SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN: PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR SATURDAY'S LATE-NIGHT HEAT AND UM UPDATES
Lots of Dolphins talk on the opening weekend of the season:
### Ryan Tannehill’s renewed mission to prove he’s a playoff-caliber franchise quarterback begins Sunday, and he’s unusually blunt about what he will demand from himself.
“I am at the point in my career now where progression has to be made fast and there are no more rookie mistakes,” he said. “You can’t play quarterback and have excuses.”
So much rides on this season for Tannehill, for both his team and his financial outlook.
Tannehill has 2014 and 2015 remaining on his four-year, $12.68 million rookie contract.
But the Dolphins must decide by next May whether to exercise his fifth-year option. Because he was a top-10 pick, that option would entail paying him, in 2016, the average salary of the NFL’s 10 highest-paid quarterbacks, a figure of about $15 million.
If the Dolphins pick up the fifth-year option (which is very, very likely if he plays well this season) but he bombs in 2015, the Dolphins could still escape paying any of that 2016 salary unless he sustains an injury that sidelines him all of 2016.
But if he plays great this season, the Dolphins might offer a long-term contract after the season. The Bengals did that after three seasons with Andy Dalton (given six years, $96 million) and the 49ers did it with Colin Kaepernick (six years, $126 million), although they did not have fifth-year options because they weren’t first-round picks.
The fascinating question is how much new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor can elevate Tannehill, who said the new system has been challenging but enjoyable.
Asked if he needed a new voice at this point in his career, Tannehill politely shrugged off the question, out of respect to Mike Sherman, his coach at Texas A&M and coordinator with the Dolphins.
He said he is “making the best of” the change, noting diplomatically it has altered his “perspective on some plays." He calls the system "challenging" but said he has enjoyed the new approach.
Backup Matt Moore said Lazor “has opened up Ryan’s eyes to some things” and is “more demanding” than Sherman was: “He sets the bar high and lets you know if you’re not reaching it.”
Former NFL coach Dan Reeves told me Lazor might be the smartest assistant he has ever had. And as Dan Le Batard noted, Joe Gibbs has called him the brightest young assistant in football.
Lazor made it a priority to polish Tannehill’s footwork, which Tannehill believes will improve his accuracy.
And this is key: Tannehill was the NFL’s fifth-most effective quarterback when he left the pocket the past two seasons, according to ESPN. But he inexplicably did it less often than the league average. Lazor is expected to roll him out more.
But can Tannehill, who was drafted 80 spots before Nick Foles, achieve anything close to what Foles did last season (27 touchdowns and two interceptions) under Lazor and Chip Kelly in Philadelphia?
“Before last year, Tannehill had more consistency on accuracy and decision-making than Foles,” former Texans and ex-Redskins general manager Charley Casserly said.
“Can Tannehill do what Foles did? In theory, yes. But Foles had a hell of a line, a Pro Bowl receiver, great running back. Tannehill doesn’t have those things.”
Nobody is expecting a 27/2 TD/INT ratio from Tannehill, who said this week: “I’m not Nick Foles!”
But the most optimistic comparison might be Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, whose second-season numbers were very similar to Tannehill’s.
Tannehill had an 81.7 rating last season, with 24 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a 60.4 completion percentage. Ryan, in his second season, was at 80.9, with 22 touchdowns, 14 picks and a 58.3 completion percentage.
But Ryan improved dramatically in his third season, finishing with a 91.0 rating, 28 touchdowns and nine picks. The Dolphins would love that type of growth.
But also consider this: Of the 18 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 from 2000 to 2011, seven experienced drops in their QB rating in their third season.
Eli Manning, Mark Sanchez and Cam Newton improved their QB ratings slightly in year three. Ryan, Sam Bradford and mediocre quarterbacks David Carr, Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich improved a lot.
There’s a lot of faith in Tannehill around the league. Some of the feedback from other NFL coaches:
### Saints coach Sean Payton: “You're seeing someone who hasn't had a ton of reps at the position who may not have had the same amount of work a lot of his peers had, based on his college playing time. He's very smart.
“When we prepared to play them last season, we saw him as someone who is very athletic and can move. Time will tell, but his future is bright. I've heard nothing but good things from people who have been there that have worked with him.”
Payton, who I spoke to earlier this offseason, isn’t convinced that definitive judgment can be formed during a quarterback’s third season.
“I don’t think that was the case for Kurt Warner [or] Trent Green,” Payton said. “I think it varies based on players and situation. It's a position that may be one that can have success later than earlier, a little more so than other positions.”
