DAVIE, Fla. -- NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino showed up to Miami Dolphins' minicamp on Wednesday. There was no major announcement or holding court with the media. Marino simply arrived, kept close tabs on second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the offense, then quietly left about two hours into practice.
Marino's mere presence was symbolic of the pressure Tannehill faces in Miami. No Dolphins quarterback has come close to filling the large shoes of Marino after he retired after the 1999 season. Miami’s quarterbacks in this millennium have either been awful (Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington), former draft busts (Chad Henne, John Beck) or caretakers who couldn’t consistently take over games (Chad Pennington, Jay Fiedler).
But something appears different about Tannehill. He is more Marino than Harrington in arm strength and physical ability. The 2012 first-round pick was also taken higher than Henne, but you don’t get that same feeling of bust potential. Unlike Fiedler, Tannehill has already demonstrated that he can take over a game and explode for 400 yards, as he did in September in an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
But what are realistic expectations for Tannehill in Year 2? Fellow rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson each led their teams to the playoffs last season. Tannehill showed promise but was a couple of notches behind his peers. He threw for 3,294 yards but had more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12). Tannehill also had a losing record (7-9) and was left on the outside looking in during the postseason.
However, the Dolphins are showing the same confidence in Tannehill that the Indianapolis Colts are showing with Luck or the Washington Redskins are with RG III. More than anything, Miami’s coaching staff said, they love Tannehill’s work ethic and mental approach. Combine that with Tannehill’s athleticism and ability to make all the throws, and the Dolphins believe the sky is the limit for their young quarterback.
“One thing about Ryan is he never gets too high and he never gets too low,” Miami quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor told the AFC East blog this week. “Last year things never got too big for him. It’s not that he never made mistakes -- there were drives and stretches here and there. But I don’t think it ever got too big where he totally broke down, and that’s encouraging for a rookie quarterback. With all the looks that he saw, I thought he handled it pretty well.”
Taylor was a former assistant coach at Texas A&M and has been around Tannehill since he was 19. Taylor watched Tannehill, 24, grow from a redshirt freshman who played receiver his first two years in college to an NFL quarterback with high expectations. According to Taylor, Tannehill is much more comfortable in his position as a building block in Miami.
It was noticeable in organized team activities and minicamp that Tannehill is in control of the offense. He’s more vocal with teammates and has a quiet confidence that this is his team.
Miami is in search of leaders after several veterans like Reggie Bush, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett were released or didn’t return in free agency. Tannehill is one of the young, inexperienced players who must fill that void.
“It’s night and day compared to last year,” Tannehill said of his standing on the team. “Just the confidence and the knowledge of the game and what is going on. I still have a lot of work to do, but I am comfortable with where I am at and where this team is at. Anything we can do to get better, myself included, it’s easier to build this year compared to last year.”
Tannehill has all the tools to succeed this year. The Dolphins have put together as nurturing an environment as possible to ensure Tannehill takes the next step in his development. Miami spent $60 million to land free-agent receiver Mike Wallace and an additional $15 million total to land starting tight end Dustin Keller and slot receiver Brandon Gibson. Tannehill now has deep speed at receiver and a safety valve at tight end that he lacked last season. The Dolphins were 26th in passing in 2012 and scored only 18 points per game.
If minicamp is any indication, the Dolphins will not be afraid to air it out this year. Tannehill is taking his shots deep and throwing the football all over the field in practices. Tannehill is also routinely making more checks and changes at the line of scrimmage to get out of bad plays, an area where he struggled in 2012.
“He can see a safety start to creep up or lean a certain way, or a linebacker's depth from the line of scrimmage from the heels of his defensive lineman,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “Determining whether we turn and protect there or do we go the other way because that guy is in coverage, which I think [is] more recognition of defenses. ... We threw the book at him last year in the hopes that he would get to a point where we are at right now, where now he is just focused and not so much on the offense but on the defense.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Sherman and Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin know what a talented quarterback looks like. They have coached future Hall of Famers Brett Favre (Sherman) and Aaron Rodgers (Philbin) during their stints with the Green Bay Packers and know how to make it easy for quarterbacks. The fact that they both view Tannehill as a franchise starter carries a lot of weight.
“They’re able to relate those experiences with Ryan and the struggles [Favre and Rodgers] had and the success they were eventually able to achieve,” Taylor said. “So they’ve kind of seen the step-by-step process those guys took and [are] able to use that to relate it to Ryan.”
The Dolphins are going all-in with Tannehill, and much is expected this season. On paper, Miami looks like a team ready to make a playoff push in 2013, and much of that will come down to Tannehill’s development and improvement.
Tannehill may not get the same press and national attention as other quarterbacks in his draft class, but his goals are the same.
“Ryan wants to win Super Bowls at the end of the day,” Taylor said. “I do think he has a long ways to go right now. He knows that. So every day he’s just trying to become a better player, and be better than the day before and don’t make the same mistake twice.
“What that ceiling is, it’s hard to predict. Time will tell.”