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Can Ryan Tannehill take the next step and lead his Dolphins into rare waters?

After four consecutive losing seasons, the Dolphins enter 2013 looking to build on the excitement created by an offseason of big spending. But they will only go as far as their new leader can take them.

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"This young man will be the most improved quarterback in the National Football League from year one to year two - I promise you that."

Those were the words of Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman back in May, referring to quarterback Ryan Tannehill. You can argue all you want if the statement is really as bold as it sounds. But simply on the surface, this proclamation by Sherman was a headline-making statement a couple of months ago - for good reason.

The Dolphins have playoff aspirations in 2013 but will only go as far as their second year signal caller can take them. The NFL is a quarterback driven league and you don’t have very much success without having a good one running your offense. Just last year, nine of the twelve playoff teams had quarterbacks who were in the top 13 in QB rating.

I could fill up pages and pages with more statistical proof that you don’t have very successful seasons without good quarterback play. But I think that point is well understood by everybody - coaches, players, fans, and media.

A learning experience

I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. I thought it would be best if Tannehill sat behind a veteran quarterback for most, if not all, of his rookie season. The kid had just 19 college starts at quarterback and would be playing behind what I felt was a very suspect offensive line with few weapons around him to help him out.

But with David Garrard’s injury and Matt Moore’s inability to separate himself in camp and during the preseason, Joe Philbin made the decision to begin the Ryan Tannehill era right away. Though there’s always the risk of potentially damaging a rookie quarterback by throwing him to the wolves, Philbin and Mike Sherman clearly felt the positives outweighed the negatives.

Former NFL quarterback and current Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is also a proponent of starting a rookie quarterback. He told last year that "if a young quarterback is ready for the pro game, and is trained well, he'll learn faster by playing than by watching."

"And I've always maintained a quarterback learns more from his mistakes than triumphs and touchdown passes," added Musgrave.

Tannehill had his ups and downs last year. In most years, his rookie season would’ve been considered a solid start to a career - finishing in the top 20 in passing yards with over 3,200 while completing just under 60% of his passes. Last season, though, wasn’t your typical season - as three rookie quarterbacks bursted onto the scene and led their respective teams to the playoffs.

Tannehill was overshadowed and considered by your average football fan to be just "another guy."

ESPN’s Ron Jaworksi disagrees, saying earlier this offseason that Tannehill "showed a lot of positive traits despite having very few weapons at his disposal." Added Jaworski, "For a rookie, Tannehill was very good at throwing with bodies around him in what I call a muddied pocket. That's advanced NFL quarterbacking."

The next step

Tannehill enters the 2013 season not as a rookie quarterback competing for the starting job but as the unquestioned starter and supposed leader of this offense. It’s a totally different situation than Tannehill faced last year - but is one that presents its own set of challenges. Making the leap from rookie quarterback to the leader of a supposed up-and-coming team is no easy task.

"I couldn't really step out and be the leader I wanted to be, because, as a rookie, don't know where I'm going to be on the depth chart," Tannehill told the USA Today about training camp last year. "But this year I knew it was going to be my show going into the offseason. So I really could step out, work on my leadership, get guys together, organize meetings, organize throwing sessions."

On the field, player feedback has been positive through OTAs and the beginning part of training camp. Barry Jackson wrote in the Miami Herald that players have said Tannehill is "more instinctive, less mechanical, and less robotic in his reads."

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement Tannehill has made thus far from last year to this year has nothing to do with his ability to read a defense and make a throw but rather with his comfort level in his new role as a leader.

"He looks and sounds like a guy who is exponentially more comfortable than last year," says The Finsiders host and preseason play-by-play man Jesse Agler. "There’s a confidence, a sense of ‘I got this’ that he seems to have."

"Tannehill works like somebody who wants to be great and who wants to be a part of something special," added another team source that I spoke with. "He’s come into this training camp like a completely different person from a leadership perspective."

"His teammates recognize that Ryan is now the leader of this offense - and he's earned it."

No excuses

It was easy to simply write off any mistakes Tannehill made last season. He was a rookie with little college experience. He had mediocre talent to throw to. Expectations were low.

But a year after investing the 8th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft in Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins and owner Stephen Ross made an even larger investment in the young quarterback. He spent millions and millions of dollars investing in Tannehill’s future and getting him some legitimate weapons to work with.

Mike Wallace. Dustin Keller. Brandon Gibson. The re-signing of Tannehill’s favorite and most reliable target from a year ago, Brian Hartline. That’s $48.5 million in guaranteed money alone on these four targets for Tannehill.

To their credit, the team has done everything they can to expedite Tannehill’s development. He’s now entering year two playing in an offensive system that’s very close to his college offense. He’s got actual weapons to throw to, both on the outside and underneath. He has the experienced veteran backup quarterback to lean on for help. And he has the unwavering support of his coaches, teammates, and fans.

Now it’s up to Tannehill. He’s been put in a position to succeed. There are no more excuses.

Can Ryan Tannehill lead his team to success? Can he help his team meet the lofty expectations that a headline-making offseason has created? I don’t see why not. Will he? We’ll start to get that answer on September 8.

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