Up against the vaunted Seahawks defense with 1:32 on the clock and two time-outs remaining in a tie game, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill took the ball with his back to his own end zone at the 10-yard line. The 65-yard field goal drive that followed was hardly the stuff of legend, but it was the first defining moment of Tannehill's career.
The ball came out quickly. The sense of urgency was apparent. The Seahawks were hapless and helpless to stop Tannehill and the Dolphins, and it only took three completed passes, a scramble and a short handoff to get the Dolphins in scoring position.
That Week 11 win in 2012 faded into the obscurity of a third consecutive losing season for the Dolphins, but much of what Tannehill showed in that moment has served as a launching point for his improvements this season.
"I think he's playing a little bit faster, his play speed is better, I think his decision making has improved," said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. "He's probably really made -- and we haven't gone back and necessarily studied -- but I think he's made maybe a few more plays with his feet, be it scrambling or other ways. He's done probably a better job of throwing the ball on the move this year as well."
Numbers obtained from Pro Football Focus back Philbin's claim. In 2012, Tannehill was spending an average of 2.74 seconds in the pocket every time he dropped back; that number has dipped to 2.58 seconds in 2013. It's only fractions of a second, but those are often the difference between a good play and a bad play.
When he attempts a pass, the ball is out in an average of 2.39 seconds, which is down from 2.63 last year. The quick decision-making has been apparent on the field, as well.
He threw a slant to wide receiver Mike Wallace (circled in yellow) on the outside, and started the throwing motion the moment he hit his back foot on a three-step drop, which was also the moment Wallace hits the third step in his route.
The break and the throw come almost at the exact same time. With the linebacker cheating inside, there was a sizable window for Tannehill to throw the bullet pass.
The decision to make this throw is a little easier based on Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie giving Wallace a decent cushion off the line of scrimmage, but last year, Tannehill might have hesitated a moment; this year, that ball was out the moment it needed to be.
How about this play against the Cincinnati Bengals? This was downright Tom Brady-like, with Tannehill hurrying to the line after a third-down conversion, snapping the ball before the defense was set, and throwing the ball quickly to Wallace at the sideline.
They were able to pick up an easy six yards against an unprepared Bengals defense.
The speed of the game is often talked about as one of the most difficult changes from college to the NFL. From the look of it, Tannehill has taken that fast-paced bull by the horns and ridden it to dramatic improvement. It's particularly impressive, considering he's been knocked around more often than if he were riding an actual bull -- through Week 4, Tannehill was on pace to be sacked a league-record 77 times, and he kept up a torrid sack pace until recently.
One way to prevent Tannehill being sacked is for him to scramble when the pressure starts closing in, but he is so effective with his legs, the Dolphins should even be looking to use him in that role more often.
Against the Steelers this past week, the Dolphins ran the ball on the read-option. Linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) is the read on the play, meaning that whichever way he runs, the play will go the opposite way. So, if he tried to defend the handoff to running back Daniel Thomas, Tannehill would take the ball on his own.
That's exactly what happened, as Tannehill kept the ball and ran through a big gap in the defense. Safety Will Allen (20) overpursued on the run, leaving a big space on the offenses' left for Tannehill to run through. Forty-eight yards later, the defense finally caught Tannehill from behind.
The Dolphins should probably try to get the ball in his hands even more on the run. With an average of 6.1 yards per rush attempt, Tannehill currently ranks fourth of any quarterback to start at least half his team's games.
It's not like the Dolphins need him to run the ball 100-150 times a season; give him a couple or three designed runs in a game, let him scramble once or twice and the Dolphins will get more than they need out of Tannehill's running ability.
Quicker decision-making and better use of his legs aren't the only areas of improvement.
"I think he is doing a great job in two minute situations," said receiver Brian Hartline. "He is doing a great job at commanding the offense which we kind of see on the inside."
We can see it on the outside, too, and Hartline knows first-hand what Tannehill has been able to do in two-minute situations. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Tannehill threw a touchdown pass in the final two minutes of both the first and second half, with one of those touchdowns going to Hartline.
Tannehill also helped the Dolphins to a touchdown drive at the end of the first half against the Baltimore Ravens, field goals at the end of the first half against the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets, and a field goal at the end of the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There are seven such examples of Tannehill leading his team to a score within the final two minutes of either the first or second half; that is the most from both a volume and percentage standpoint -- 50 percent of the Dolphins' possessions inside two minutes remaining have resulted in a score.
With Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson all tearing it up in 2012, there wasn't enough room in the headlines for Tannehill. So, he threw himself into the discussion, both figuratively and literally.
Wilson is in a class of his own, but RGIII has taken a step back and Tannehill has played at a level comparable to Luck this season -- which would have seemed unthinkable during the offseason.
The Dolphins searched for 12 years and went through 17 different starting quarterbacks looking for their franchise signal-caller, and while there is room for improvement, his trajectory is clearly pointing upward.
Last year's afterthought is this year's rising star.
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