Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Nov 2016

Film Room: Ryan Tannehill

by Cian Fahey

Adam Gase has had a fascinating career to this point. He has garnered a reputation as a quarterback whisperer because of his work with Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning, and Jay Cutler. He received a lot of credit for the production Tebow and Cutler had when he worked with them in different roles. Nobody was going to give him credit for working with Manning, but Manning himself spoke highly of Gase on more than one occasion. "Adam had a great impact on me during our three years together," Manning said when Gase became the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. "He's an extremely hard worker...extremely bright...an excellent communicator and always eager to learn more. I've always been impressed with his work ethic and his eagerness to learn more."

The idea of quarterback whisperers is generally preposterous. You can refine the edges of a quarterback, but the individual is 95 percent responsible for whether he will be good or not. What a coach can do is accurately assess his quarterback and do everything possible to set him up for success.

When Gase was the offensive coordinator in Chicago, he alleviated pressure on Jay Cutler by relying heavily on screens and clearly defined short throws. He knew that Cutler couldn't be trusted throwing the ball downfield. He ran an offense similar to the one that Jim Bob Cooter is currently running in Detroit to get the most out of Matthew Stafford's skill set.

On Gase's arrival in Miami, Ryan Tannehill had thrown more than 2,000 passes in his career. He was on his second contract in his fifth season, but had not had a winning season or eye-popping statistics. Tannehill was one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. He still is, really. Gase and Tannehill together allowed for an easy narrative. Gase was coming to fix Tannehill because Gase is the quarterback whisperer.

Yet, Gase himself didn't buy into Tannehill from the very start. He was hesitant to commit to the quarterback during his introductory press conference, saying "I've seen him play very minimal games. I've seen him play live once, not counting a preseason game where we played him at Denver...We're going to evaluate everything from the quarterback on down as far as offensive personnel. So really, at this point, we're not ready to make any kind of predictions. I think we're just going to have to see where his strengths are and really emphasize that."

Gase was shockingly....honest.

The narrative had been pre-written, though. Gase also spoke about how he would work with Tannehill, and those quotes were used to talk up how he was here to fix the quarterback. Fast-forward a few months and Gase's opinion had been formed. "I'm ready to jump on a grenade for that guy if I have to," was the statement that stood out to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald. Salguero noted that after his introductory press conference, Gase sat down and watched every throw of Tannehill's career. It was actually sitting down to watch Tannehill that won Gase over. Salguero pointed out that Gase had told his staff that he "had confidence" in Tannehill and "made the point he's' committed to Tannehill."

When the offense as a whole collapsed against the Tennessee Titans early on in October, Tannehill's status as the starter was pushed into focus. Gase dismissed all questions about his performances. Head coaches often do, but Gase offered actual reasoning and analysis to backup his decision.

"I know when we have 18 dropback passes and he's hit or sacked on nine of them, and then the completions we do have, he's got guys in his face," Gase said. "So I'm supposed to blame [Tannehill] for that? ...Everybody wants to blame that position. It's the easy one to do because you can see completion, incompletion, interception. When you hit your back foot and you get sacked, there's not much you can do about it."

Gase backed up his points by releasing two offensive linemen who started that game. At the same time, he reiterated his commitment to Tannehill: "He's not coming out. You can ask me about that 100 times. He's gonna be in there the whole season."

It's not just with the quarterback where Gase has shown off an ability to create a culture of accountability. Jay Ajayi has become a star over recent weeks. Does that happen if he is not made inactive at the start of the year for his attitude after the signing of Arian Foster? Byron Maxwell is back in the starting lineup now, but when his play was subpar earlier this year Gase benched him without a second thought. Mario Williams received similar treatment when his effort was questioned. When a wide receiver ran the wrong route for an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals, Gase recognized it and blamed the receiver for running the wrong route. He didn't default to the flawed ideology that says everything is the quarterback's fault.

This is who Gase is as a coach. He has been a complete departure from Joe Philbin. He offers everything that Philbin never did: accountability, a rational thought process, intelligent insight, and not just a willingness to change, but an ability to recognize what needed to change. You only need to look at how the Dolphins have ridden Ajayi lately to see the difference compared to Philbin and the way he treated Lamar Miller. The culture that Gase is creating should only help make the team perform better on the field. That culture is crucial for creating a team that is capable of sustaining success.

