, Clabo quietly returned to the lineup and never looked back. Re-energized by a second chance, Clabo has done a complete 180 since recouping his starting role. After allowing eight sacks, six quarterback hits and 18 pressures in his first six starts, Clabo has only conceded three sacks, four quarterback hits and 10 hurries in the seven games since his benching.
It’s no coincidence that Tannehill has gone from being sacked 4.6 times a game to an average of 2.7 since Clabo’s improvement began. And it’s no coincidence that Tannehill has seemingly turned the corner with more reliable protection or that the Dolphins have won four of their last five.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the Dolphins can potentially clinch a playoff spot on Sunday with a win over the same Bills arguably the low-point of the season occurred against.
“I’m doing the same things I was doing, I’m just doing it better,” Clabo said with a grin on Wednesday. His demeanor was completely transformed by comparison to his glum nature after Week 7, which is certainly reminiscent of his play.
Clabo can complete his path to redemption in Buffalo on Sunday by keeping Tannehill clean, showing firsthand how far he’s come since that fumble bounced in Miami territory two months ago.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.