### Falcons coach Mike Smith: “I think Tannehill is a very good quarterback. He can create when the play breaks down. That's one of his strongest traits, that he has the ability to run and create.”
### Redskins coach Jay Gruden told me: “No question he’s got all the tools you want. Great arm, quick release, can get out of trouble with his legs. He’s on the right track, no doubt.”
### Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tannehill is "excellent" in the two-minute offense and Chargers coach Mike McCoy said: “I think he has a bright future. Remember, any young player is going to have some ups and downs.”
### ESPN’s Ron Jaworski, who ranked him 23rd among all quarterbacks: “I really expected more out of Tannehill last season. I loved what I saw his rookie season and thought he was a potential superstar. In 2013 he held on to the ball too long and wasn't decisive with his reads.
“To be fair, he also had a historically bad offensive line blocking for him and was sacked 58 times (10 more than any other QB). That certainly had an impact. Lazor will help him with an up-tempo offense, and Tannehill should be improved this season.”
Though Andrew Luck has been the better player, Tannehill’s career rating isn’t substantially lower than Luck’s (81.5 to 79.1). And even with his deep-ball struggles, Tannehill’s 7207 passing yards --- albeit in a passer-friendly league --- are the fifth-most in NFL history by a quarterback in his first two seasons, behind Luck, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning and Dan Marino (7294).
Where has Tannehill improved most? “He’s seeing his reads a lot faster than last year,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “And his confidence in the pocket has improved.”
### Tight end Dion Sims said the offense Sunday will be “a lot faster” than what the Dolphins have shown in preseason: “The tempo will be something New England hasn’t really seen.”
### Wallace is convinced Lazor will make a big difference. "He's finding new and creative ways every day... to make plays look like a whole different one," Wallace said.
He said Lazor’s willingness to allow him to line up in different spots --- something Sherman opposed --- is giving him more of a cushion against defensive backs.
### Tannehill, easygoing by nature, has said he will be more vocal with teammates, which some of his teammates would like him to be. That’s needed. It seemed odd when guard John Jerry (now with the Giants) said last year that one thing the offensive line liked about Tannehill is that he never angrily scolded them for any of the 58 sacks.
### The Dolphins made an inquiry, but not an offer, to former starting safety Chris Clemons after he was released by Houston on Sunday. They could revisit the idea of signing him if they feel they need to upgrade in the coming weeks. Pro Football Focus ranked Clemons 19th among safeties last season, with a solid 82.8 quarterback rating in his coverage area.
### Heading into Sunday's game, keep in mind Tom Brady has targeted Jimmy Wilson a lot in their past four meetings, with Wilson allowing 16 of 26 passes against him to be caught for 149 yards.
Now Wilson’s role is bigger than ever, as the replacement for suspended Reshad Jones at safety. “I’ve always wanted to be a starter, waited my whole for this,” he said.
### Also key Sunday is whether Will Davis, now Miami's No. 3 cornerback, is more equipped for this matchup after allowing 7 completions in 9 throws against him (for 90 yards) in the Patriots game last December. The Dolphins believe he is.
### How much can new Patriots Don Jones and Marcus Thigpen –-- who were Dolphins a week ago --– help New England with inside information?
“I’m sure it will help a little,” safety Jimmy Wilson said. Several teammates agreed.
But Brent Grimes said even if they tell Bill Belichick “exactly what you’re doing on offense, they still can’t stop it if you block it right.”
### Among NFL rookie Hurricanes, Brandon Linder (right guard/Jacksonville) and Seantrel Henderson (right tackle/Buffalo) won starting jobs, and undrafted Allen Hurns is the Jaguars’ No. 3 receiver. Pat O’Donnell is Chicago’s punter.
Among Canes rookies on practice squads: Stephen Morris (Jacksonville), Asante Cleveland (49ers), Erik Swoope (Colts) and Luther Robinson (Packers).
Good news for transplanted New Yorkers and New Englanders in South Florida: MLB plans to announce in the coming days that the Marlins will play at home and on the road against both the Yankees and Red Sox next season.
Still in search of veteran depth at center, the Heat on Friday summoned 7-0 center Ryan Hollins to Miami to meet with Erik Spoelstra and his staff, according to a person briefed by the team. No offer was made Friday or Saturday but Hollins remains under consideration.
