Ryan Tannehill sat in front of a television screen that read ANTICIPATION in bold white letters. This was quarterback camp with Jon Gruden, who was sitting parallel on the left side of the squared glass table. Gruden was grilling him about his ability to lead receivers to the ball on national television. Was he good enough at it to justify being considered as highly of a prospect as peers Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III?
“Anticipation,” Tannehill answered. “If you throw accurately with anticipation, it adds a whole ‘nother element to the game. That’s what the NFL is. The guys are so good up there, the coverage is so good. You have to be able to anticipate it and throw the ball accurately.”
Footage rolled of Tannehill throwing a touchdown strike. Expecting a post pattern from his receiver across, he launched the ball from the right hash over the underneath coverage and into his receiver’s hands. Perfect timing.
“How about this anticipation in the red zone? I mean, it wins for you,” Gruden said after watching the play. “It’s going to be tight. If you’re a hair late; If you’re a fraction of a second late, this ball is incomplete or picked, isn’t it?”
The play Gruden rolled on the screen was uncommon at Texas A&M. Tannehill struggled with anticipating receivers across the middle (aka the “seam”), failing to hit moving targets on similar plays. Some throws were high, some were low, some flat-out inaccurate. He didn’t appear to have a natural feel for it. That’s expected considering he was a wide receiver for two years before he became the Aggies’ quarterback. Many chalked it up to that same inexperience and said he’d get better at it, saying that he just needed “some coaching” and “starts under his belt.” He only had 19 as a quarterback at that point.
It was hard to believe that he’d develop that feel for the game by playing more, though. He was wired differently than Luck and Griffin. Whereas they had an indescribable feel and knack for hitting receivers before they broke off their route or found holes in zone coverage, he was seemingly throwing everything at the last second. He was much better at hitting stationary targets than moving ones. Now he was going to a league that’s all about hitting moving targets. A hair late and incompletions or interceptions galore, right?
Not long after the film session with Gruden he would be drafted by the Dolphins No. 8 overall, who had an offense that he was familiar with. The Dolphins hired his college head coach, Mike Sherman, as offensive coordinator in order to smoothen the transition for the young passer. Sherman, a West Coast Offense believer, reconstructed his offensive philosophy at A&M to fit it to his players and, most importantly, his quarterback’s strengths.
“Coming in and having the foundation of it already known, I didn’t have to spend the same amount of time learning the plays,” Tannehill said after being drafted. “I could devote more time to understanding defenses and focusing on the fundamentals and the intricacies of the plays rather than just the concepts in general.”
He flashed big-time ability under Sherman as a rookie. Because he knew the plays already, he knew the timing of routes, majority of which were focused outside the hashes, and when his receivers were breaking their stem. He threw with velocity and confidence from the pocket and out of it, showing off his arm strength and mobility. He impressed many with his raw talent, but questions remained about his ability to anticipate across the middle.
Although Sherman reconfigured his offense to suit Tannehill’s strengths, he still tried to get the ball rolling in between the hashes. It was expected, as all he’s known during his coaching career is the West Coast Offense. The philosophy was born from controlling the seam with difficult throws that required touch and anticipation. Eventually, defenders would start pinching the middle and create openings down the sideline, which Sherman’s offense was targeting.
Everyone subscribes to this philosophy to some degree, mainly using the deep crossing routes to stretch defenses horizontally. Sherman used the crossing routes on occasion but focused more on higher percentage throws. Slants and spot routes took place of deep dig routes or what are commonly known as “Basic” in the original philosophy. As ideal as these routes seem, they can only work as long as the team doesn’t fall behind on the down and distance, or the scoreboard. When that happens, throws start becoming more difficult.
Through the first three weeks this season, the Dolphins were ahead. They were 3-0 and Tannehill wasn’t having to make many difficult throws. When he had to, he didn’t necessarily make them, but his team got by. Then things got more difficult.
The Dolphins started to struggle and Tannehill’s issues started to magnify. He wasn’t making the necessary throws in the middle of the field and the tape showed it.
On many occasions, he struggled to hit receivers before they got completely open. He failed to anticipate them getting open and either pulled the trigger too late, double-pumped, or simply didn’t make the throw.
On one throw against the arch-rival Buffalo Bills, he threw the ball late and missed his tight end open in between two linebackers (0:08 in the video above). It was Week 7, and the Dolphins were in Bills territory. Tannehill had a Doubles set surrounding him. That meant two threats to each side while he stood in shotgun with a running back offset to his left.
