MIAMI – An afternoon practice had just ended, and Ryan Tannehill sat in the Miami Dolphins dining room picking at the big pile of broccoli on his plate, looking a little bored.
After all the excitement of recent weeks, steamed vegetables can't compete.
The Dolphins are 3-0 for the first time in 11 years, winning close games and showing some offensive pizazz for a change thanks largely to Tannehill, who's no longer overlooked in conversations about the remarkable rookie quarterback class of 2012.
"He's a monster," center Mike Pouncey said. "He has taken the next step, and everyone can tell."
By accelerating the steady improvement he showed last year, Tannehill has applied the brakes to the Dolphins' revolving door at quarterback, the position most responsible for their 13-year drought without a postseason win. Dan Marino's rookie season 30 years ago was the last time the Dolphins were this excited about a young QB.
"Every single day, he makes us more and more comfortable with his growth," receiver Mike Wallace said. "He's going down the right path to be a great quarterback."
One bad game could deflate the hype, however, which makes Monday's matchup of unbeatens between Miami and New Orleans potentially pivotal for Tannehill. Appearing on "Monday Night Football" for the first time, Tannehill will go against seven-time Pro Bowl passer Drew Brees.
But then, Tannehill and the Dolphins have already beaten Andrew Luck's Colts and Matt Ryan's Falcons. The latest victory was the most dramatic, with Tannehill orchestrating a last-minute rally for the first time, throwing the winning touchdown pass with 38 seconds left to beat Atlanta.
The Dolphins raved about how the 25-year-old Tannehill handled the situation.
"There was no panic," 10-year veteran Tyson Clabo said. "You could tell that he expected to go down and score a touchdown."
Tannehill's improvement this season has been most notable at important moments. He leads the NFL in red zone passing and has completed 71 percent of his attempts on third down, compared with 59 percent last year. Overall, Tannehill has a completion percentage of 66 to rank ninth, ahead of 2012 rookie classmates Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.
A year ago, fresh out of Texas A&M, Tannehill had a better completion percentage than Luck and threw for more yards than Wilson or Griffin III, but he ranked a distant fourth in accolades. RG3 won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
"Last year those other guys were making highlight plays," Wallace said. "Ryan just didn't get as much hype. But right now he's getting it."
Among those taking notice is Brees, a fellow Texan who wanted to play at A&M but wound up at Purdue.
"His journey has been an interesting one," Brees said. "He's obviously a phenomenal athlete. He's probably a guy that isn't talked about a lot from last year's draft class, just with the RG3s and Andrew Lucks and Russell Wilsons and that kind of thing. But man, he's having quite the career thus far. He's got a bright future."
Tannehill was the first quarterback drafted in the first round by the Dolphins since Marino, and they expected him to progress significantly because he started only 19 games at A&M after switching from receiver. He endured typical growing pains as a rookie, but also displayed a strong arm, athleticism and toughness for a team that stumbled to its fourth consecutive losing season, finishing 7-9.
Still prone to youthful mistakes, Tannehill tends to end too many plays in that position — prone. This year he has been sacked 14 times, more than any other quarterback, and leads the league with five fumbles.
"We are delighted about his progress," coach Joe Philbin said. "But he has to do a better job with the football. We can't have that stuff. There's no reason for it."
Tannehill acknowledged he must improve his ball security and get rid of the ball sooner when needed. He likely will, because he's a fast learner.
"I talk to Joe Philbin every week, so I have a good bead on who this kid is," said 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon, now a broadcast analyst. "When you make the correction with him, he usually gets it fixed. You don't have to hound him with it. That is a good sign with a young quarterback."
While sacks and fumbles have been a problem, Tannehill has thrown only two interceptions. The offseason acquisitions of receivers Wallace and Brandon Gibson have upgraded the passing attack, even while the ground game sputters, and Tannehill has exhibited a willingness to throw to whoever's open.
On the 75-yard winning march last week, he connected with six receivers, including backups Rishard Matthews, Michael Egnew and Dion Sims. Egnew and Sims made their first NFL receptions on the drive, with Sims scoring the touchdown.
Tannehill wasn't surprised to perform with such poise at crunch time.
"As a quarterback, you want the ball in your hands in the end with the chance to win at the end of the game," he said. "I expect to be calm. If you're out there panicked, then you're going to give panic to everyone else."
Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who was also Tannehill's head coach at Texas A&M, said such fourth-quarter heroics can provide residual benefits.
"Ryan has confidence in himself — that's the strength of Ryan Tannehill," Sherman said. "He has always believed in himself. But I think the belief system now becomes a little more contagious. Other guys say if we are in this situation again, we've done this before and we can do it again. There's a calming influence. That's what you see when teams go from average to good."
For a young quarterback, one last-minute comeback can change everything. Teammates look at you differently. Media hype grows. Broccoli might even taste better.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans and Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this report.
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