One major difference between where the Miami Dolphins are and where they want to be could not be more obvious.
This weekend doesn’t offer one or two pieces of evidence, but eight. Look at the remaining contenders for the Super Bowl — and by “contenders” we mean not necessarily the eight teams playing this weekend, but the eight men leading them into the divisional round.
From the opening game (Saints at Seahawks) to the finale (Chargers at Broncos), it’s an Elite Eight of quarterbacks. Featuring all six Pro Bowl passers. All faces of their franchises. MVPs of their teams, worthy of consideration for MVP of the league. Andy Daltons need not apply.
Put it another way: When The Sporting News ranked the quarterbacks still contending, the guy coming in last was Tom Brady. Who has won more playoff games than anyone else, ever.
“What’s the common thread? It’s excellence at the quarterbacking position,” said Dan Dierdorf, who calls his final game for CBS on Saturday night when the Colts visit the Patriots. “Much less win in the NFL, you can’t even compete in the NFL without very good quarterback play.”
So where do the Dolphins fit in? They don’t, and haven’t since their last playoff appearance in 2008. Ryan Tannehill clearly made progress in his second season — he doubled his touchdown pass total to 24 — but significant progress remains before he’s playing this deep into the post-season. His passer rating of 81.7 places him at least five points below each of the remaining quarterbacks.
Forget about fairness — in the NFL you either win or lose — the measuring stick moving forward for Tannehill is whether he can play with — and outplay — New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, Carolina’s Cam Newton, San Diego’s Philip Rivers, Denver’s Peyton Manning … and last and apparently least, Brady.
Because Tannehill has to.
“So much is on the quarterback now,” said Phil Simms, who will analyze Sunday’s Chargers-Broncos game for CBS. “It’s almost like a goalie in hockey. A hot quarterback can drive you through the playoffs.”
And drive up ratings. Last weekend might have been the most scintillating two days of playoff football ever, with three of the four games decided by a field goal or less for only the second time. The games averaged 34.7 million TV viewers (a record for the wild-card round), including 53.4 million watching the conclusion of the 49ers’ dramatic victory over the Packers. That’s about as many as who watched the 1972 Dolphins beat Washington in the Super Bowl to complete their perfect season.
What would last weekend have been without Luck rallying to pass for 443 yards and transforming an immaculate fumble into a touchdown? Without Kaepernick confounding the Packers with his arm and legs? Simms said he had an edge-of-his-seat feeling all weekend.
“When they drop back, anything can happen,” Simms said. “It was like anticipating Babe Ruth hitting a home run.”
Outside of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, a case can be made that the NFL’s eight best quarterbacks will play this weekend. The comparisons have been painted as veterans such as Brady and Brees vs. new kids such as Luck and Wilson. Big arms vs. bigger arms. Fast legs vs. last legs.
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick, an NFL Media analyst, classified Brees vs. Wilson as two commanders facing off, Luck-Brady as two All-Americans, Kaepernick-Newton as two hybrids and Rivers-Manning as two classic QBs.
Despite Tannehill’s scrambling ability, Dolphins coaches want him to focus on drop-back skills. He must improve deep throws to capitalize on Mike Wallace’s speed, and with a receiving corps that includes Brian Hartline and tight end Charles Clay, the tools are in place, provided an offensive line is ever assembled.
Around the league, quarterbacks are charged with greater responsibility. Bob Griese didn’t help the Dolphins win two Super Bowls and reach the Hall of Fame just for his arm. He called his own plays very well. That was before offensive coordinators and radio headsets became the rage. Are things gradually shifting?
“We see coaches taking more chances with the quarterback,” Simms said. “They have more in their hands than ever before. They get to check off plays.”
They get to decide games. And championships.
“The rules of the National Football League have steadily been changing to make it easier to throw the football,” Dierdorf said. “The passing game is what you have to have. And let’s be realistic: 32 teams in the National Football League, there are probably only 20 quarterbacks. And you can see where those 12 teams are not.
“They don’t have it.”
Tune in next January.