I have heard it said of the NFL that teams either have a franchise quarterback or they are looking for a franchise quarterback. Patience is a rare virtue in a league where results are seemingly expected almost instantly. Franchises change coaching staffs like people change underwear and with that change comes roster changes as well. This is most evident with the quarterback position. A look at this season's Tampa Bay Buccaneers team provides an excellent perspective. Former Bears head coach Lovie Smith was hired to turn this franchise around. The Bucs had a sophomore quarterback that had shown signs of improvement. But the new staff brought in a veteran free agent that had enjoyed a spike in his performance last year with the Bears, but came back down to his normal level of ineptitude with the Bucs. Now the team is in a position for a top 3 draft pick that will be used on a quarterback prospect and the young sophomore quarterback will sit the bench or be shown the door.
The Miami Dolphins appear on the verge of yet another coaching change, but unlike the Bucs, appear to have an answer at the quarterback position. Ryan Tannehill will offer the new coach a promising talent that despite his surroundings has been able to produce at a fairly high level. His growth and development are evident to some, but others are ready to pull the plug. Their minds are made up that Tannehill is ‘not the guy' and they are ready to move on to the greener grass on the other side. Folks - that is a bad idea. There are a few reasons why.
The NFL draft is a probably the most exciting time for any NFL franchise and their respective fanbases. Hope springs eternal and a new crop of young players is going to either turn things around for losing teams or keep the good times going for winning teams. The quarterback position is the epitome of that hope. No other position brings with it the excitement and hope than that of the new ‘franchise' quarterback.
Despite that hope, the reality of life in the NFL is that a majority of players drafted will fail to become stars or even make a career in the NFL. Nothing expresses that reality like the quarterback position. When fans say they are ready to move on the next guy, I wonder how many of them realize the rate at which draft picks, especially quarterbacks, fail to become ‘the guy'. Every new quarterback prospect looks like a shiny beacon of hope for fans when they have questions about their team's starting quarterback. However, the likelihood of that player becoming the franchise quarterback is small. If history is any indication, that player will end up like his predecessor on the list of wrong answers.
So for fans ready to write Tannehill off and put him on that list, let's review the last 10 drafts: 2005-2014. In those drafts, there were 124 total picks used on quarterbacks. Of those 124 picks, 55 were used in the first 3 rounds of the draft. Of all 124 picks, only 17 of them are current starters for the team that drafted them, with 12 of them being players drafted in the last 4 drafts. Of those 17 picks, 6 would be considered by most as franchise players that their respective teams will plan to keep long term: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matt Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. Four of the remaining 11 players are rookies therefore it is too early to ascertain whether they can become long term options. Of the remaining seven, 5 are possible franchise players but have questions about them: Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Tannehill, and Nick Foles. The last two, Sam Bradford (I counted him because he WAS the starter but isn't playing due to injury. He was not going to be benched as RG3 or Jake Locker have been) and Geno Smith, will not likely be the long term starters for the teams that drafted them. Of those 124 QBs, some have had success elsewhere like Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, and Colt McCoy. But all of them still have questions regarding their ability to be a ‘franchise' quarterback for the team they now play for.
As mentioned, only 17 out of 124 quarterbacks are current starters for the teams that drafted them from the last ten drafts. That's roughly 13% of them. All 17 were out of the 55 picks drafted in the first three rounds which around 31%. Exactly zero picks from any pick past the 4th round in the last ten drafts have retained a starting job, excluding rookies. Of the 124 picks used on quarterbacks, only 6 are currently considered long term franchise players. That's about a 5% success rate. Of that group, only Russell Wilson wasn't a first round pick, but let's be honest about it; if Wilson was 6'4" instead of 5'11", he would likely have been a first round pick.