Gase will probably get the credit for turning Tannehill into a good quarterback, but that's not fair to the quarterback.

With improved play around him, the Tannehill criticism has all but disappeared over the last month. He hasn't changed much, if at all. Tannehill has always been a good quarterback, but he has never had the supporting cast to show it off consistently. Last year he had an accuracy rate of 80.8 percent, but his receivers cost him 63 completions on accurate passes for at least 717 yards and six touchdowns. Only Aaron Rodgers lost more completions to wide receiver error; only Cam Newton lost more yards to wide receiver error. Rodgers, Newton, and Andrew Luck were the only quarterbacks to lose more touchdowns. Tannehill lost a completion on an accurate pass once every 9.3 attempts. For comparison, Marcus Mariota lost a completion every 9.0 attempts -- more often than anyone -- whereas Andy Dalton lost one every 21.4 attempts, less often than any other quarterback. Tannehill dealt with this incompetence at wide receiver while also playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league.

One of the widely-accepted criticisms of Tannehill has been that he can't throw the ball deep. In 2015, he was one of the league's best deep passers. Receiver error meant that nobody noticed. Fortunately, that has been less of an issue this year. This year Tannehill's deep passing has been astounding. It peaked in Week 10 against the San Diego Chargers.

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On his deep 39-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills, Tannehill made a throw that not many quarterbacks in the NFL are capable of making. It officially went down as a 39-yard throw but the deep play action meant that he actually released the ball from his own 49-yard line. He was on the far hash and threw back across the field outside of the opposite hash mark. The ball traveled to the back of the end zone, so it travelled at least 60 yards in the air after leaving the quarterback's hand. Despite throwing the ball that far, Tannehill hit Stills in stride, and fit the ball over a defender who was in relatively tight coverage, before he ran out of the back of the end zone.

Now take your eyes off the ball. Watch right tackle Ja'Wuan James. He gives up on the play. James makes his initial block by clamping down on the defensive end to sell the play fake, but then stops as soon as he has crossed the face of the defender. He just lets the defensive linemen run down Tannehill. When the above GIF freezes, you can see that the ball has just left Tannehill's hands and the defender is about to hit him. Tannehill gets planted into the ground and absorbs a heavy hit, but he never lets that impending hit impact his mechanics. He delivers the ball while understanding that he is going to be hit.

Since Tannehill entered the league in 2012, he has been sacked 204 times. No other quarterback has been sacked more than 183 times over that span. Yet despite constantly being target practice for defenders, Tannehill's mechanics have never suffered. He has never refused to plant his feet or step into throws. He has always been willing to take contact to prioritize delivering the ball.

That was highlighted again late against the Chargers.

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After Philip Rivers found Tyrell Williams to give the Chargers a three-point lead, Tannehill came out looking for a big play immediately. There were four minutes left, so the Dolphins didn't necessarily need to be as aggressive as they were. Tannehill had shorter routes, but the defense's alignment and coverage after the snap told him to take the shot downfield to DeVante Parker. As the above GIF shows, Tannehill got blasted not after he released the ball, but as he released the ball. The timing of the hit was such that the cameraman never realized that he got the ball away -- he stayed on the play thinking that it was a sack, only looking upfield after Parker had caught the ball.

There are many reasons to marvel at this play.

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First of all, the hit. It was flagged for roughing. It didn't impact how Tannehill threw the ball. He didn't even stay down after the play or show any signs of pain once he got up. He just jogged upfield for the next play.

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Secondly, the throw itself. This ball could not be more perfectly placed. Parker doesn't have to slow down; it leads him away from the cornerback and towards the sideline so the safety has no chance of impacting the play.

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Maybe most impressive of all was the timing. Laremy Tunsil has been very valuable to the Dolphins this year, but he has had bad moments like any rookie who is changing position will. This was one of those. Tunsil gets beaten quickly. That gets his quarterback pummeled. It should have destroyed the play design too, but Tannehill released the ball before his receiver was level with or past the cornerback he was running a double-move against. Tannehill saw that the cornerback had committed and understood the safety wasn't in position to cover for him.