The target here was going to be the No. 2 threat — also known as the slot — on the right, tight end Michael Egnew. He was set to run a dig route across the middle at the snap.
The play began and Egnew released inside. After roughly 10 yards, he planted his right foot in the ground at the 20-yard line and squared his shoulders. It was at this point when Tannehill, who was looking at him, should have raised his right shoulder up and threw the ball. He didn’t. He waited an additional split-second and then threw it. As the ball traveled through the air, it raised higher and higher like a plane taking flight, eventually going too high and behind Egnew, who attempted to make an acrobatic catch. Like Gruden said, a second late and it’s an incompletion.
A week later another throw came into question (0:22). Tannehill was in the shotgun set again, but this time with a Trips formation to his right. To his far left was a single receiver, Rishard Matthews, who was set to run a deep crossing route that worked behind the linebackers playing zone coverage underneath. This was a throw that needed anticipation and timing, both essentials of the quarterback position and the West Coast Offense.
When the ball was snapped, Tannehill faked a handoff and then looked up. He suddenly became unsettled, his feet tap dancing in the pocket. With no pressure, he moved from the center to his right where the Patriots’ midfield logo was painted. And then, unbalanced, he threw a ball in Matthews’ direction that took a similar path to the one that targeted Egnew. It went high and came across late, forcing Matthews to stretch his arm. His body flew in the air, twisting and turning before being assaulted by a Patriots defender. The ball sailed over his head. Tannehill was a second late again and this time, he put his teammate in danger.
Against the Browns, he didn’t attempt to throw down the seam on one play (1:33). He was under center and to his right was Egnew, who was one of two tight ends lined up at the end of the formation. Egnew was considered the “Y” and would be running a bend route through the seam.
At the snap, Tannehill took a five-step drop and looked to his left before turning to the middle. There Egnew was, running his route and beating the inside linebacker for positioning. As he ran past the linebacker, he started to turn open toward the middle. Tannehill, still waiting for the route to develop, froze for a split-second and then looked away to his right, where he found his outlet receiver for the checkdown throw. Another wasted opportunity.
These plays are the epitome of Tannehill’s inability to throw in the middle of the field. As talented as he is throwing outside the hashes, he doesn’t appear to have the same feel for it inside them. Whether it’s getting the ball out early or too late, he’s struggled throwing into the seam. For the former, consider the following play against the New Orleans Saints from Week 4 (0:45).
The Dolphins are in their own territory and set up in a Doubles formation that has two receivers to Tannehill’s left and a receiver and a tight end to his right. To that right side is where he’ll be going with the ball. A pivot-dig concept is dialed up there and what it’s designed to do is put the linebacker to that side in conflict. If he comes up and covers the pivot route, which is the route the tight end will run, Tannehill throws the dig the receiver’s running. The opposite applies if the linebacker drops in coverage.
What’s tricky about this play is that Tannehill is taking a one-step drop. That makes it more difficult to be patient and time the routes. When he drops back, he immediately looks to his right where the route combination is developing. He raises his shoulder as soon as the tight end sinks his hips and starts turning back to him. This is despite the linebacker clearly covering the pivot route that’s being run and clearly leaving the receiver to run the dig route freely into the seam.
He does this two other times in the game and it costs the Dolphins not only yardage, but first downs.
Plays like these can’t continue in Sherman’s offense. Not only will it increasingly become more difficult to keep the offense moving if it’s predicated on mainly outside-breaking routes, it’ll also make it harder for Tannehill to become the quarterback he was drafted to be. He needs to have patience and timing within his progression reads. It’s still integral in Sherman’s West Coast Offense, even if it has been modified from years past.
“The timing and the rhythm of the play is so important,” Sherman said last year when discussing the kind of quarterback that fits his system.”In the West Coast offense, tempo and rhythm is very important — one, two, three. One, two, three. We time the drops. With [Brett] Favre for six years we timed his drops to see where he is in his time from point A to point B.
“Other things in the West Coast offense is you like to have a quarterback who is able to make a good decision, have a quick release, get the ball out as he goes through his progression.”
Ultimately, if Tannehill’s throwing ability in the seam doesn’t improve, the Dolphins will have bigger issues. The offense will completely fall apart, failing to sustain drives and put points on the board. They’ll also start to question whether Tannehill’s the answer to the position that’s haunted them since Dan Marino retired in 1999.
When they drafted Tannehill in the first round (the first time the Dolphins have drafted a quarterback in the first round since Marino in 1983), they anticipated him becoming the face of the franchise. But that will only come once he starts anticipating his receivers in the middle of the field.