When looking at the remaining 11 current starters, 2 are clearly not long term answers and the remaining 9 are candidates with question marks. The four rookie starters have question marks simply because they just don't have enough body of work with which to evaluate. When looking at the other five: Tannehill, Kaepernick, Dalton, Foles, and Newton, to me it's a question of lateral movement. Would the teams starting those five QBs swap rather have the 6 unquestioned franchise players over their current starters? Yes. (I'd argue that a Stafford-Tannehill swap is a lateral move). Would the teams starting those 5 quarterbacks rather have any of the QBs drafted outside of those 17 current starters? No. Would the teams with those 5 quarterbacks be willing to swap the incumbent for one of the other four? I'll get to that later.
As you can see, the quest for ‘the next quarterback' is usually a failure. The odds of finding a player that can remain a starter long term for a team ranges from 5% to 13%, depending on how you feel about that player. The odds of finding a long term starter outside of the first 3 rounds are virtually 0%. Yes, it COULD happen. But a team will MUCH MORE likely draft the next Ingle Martin or Stefan LeFors instead of the next Tom Brady. Like I said, these new prospects are all shiny and new and look great to a longing eye. But they have a better chance of landing on the scrap heap (87%) as opposed to being the answer (13%).
Discussing draft odds is one thing - how a player performs is something different. It's easy to look at TEAM success and assign grades or evaluations to quarterbacks. But that doesn't always work. Some quarterbacks step into a great situation or have a great running game and or defense backing them up. In terms of won-loss record, Tannehill doesn't stack up to others. But his teams haven't had the luxuries others have had either. More on that in the third part. Right now, I'm going to look at Tannehill's stats. Only 6 players in NFL history have thrown for more yards in their first three seasons than Tannehill (10597) and he still has two games left. Of the top ten players on that list, Tannehill is fourth overall in completion percentage (61.6%), ahead of Luck (58.5%), Manning (60.4%), and Marino (60.6%). He's the first Dolphins quarterback since Marino to throw for 3000 yards in three straight seasons. He's the first QB since Marino to throw at least 24 TDs in a season. And let me answer this question because I know it will come up: I am not comparing Tannehill to Marino with these stats. I'm comparing Tannehill to the OTHER quarterbacks that have played since Marino. He has produced 62 total TDs (58 passing, 4 rushing). Tannehill's numbers are impressive to a degree. Others have posted better numbers, but that leads to the other point.
I've read that there are three things every NFL team needs: a QB, protection for that QB, and players to get after the opponent's QB. I'm adding a fourth thing to that list: weapons for the QB. A QB can't produce great numbers with a lackluster group of playmakers around him. Yet somehow, the Dolphins think they can buck that idea. Remember those 17 QBs from the first section? MOST of them have had great weapons to throw to or handoff to. Andrew Luck has had Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne to throw to, plus an emerging star T. Y. Hilton at wideout, and two pretty good tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Some of those players have missed time due to injury, but for the most part, Luck has had decent weapons to throw to. Matt Ryan had Roddy White, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, and a strong rushing game. Russell Wilson had a top tier rushing attack and one of the league's best defenses. Kaepernick has a top five tight end in Vernon Davis, a strong rushing attack, a strong defense, and one of the league's best offensive lines. All of Tannehill's peers have had quality help from day one.
In Tannehill's first game, he had Legadu Naanee, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess, and Anthony Fasano as his targets. Let that sink in a moment. Luck had Wayne, Kaepernick had Davis, Dalton had Green and Tannehill had LEGADU FREAKIN' NAANEE!!! That's right, Tannehill was throwing to two guys who are out of the league, one guy that many on this site consider a 3rd or 4th receiver AT BEST on a good team, and a tight end that more proficient in blocking than being a receiving weapon ( I still think Fasano is underrated, but that's neither here nor there). When Naanee was released, he was replaced by Marlon Moore. Hartline managed to squeeze out a 1000 yard season, but the rest were, to no surprise to anyone at all, massively underwhelming. The Dolphins realized they needed to upgrade their receiving unit went on a spending spree and signed Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson to the unit. Wallace, while a nice addition, is at best a #2 receiver that has great deep speed, but has questionable hands and isn't a great route runner. Gibson was developing nicely as a slot receiver until he got injured. In 2013, the receivers were once again underwhelming and if not for the emergence of Charles Clay, the entire playmaking unit would have been lousy again. Somehow, Tannehill managed to toss 3913 yards and 24 TDs. Oh, and all of that was with the 7th WORST rushing attack, possibly the worst offensive line ever assembled and a ridiculously unbalanced offense - 652 passing plays (attempts + sacks) compared to 349 rushing plays. Tannehill managed to lead THAT team to 8 wins. I wrote about how Miami needs to address the receiver issue with another post, so I'll not go on about that. As for defenses, Tannehill's teams have had the 21st, 21st, and 7th best defenses in the league. This season, the defense is rated highly, but you've all seen this defense play over the last few weeks. They aren't the 7th best defense in the league. So it's not like Tannehill can bank on his defense to win games like others can. Simply put, Tannehill hasn't had the best of situations to start his NFL career, yet he has still produced and had success.
