As the Miami Dolphins walked off the field after losing 30-17 against the Tennessee Titans, the tunnel they seem to be perpetually trapped within seemed it's darkest. They sunk to the bottom of their division with a 1-4 record and the season was lost. The best descriptor for them was "lack". Whatever teams need to be successful, the Dolphins had a lack of it. The results were grim and the outlook was worse. For many fans, who pour money, time, effort, and emotion into this franchise, it's disheartening. Not even a third of the season is complete and it's no longer worth it.
Making matters worse, the Pittsburgh Steelers were coming to town. They are at the top of the conference and a contender to make the Super Bowl. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league that was lighting up defenses by throwing to one of the best wide receivers in the league. They have one of the best running backs in the league. They would be facing one of the worst defenses in the league. It would be fine if Miami would hang with them in a shootout, but the Dolphins offense was sputtering. This would be a disaster in the making.
So of course, Miami wins the game. Pittsburgh's run defense was rated top five. Yet Jay Ajayi, the player who sulked his way off the active roster in week one, propelled himself onto the national stage by posting the fourth highest rushing total in Dolphins history. The Dolphins held the potent Steelers offense to 15 points, 7 of which came in garbage time. It was a big win for the team and the score could have been even more lopsided without costly penalties and drops.
But look... the Dolphins are good for one or two of these games every season. Every year, they'll blow out some unsuspecting team or beat a superior contender for whatever reason. Last season, they walloped the Houston Texans 44-26, with an impressive 41-0 first half. The season before that, they shut out the Chargers 37-0. It's a Dolphins thing. They beat up the Steelers, but Roethlisberger got hurt. Their defense had some key players injured. It was a fluke and now the Bills are coming to town. This is a physical, punishing, Rex Ryan led team that will punch the Dolphins in the face, and the Dolphins will take it because that's what they do. The Dolphins are a finesse team that can't handle the tough teams, particularly division teams. The seasoned Dolphins fans knew that the Steelers game was a fleeting success and the Bills would kick the Dolphins back down to the earth and put them in their place.
Thanks to tough running by Jay Ajayi and a surprising defensive performance, the game was close midway through the third quarter with the Bills hanging onto to a small 10-6 lead. But then, it starts to fall apart. The offensive line, which has played well up to this point, collapses and Tannehill gets sacked. The Dolphins' drive ends with 3 plays, -1 yards, and a punt. On the ensuing play, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor hits receiver Marquise Goodwin down the sidelines for a 67 yard touchdown, putting this game away at 17-6. Fans have seen this movie before; we know how it ends. The Dolphins will have to throw a bunch now and the Bills will pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. With the lead, the Bills can impose their will with the ground game. This once tight 10-6 affair is about to explode into a 31-13 game. Don't lie Dolphins fans. You KNEW this was going to happen.
The Dolphins respond with a 10 play, 75 yard drive that culminates with 8 points after a touchdown and 2-point conversion. It's 17-14 now, but we know the script right? That score was meant to draw us back in, only to have our hopes smashed later. But the defense holds the Bills to a punt. Success! But the punt leaves Miami at their own 1 yard line. Last season, Miami had three safeties in three consecutive games. Here's where the failure will occur: Tannehill will drop back to pass, sit in the pocket like a statue, get sacked, and Buffalo will get a safety; or maybe a strip sack and recover the fumble for a touchdown. I mean, we just KNOW that's going to happen. Miami runs on first down and gets a couple of yards. With Miami still in the danger zone, Tannehill runs up to the line, barks some orders which will only delay the inevitable, snaps the football, then hands the ball off to Jay Ajayi.
