Dave Hyde: Dolphins’ Tannehill takes yet another big step
MIAMI — It is late under Sun Life Stadium, and the Dolphins locker room is still crowded with players and media and excitement and enough energy to light big hopes for the first time in more than a decade.
Maybe an hour has passed since Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill put this team on his back and threw them across the finish line. Tannehill stands at his locker laughs with his back-up, Matt Moore, as they re-create some Sunday moment.
General Manager Jeff Ireland steps over, gives a handshake and a quick smile. Tannehill throws on a purple dress shirt and says something to tight end Charles Clay nearby, something about Clay's Amish-style beard.
"Look at Ol' Naked Face," Clay says back, laughing.
"Me?" Tannehill says, rubbing his clean-cut face.
It's been more than decade since the joy of a 3-0 start brightened this locker room and even longer since evidence of a franchise quarterback did. But let's not mix the two issues of Sunday's 27-23 win against Atlanta too much.
This day wasn't so much about a team taking a big step forward as it was about a quarterback taking one. And that's even more significant. The star quarterback is always the harder part of that NFL team equation.
You're seeing hope bloom into proof, too. Last week, Tannehill out-dueled Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. On Sunday, he out-dueled Matt Ryan in the very moments the Falcon star earned his "Matty-Ice" nickname.
After Ryan failed to put away the Dolphins, Tannehill ran into the huddle with just under five minutes left and 75 yards from the win. "It doesn't matter what's happened before this," he said. "It matters what we do now."
What happened to that point followed most expectations as the Dolphins fought up in weight class for the first time this year. Atlanta dominated key areas. It ended the day with 13 more plays, 92 more yards, 14 more minutes with the ball and five more sacks than the Dolphins.
To which the question echoed: When's the last time a Dolphins team looked so dominated and ended up celebrating?
Maybe 2008, when Chad Pennington pulled magic out of his helmet? Maybe (gulp) all the way back to the Dan Marino years?
From that stab at huddled inspiration to teammates, Tannehill went out and acted his part. He had a decent day thus far, though he also had lost a fumble while being sacked and been intercepted on a ball that tipped off Clay's hands.
But now he did on this Sunday what great quarterbacks can every Sunday. He completed 9-of-11 passes for 69 yards on the game-winning drive. He threw two completions to the little-used Rishard Matthews, threw the first reception of Michael Egnew's career and, on third-and-4, for 4 yards to Brandon Gibson.
"You could see us coming together," guard Richie Incognito said.
Even when struck with the potential calamity of Lamar Miller dropping a would-be touchdown pass, Tannehill wasn't shaken. He put his hands to his helmet in shock at the drop of a perfectly thrown pass. By the time Miller returned to the huddle, he'd moved on.
"Come on, we need this," he said in the huddle.
At the Falcon 29-yard line, Tannehill threw a nice strike over the middle to Gibson for 21 yards. The endgame was close. Another Gibson catch put the ball at the 1-yard line.
Now came a time-out with 43 seconds left. For as much as Tannehill had done on the public stage to this point, now came a moment on the sideline with his coaches that was equally significant.
A play was suggested. Tannehill suggested a different one, "I was more comfortable with," he said. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman gave the OK up in the booth.
"It's one we've run a lot against the No. 1 defense and had success with it a lot," Incognito said.
The play called Smith to run out of the backfield on a swing route. He was covered. Tight end Dion Sims ran to the back of the end zone. He was covered. That's where Tannehill decided to go.
"It was going to be a touchdown or out of the end zone," Tannehill said.
Sims went up for the pass with one hand. His other was being held by Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas. The game-winning touchdown became his first NFL catch, too.
"I thought it would be easier than that," he said.
The Dolphins aren't a finished product. But that didn't matter in a giddy locker room. Another win did. And, beyond that, the belief they've finally found a quarterback really did.