I understand the trepidation fans go through with believing in Tannehill. I'm sure there will be comments discussing his pocket presence, win-loss record, or perhaps even his supposed inability to make the players around him better (Brian Hartline had consecutive 1000 yard seasons). I'm not going to make you change your mind. But just be aware that the alternative is not as rosy as you think. The draft history shows that what Miami has in Tannehill RIGHT NOW is better than a majority of what they would likely get in the draft.
Back to the questions of the other QBs with question marks, how many fans can say they'd feel 100% comfortable with swapping Tannehill for one of them? I'm sure some will, but as mentioned those QBs are not without question. Dalton is inconsistent week to week and the Bengals never know if they'll get good Dalton or bad Dalton. There were concerns with Kaepernick during the draft about reading progressions and pocket management. Those same questions are resurfacing as some are saying Kaepernick is a one-read QB that looks to run if that one read is covered instead of working through progressions. Fans still have doubts about Newton and he has struggled this season when asked to be more of a pocket QB (due to injury). Foles had a phenomenal sophomore season, but came back to earth this season as his completion percentage has gone down and his INTs have gone up. All five have thrown fewer TDs than Tannehill. None have a higher completion percentage than Tannehill (only 5 QBs in the league do). Tannehill is trending upward while those quarterbacks are trending downward. IMO, swapping Tannehill for one of them would be a downgrade instead of an upgrade.
That means out of the last ten drafts, Ryan Tannehill is the 6th or 7th best QB drafted depending on how you regard Matt Stafford. Out of ALL of the 124 draft picks used on quarterbacks since 2005, Tannehill is the better than 96% of the choices made. Even if you decided that the rookies were better (they aren't IMO), and included players like Smith and Cutler, AND decided that the other QBs on the starting list were better than Tannehill, he would still be better than 85% of every QB drafted in the last 10 years.
When you look at his supporting cast, Tannehill has made the more out of less than just about every one of the other potential franchise quarterbacks. He's never had an elite receiver that he can bail him out like other QBs have. He has never had a dominant running attack to ease the load. He's never had an elite defense that shuts down opponents. He's only had average pass protection at best. I've been told by members of this site just how bad the playmakers are on this team. I've been told how the receivers struggle to get open and how the running backs are below average. If that's the case, how can you say Tannehill is not the answer when he hasn't been given the help that other quarterbacks get to enjoy? If the receivers can't get open, who is he going to throw the ball to? If you want a microcosm of Ryan Tannehill's career, here is a fanshot that perfectly describes it.
I believe Ryan Tannehill is the franchise quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. He has all the tools and unlike some of his contemporaries, his stock is rising despite his team and coaches falling apart around him. He has produced well with a nondescript group of playmakers and would undoubtedly produce even more if he had the weapons other quarterbacks have. I know that some have already made up their minds about him and that's fine. If a new coach is hired and wants a new quarterback, I would understand the reasoning behind that decision, even as I would disagree with it. If a new regime gets him better weapons and he still comes up short, I have no problem admitting I was wrong about him. But from my perspective, letting him go means another decade long search for ‘the guy'. Letting him go means releasing the proverbial bird in hand while seeking and likely failing to find the extraordinarily elusive two birds in the bush. Letting him go would be a mistake.