Hollins, 29, who has played for six teams in eight seasons, averaged 2.3 points, 1.5 rebounds and 7.9 minutes in 61 games for the Clippers last season, all off the bench. He has career averages of 3.8 points, 2.2 rebounds and 0.5 blocks and has started 55 NBA games.
The Heat auditioned veteran center Nazr Mohammed a week ago and also has inquired about free agent center Andray Blatche. The Heat is very intrigued by free agent center Emeka Okafor, but ESPN has reported he might not play until midseason because of a bulging disc in his neck.
A few notes, quotes and thoughts on UM's 41-7 thrashing of Florida A&M:
### Terrific defensive effort by the Hurricanes, who limited an overmatched opponent to 114 yards --- including .8 per carry on 33 rushing attempts and 6 for 17 accuracy (for 89 yards) in the passing game. The only blemish: There were a couple of sizable completions --- one against Tracy Howard, the other against Ladarius Gunter.
"Our defense has improved a lot," said receiver Philip Dorsett, who caught TD passes of 4 and 32 yards.
Thurston Armbrister had a sack/strip for the second game in a row and added another sack later. Anthony Chickillo recovered Armbrister's strip sack and deflected a pass later in the game.
Denzel Perryman was exceptional in the first half, with six tackles --- one for loss and most of the others for short gains.
Insidetheu.com reported Perryman sustained a minor shoulder injury during the game. But Golden said Perryman didn't play in the second half only because he wanted to hold out Perryman, Duke Johnson and Stacy Coley after intermission.
### Brad Kaaya had some impressive throws, including a 32-yarder to a diving Dorsett in the back of the end zone, and closed 12 for 22 for 177 yards and two touchdowns and two picks in a bit less than three quarters.
One of the interceptions, off a deflection from Clive Walford, wasn't his fault. The other pick was slightly overthrown in the end zone; Herb Waters was the intended receiver.
"I'm not a big stats guy, just a big wins guy," Kaaya said. "I felt a little more comfortable. I feel we handled [the short week] well."
Said Al Golden: "Brad made really nice throws. We did a better job protecting him. I'm excited about Brad."
Golden said he didn't open up more of the playbook for Kaaya. "I think he got better," Golden said.
### Golden said Kevin Olsen's two-game suspension has ended. But there is no QB controversy. This is Kaaya's job unless Golden eventually decides otherwise.
### Jake Heaps played slightly more than a quarter, finishing 5 for 8 for 41 yards.
### Kaaya has developed terrific chemistry with freshman receiver Braxton Berrios, who led UM with six receptions for 63 yards. "He's a good route runner; he's a guy I look for on third down," Kaaya said.
Berrios started tonight and is playing a lot. By the way, freshman Tyre Brady also started at receiver, as UM opened in a four-receiver set (Dorsett, Herb Waters, Brady, Berrios).
### Duke Johnson finished with 98 yards on nine carries in his one half of work, moving into ninth place on UM's career rushing list with 2054 yards. Freshman Joe Yearby had 95 yards on 14 carries (6.8 per carry).
Gus Edwards closed with 34 yards on four carries (including a 15-yard TD run) and Trayone Gray had three rushes for 16 yards, including a 10-yard TD run on his first UM rushing attempt.
"The offensive line was much better tonight," Johnson said. But overall "we have a long way to go."
### Special teams is a concern. Ronald Regula's high snap, recovered by FAMU in the end zone, accounted for the Rattlers' only score.
"I haven't seen a high snap from Ronnie on punts all summer," Golden said. "I didn't know where that came from."
And Matt Goudis missed field goals of 45 and 32 yards, while hitting them from 20 and 23. "We've got to get Matt on track," Golden said. "He's proven to be effective."
### A bunch of newcomers who didn't play much or at all at Louisville
### Another concern: UM was 2 for 10 on third down and now 3 for 23 for the season. Golden said he would need to analyze the tape before offering theories on the matter.
### A bunch of newcomers who didn't play much or at all at Louisville got playing time, including Michael Wyche, Anthony Moten, Nick Linder, Chris Herndon, among others.
### Golden's take: "It wasn't perfect but we got better in a lot of different areas. I was afraid we weren't going to have our legs. I don't know that I'm satisfied with anything right now."
### Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad was in uniform but again held out in what appears to be a double-secret suspension as UM mulls his status. Quite a while ago, Muhammad and his then-roommate (who has since graduated from UM) had a physical confrontation that left the roommate injured, according to a person briefed on the situation. The UM administration is still deciding how to handle this.