How much longer can Dolphins afford to wait on Ryan Tannehill?

Ryan Tannehill was an iron man in his first four NFL seasons, but knee and shoulder injuries have changed the story. Coach Adam Gase publicly backed Tannehill, but the QB will have something to prove when he comes back. David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP

DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins are stuck in the middle.

Stuck between championship contention and full-stage rebuilding -- as they have been for much of the past two decades -- the Dolphins are staring a mediocre 2018 finish in the face unless the season makes a sharp shift.

The biggest long-term question is at quarterback.

Ryan Tannehill is not the Dolphins' biggest problem, but he may not be the solution. Sometimes they can win with him. But they typically don't win or lose based on his play. This has been going on for nearly seven years, which suggests it may be time to no longer delay long-term progress by waiting on Tannehill to be a difference-maker.

The 30-year-old quarterback won't play Sunday against the Jets because of a right shoulder injury that has kept him out since Oct. 7, and it looks increasingly likely that he might not be back until after Miami's Week 11 bye. But coach Adam Gase has made it clear that once Tannehill is healthy, he will be the starter.

That's partially because while Brock Osweiler has played well in spurts, he hasn't completely seized the opportunity, even though that's his goal.

"Your mentality in this league is when you get your opportunity to play, you never give that guy his job back," Osweiler said. "That needs to be the mentality. And if that’s not your mentality, then you’re just in the wrong business. That’s nothing personal against anybody, but if you don’t have that competitive spirit, this isn’t the league for you."

Gase is adamant that Tannehill has his and the organization's full support as the starting quarterback. But they'd be doing themselves a disservice if they didn't re-evaluate that this offseason.

The old football saying is the best ability is availability. Gase admitted that he believes in that saying, too. As of this Sunday, Tannehill will have missed 24 of his past 29 starts, including playoffs, dating to the end of the 2016 season.

"Availability is the No. 1 thing that you’re always looking for in the NFL because if you’re not on the field, you can’t really help us," Gase said.

Gase said Tannehill's most recent injury doesn't temper his long-term optimism.

"It’s a very unusual situation. ... He took a very odd hit, and his body was in a weird position. That’s something that I wish I could say he could have controlled," Gase said. "Mentally, he’s in a great spot. I thought his body was in a decent spot everywhere else until that happened. We were headed in the right direction. We just had a little bit of that setback.”

To be fair, Tannehill is good enough to be an NFL starting quarterback. The Dolphins are in better position with their quarterbacks than several other NFL teams. And Tannehill has had some bad luck with injuries; he suffered a partially torn ACL in December 2016 that cost him three regular-season games and a playoff game, he didn't opt for surgery, but then he fully tore that ACL in training camp in August 2017, which cost him an entire season. The current shoulder injury will cost him his fourth game on Sunday.

"Before I got here, it was, ‘Hey, he’s played however many games [in a row].’ Everybody told me he never got hurt. The narrative swings so fast," Gase said.

Tannehill played in all 16 games each season from 2012 through 2015. He led the Dolphins to a 3-0 start this season. Then he played a part in Miami losses in the next two games before getting injured.

The numbers bear out his yo-yo résumé. Tannehill is 40-42 as a starter. He has made the playoffs once -- in 2016, when he was injured in December, and Matt Moore steered the ship to shore. Since Tannehill was drafted in 2012, he ranks 19th among NFL quarterbacks in completion percentage, 25th in passer rating, 26th in touchdown-to-interception ratio, 28th in yards per attempt, 30th in Total QBR and 36th in QB win percentage, according to TruMedia.

Tannehill has not been available to speak to reporters since Oct. 10, but he would likely fight for his job. He's a fighter. If he's healthy, he'll get a chance to rewrite this narrative. But the Dolphins have nearly seven seasons of evidence.

Does it make sense for the Dolphins to get rid of Tannehill? It's complicated. The draft is typically the best way to find a franchise quarterback, yet there are no guarantees -- the Cleveland Browns have drafted quarterbacks in the first round four times in the past 11 years. The 2019 quarterback draft pool is considered weak by many analysts, and Miami likely won't be picking in the top five.

The alternative to taking a QB in the draft is staying with the status quo or taking a leap in free agency, where long-term success is perhaps even rarer. The Vikings are paying Kirk Cousins $84 million over three seasons, and he ranks 11th in Total QBR this season. The Vikings are 4-3-1, just a tick better than the Dolphins' 4-4 record.

The Dolphins haven't drafted a quarterback in the first six rounds of the NFL draft since they picked Tannehill at No. 8 overall in 2012. That's puzzling, and it seems likely to change this offseason.

There's plenty of time to discuss how the Dolphins will approach 2019, but it's clear that they should spend the rest of 2018 in evaluation mode at quarterback. Miami has been mired in mediocrity for too long.