You can carve out a 15-year career in the NFL and never make throws as impressive as either of those two. Tannehill made them both in the same game. He had a couple more that were pretty impressive too.

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A precise touch pass to Damien Williams for a touchdown.

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And a dart to Jarvis Landry on the run.

It's fair to say Tannehill doesn't always make these plays. It's not fair to call this game an aberration though. Tannehill has always been a talented deep passer. His perception has been hurt by having ineffective receivers. Whether it's Mike Wallace's inability to track the ball and his penchant for trying unnecessary one-handed catches, or Kenny Stills' inconsistent hands, or Jarvis Landry's inability to get open deep, Tannehill has never had a receiver who he can trust to make a play on the ball if he puts it in the right spot.

Tannehill's perception has also been hurt by how bad some of his misses have been. Accuracy should be measured by how often you make a throw, not how it looks when you miss or when you hit. It's why guys like Derek Carr have their accuracy overrated. Every pass Carr throws looks pretty because of his instantaneous release and the velocity he generates, but his consistency on a play-to-play basis isn't where Tannehill's is.

Whether you look at this season...

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...or last...

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...you can find plenty of examples of Tannehill giving his receivers opportunities to catch the ball deep downfield that they simply didn't take. Gase's culture of accountability should instill greater focus and better execution. He's already shown that if it doesn't, he'll replace the pieces of the offense that are preventing the unit from being productive.

Tannehill doesn't look like he's going to be one of those pieces, at least not for another few years.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 17 Nov 2016

8 comments, Last at 18 Nov 2016, 8:01pm by Richie

Comments

1
by Guest789 :: Thu, 11/17/2016 - 3:49pm

Man, in that first play, the lack of effort from James is inexcusable. How do you just stand and watch the guy you should be blocking sledgehammer your QB like that?

2
by djtrindle :: Thu, 11/17/2016 - 5:09pm

And in keeping with the "Gase prizes accountability" paragraph just above it, are we expecting James to be benched? Do the Dolphins even have enough OL depth to sit him?

4
by Cian Fahey :: Thu, 11/17/2016 - 5:15pm

He's kind of stuck with James. Especially with Albert not being someone they can rely on to stay healthy. I think it's fair to give him a pass on that when he's already cut two offensive linemen for performance. Most teams don't have four or five effective linemen so it's hard to get rid of three guys when you've already lost another guy to injury.

3
by stephen21 :: Thu, 11/17/2016 - 5:11pm

This was an awesome film room. Like most people I just thought that Tannehill was another below average quarterback that would be replaced in the next couple years, but some of these throws were insane. I'd love to see you do a film room on the Titans and Mariota again because I know you say the offense doesn't suit him and the success is just because of the opponents. I'd love to see some examples of what works and what doesn't with Mariota and your opinion on what needs to happen with the coaching going forward.

5
by Mike B. In Va :: Thu, 11/17/2016 - 5:44pm

Indeed, that's the kind of thing that should get you benched.

6
by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 11/17/2016 - 8:18pm

Very good write-up, and thorough. It's easy to decide no QB can fail to give good results in the W column for such a long time and still be good, because we find it hard to believe a supporting cast can be so bad for so long. And yet, here we are. 2012: Leading receivers were Davon Bess, Brian Hartline and Anthony Fasano. 2013: Bullygate and Jon Martin. 2014-2015: The Dallas Thomas/Billy Turner reign of terror + Bill Lazor's no-audible offense, with a guest appearance by Mike Wallace. Funny how the team started winning the second those two were cut.

7
by James-London :: Fri, 11/18/2016 - 2:01pm

That's cover your eyes bad from James, and is a reasonable facsimile of Miami's O-line 'production' during Tannehill's time in Miami. The drops are familiar as well. Given adequate support and a functional organisation, Tannehill's a good QB. The signs are that Miami might finally be offering both, but I've been fooled before...

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

8
by Richie :: Fri, 11/18/2016 - 8:01pm

With Pouncey (again) and Albert (again) injured, things might go downhill.