Ajayi had 143 yards at this point, so he had had some success. But no one expected what he would do next. With Buffalo putting 8 defenders in the box, Ajayi plows ahead for a first down thanks to some good blocking. Then he breaks the tackle attempts of 2 defenders en route to a 53 yard run. It's ok to admit that Ajayi's run gave us fans some Ricky Williams flashbacks. We've seen guys like Reggie Bush and Lamar Miller break big runs before. But nothing like what Jay Ajayi just did to the Bills. Could this be a turning point in the game? Nope! On 3rd and 6, Tannehill throws a perfect pass to running back Arian Foster that would have moved the chains, but Foster lets it bounce off of his hands. A crushing failed conversion for a team that has had way too many of those over the years. Thanks for the hope guys, but this is where it ends. We just KNOW it.
BUT THE DEFENSE HOLDS! Former Buffalo defender Mario Williams, released from the Bills this offseason and ignominiously benched this season, makes a great play stopping a run in the backfield, and destroys the Bills drive. Yet again, we've seen this scene before. The defense steps up only to have the offense do something terrible and erase that stand. Who didn't expect an untimely interception or even worse... a strip-sack? The offense runs the ball twice for 3 yards after a facemask penalty on Buffalo and now stands 3rd and 7 on the Buffalo 46 yard line with 5:57 left in the game, trailing 17-14.
I have purposely been verbose up until now to paint this picture. It's 3rd and 7, with not just the game on the line, not just the season on the line, but years and years of irrelevance on the line. If there is another quarterback in this league that is as criticized and scrutinized as Ryan Tannehill, I haven't found him. Every single area of criticism he has and could endure is now in his face staring back at him. Every tweet, every interview, every newspaper article, every molecule of everything he has dealt with his entire career is now whispering in his ear that he will fail. And we all knew he would. I'm the biggest Tannehill supporter you'll find on this site and I knew how this would end. Call me jaded, bent, broken, stupid, whatever. I've seen this before. This is Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins we're talking about. This. Will. Fail.
Tannehill takes the snap, and rookie edge rusher Shaq Lawson gets around left tackle Branden Albert (uh oh).
And in the most shocking of developments, Ryan Tannehill moves AWAY from it! What sorcery is this??? Adding into the chase are three more Buffalo defenders, one of which is in Tannehill's face (here it comes).
Tannehill has escaped pressure and is now on the run (this will fail). This is when the big boys earn that money (this will fail). This is type of play that puts Aaron Rodgers in the spotlight (this will fail). Tannehill unleashes a pass across his body (this will fail),
down the field (this will fail),
and perfectly in stride into the hands of Jarvis Landry for a first down (this will...).
What? What just happened? Wait, wait, wait... run that back. Did Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins just make a critical clutch play late in the game? On third down? Against a division opponent? No way! Three plays later, Miami takes the lead.
After a 3-and-out from the Buffalo offense, Miami gets the ball with a lead now. The Bills, having been demolished by the runaway freight train also known as Jay Ajayi, were expecting Miami to run out the clock. They had a timeout though and were on the right side of the 2-minute warning. Miami can't pass here. It's too risky and one magical play is enough. Then this happens:
Look, I have seen Ryan Tannehill make big throws before. I have seen him throw game winning touchdowns before. I have seen him bring teams back in the fourth quarter before. I have NEVER seen him smile about it like that. I have NEVER seen that look of relief from him. He knows. That monster of doubt, criticism, irrelevance, failure has been slain, at least for the moment. Adam Gase was hired as the head coach to turn Ryan Tannehill into the answer instead of the question. After a 1-4 start, that didn't seem possible. Now the Dolphins enter their bye week at 3-4. That's still a losing record, but now there is a tiny ray of hope; the faint glimmer that perhaps happens to be the light at the end of this long, unforgiving tunnel. Maybe, just maybe, this could be the turning point. Maybe, just maybe, Ryan Tannehill has turned a corner. Maybe, just maybe, this team can become relevant once again.
I can honestly say that I don't know. Years of mediocrity may have finally gotten to me. But if it finally happens; if the Dolphins become a team to celebrate once again, we can look back to a singular moment late on a Sunday afternoon. We can look to that moment - where the south Florida heat and pressures of winning at the highest level can melt lesser players - and know where it began. After years of so many "that wasn't it" plays, we can smile and reflect upon THAT play: the throw that "was".