DAVIE, Fla. – While Miami Dolphins training camp meant weeks of speculation, prognostication and station-to-station evaluation, one moment of distillation summed up the team's prospects.
They hinge on Ryan Tannehill.
"We'll only be as good as he is," tight end Charles Clay said.
The defense seems stout, the receiving corps looks improved and the addition of nine rookies and eight free agents has buoyed optimism Miami is poised for a playoff push beginning with Sunday's opener at Cleveland.
But to snap a streak of four consecutive losing seasons, the Dolphins will need for Tannehill to make significant progress in his second NFL season. And he knows it.
"It's a quarterback-driven league," he said. "I need to play well in order for this team to do well. I get to touch the ball every play and get to make decisions that greatly affect the outcome of the game, so that's exciting for me. And I have the guys who can make plays for me, and it makes it a lot of fun."
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman predicted Tannehill will make the biggest leap forward of any second-year quarterback this year, which is saying something because the group also includes Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cleveland's Brandon Weeden.
Sherman figures Tannehill has lots of room for growth because he's still relatively new to the position. After switching from receiver at Texas A&M, where Sherman was the head coach, Tannehill started just 19 games. Then he became the first Dolphins rookie quarterback to start all 16 games.
"I believe in Ryan Tannehill," Sherman said. "I think every day he walks onto the field he is going to get better."
Tannehill's teammates have faith, too. As an indication he's now considered a veteran, he was one of six players voted by his peers to the team's leadership council, which will meet regularly with coach Joe Philbin.
Teammates say Tannehill seems more comfortable this year in the locker room, the huddle and the pocket.
"As a rookie you're feeling it out," Clay said. "Now he's a lot more vocal. He knows the offense, and he has taken complete control of it."
Not that Tannehill was bad as a rookie. He threw for 3,294 yards, more than Griffin or Wilson — or any previous Dolphins rookie, Dan Marino included. But he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes and was vexed by red-zone and third-down situations.
New receiver Mike Wallace is expected to help, stretching the field to provide Tannehill with more inviting targets both long and short. That sounds especially appealing to longtime fans who remember when Paul Warfield joined the Dolphins and teamed with quarterback Bob Griese to help them win consecutive Super Bowl titles.
"He was a big gift from Cleveland," Griese said. "And Ryan Tannehill is going to have the same kind of gift with Mike Wallace. Not only can he make big plays, but he can set up the offense for the other players."
The Dolphins also signed free agent receiver Brandon Gibson, who caught five touchdown passes with the Rams last year. Wallace caught eight with the Steelers, which means the two newcomers totaled more than the 12 Tannehill threw.
Miami lost tackle Jake Long, running back Reggie Bush, receiver Davone Bess and tight end Anthony Fasano via free agency, and new tight end Dustin Keller suffered a season-ending knee injury in an exhibition game. Plus the offensive line is unsettled, and running back Lamar Miller is unproven.
But Tannehill is unperturbed.
"I like what I see," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent on the field, a lot of guys who can get open, catch the ball and do something with it when they get the ball in their hands. I'm excited we have playmakers. Now it's just a matter of putting the puzzle together and doing a good job myself of giving them the ball."
Tannehill possesses a strong arm and can make every throw in an NFL playbook, but he needs to improve the consistency of his accuracy and make better decisions. Last year seven of his 13 interceptions came on third down, reflecting a youthful willingness to force throws at the wrong time.
His mistakes were especially costly for a team that lost two games in overtime and three others by a touchdown or less en route to a 7-9 finish.
Coaches and teammates praised the way Tannehill handled adversity and learned from it. Now that he has taken more than 900 NFL snaps, Philbin anticipates Tannehill will be more comfortable with the Dolphins' system and the speed of the pro game.
"It's one thing for us to sit in the meeting room and tell him about coverages and blitzes and the disguises and those type of things," Philbin said. "It's another for a player to get out there and really do it in a game. So he has that bank of information, he has worked extremely hard, and we're excited about seeing him make progress this year."
To put it less diplomatically: Tannehill had better be better. The Dolphins' season depends on it.
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