Most any game has a significant focus on the quarterback position as the NFL is a quarterback driven league. In the matchup between the Browns and the Dolphins, this had added emphasis as Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill are regarded as the other two quarterbacks in regards to last year’s draft. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson had unprecedented success and especially in the case of Wilson, took the league by storm. Tannehill and Weeden had more predictable rookie years. The difference is that Tannehill was afforded the opportunity to look like a rookie while Weeden was not because of his age (29). Winning the game is the most important issue going into this game but an extremely close second is which quarterback plays better and looks the part of a franchise quarterback.
Tannehill was selected 8th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. The Browns could have selected Tannehill at four but opted to flip picks with the Minnesota Vikings and select Trent Richardson. If Tannehill goes on to have a great career, there will certainly be a ‘what if’ element to that selection. Tannehill was selected by then new head coach Jeff Philbin to run his offense. He had brought on Tannehill’s former Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman to be the offensive coordinator and Tannehill would later say that 75% of the offense was the same as it was in College Station.
Miami selected Tannehill and opted to start the rookie despite having putrid talent around him for the most part. In fact, the second, third, and fourth leading receivers from last season, Davone Bess, Anthony Fasano, and Reggie Bush are in Cleveland, Kansas City, and Detroit respectively. The offensive line had some great parts like the legit Pouncey twin (Mike) and Richie Incognito along with what looks to be the next Tony Boselli in Jake Long, but still had some work to do. The running game was solid but certainly not spectacular.
Tannehill had some great moments and some struggles with an overall season that had a lot of critics excited about his future. Coming into this season, the Dolphins made significant investments in their weaponry for the sake of Tannehill in hopes of helping him make a leap forward. Brian Hartline, his leading receiver from last year went from his top target to a much more fitting #2 receiver spot to make room for their new #1 receiver Mike Wallace. Hartline had some huge games but really should benefit from having a player like Wallace across from him. Wallace has to prove he is worth the incredible contract he received to get him, but he does provide them with a great presence to stretch the field. They replaced Fasano with Dustin Keller, who subsequently may have had his career ended by a terrible tackle from D.J. Swearinger of the Texans in preseason. They let Bush walk in the belief that Lamar Miller would be ready to take over the feature back role and be spelled by Daniel Thomas. So while the Dolphins are more explosive, it remains to be seen how much better they will be with their new offensive weapons.
The huge question with the Dolphins is at left tackle. While Jonathan Martin is not as bad as some make him out to be, he has certainly struggled to make the transition to left tackle from Stanford. There is ability there but that is not going to make Tannehill feel any safer if he is picking himself up off of the ground due to a missed block. This appears to be a problem going into the season that has impacted Tannehill’s confidence.
Preseason may be fool’s gold in terms of what to really expect, but Tannehill did not look like he made a big step forward from his rookie year. He missed open throws and had some situations where he held the ball too long. Part of what appeared to be a lack of comfort could be due to his concern at left tackle and may result in dropping his eyes at times rather than scanning the field for his receivers. If that becomes the case and is a lingering problem, it could short circuit Tannehill’s career and really highlight the choice by the Dolphins to trade up for Dion Jordan rather than Lane Johnson with the 4th overall pick in the draft. It will be worth watching this week to see how Tannehill comes out this week in terms of where has his eyes because Ray Horton is going to be sending the house at him on the blitz. The Dolphins are able to be somewhat patient with Tannehill as he was their guy and while he needs to play better, he does not need to change minds in Miami to continue to be the man of the present and future.
On the other side of the ball, Weeden was selected 22nd overall in what was arguably the most controversial picks in the draft. After flirting with trying to trade up for Robert Griffin III, the Browns opted to pass on Tannehill in favor of Richardson and then took Weeden. Being that he came into the league at 28 and quickly turned 29, he was not afforded the ability to be anything short of good right out of the gate.
Richardson was playing hurt the entire season and it proved problematic as the Browns wanted to really ride him to allow Weeden to be a second option, use play action and make throws in more passer friendly down and distances. After being sacked by the American Flag, Weeden was a disaster in his first game against the Philadelphia Eagles before starting to find his footing as a rookie.
Weeden really had a big problem finding passing lanes and led the league in pass deflections. He started out with some iffy pocket presence but got better as the season wore on, having the confidence to step up in the pocket and make throws. Weeden’s season was up and down and by the end, there was a legitimate question if he would be the quarterback this season. This was further complicated by the change in ownership, bringing in Joe Banner and replacing the front office and coaching staff. The quarterback class this past year was putrid and the Browns opted to give Weeden a year tryout to see if he could adjust to an offense more suited to him and if not, they could take a quarterback next year to study under him or to flat out replace him.
If the preseason is any indication, Weeden appears to have made significant strides in finding passing lanes and avoiding pass deflections at the line of scrimmage. It will be important for this to continue during the season. When the protection was solid and Weeden had time and was comfortable, he was effective and accurate. Weeden drove the offense down the field and scored points. When Weeden perceived pressure, especially up the middle, he wilted and his decision making and accuracy fell. He also started down some receivers and did not manipulate defenders enough in certain situations to open up passing options.
Projecting that forward, Weeden could end up being a great quarterback against bad teams while having issues when facing talented teams that can create pressure. That is what happened when the Browns played the Colts. He felt pressure and had some struggles. If that is who Weeden becomes this year, he is not the long term answer and this front office will not hesitate to make a move. Having a healthy Richardson and an extremely strong offensive line, even with the issue at right guard with a third string option in there, he is being set up for success. Not having Josh Gordon against the Dolphins and Ravens will be a problem and other players like Greg Little and Jordan Cameron will have to step up while Bess just needs to do what he normally does.
The NFL is a week to week league as far as how fans tend to feel about their team, but that is never more the case than after the first week of the year. Teams that win are all going to the playoffs or the Super Bowl while teams that lose will never win a game. This is also going to be the case with these two quarterbacks. If they play great, they are going to be a franchise quarterback and take the team to the Promised Land. If they play poorly, they are a bust. And if there a mix of good and bad, it all comes down to the eye of the beholder and becomes radio call-in fodder.
These are two teams that are desperately searching for the next big quarterback for their franchise. The Dolphins have been fighting to find a guy since Dan Marino retired and the Browns have to go back to Bernie Kosar in the 80’s to recall an answer to the position. Both teams are overdue to find that guy and both of these signal callers are really up in the air as far as where they will go.
Weeden was not this front office’s guy and they have little or no attachment to him if he struggles, so his leash is extremely short if he does not play extremely well this year. Tannehill came in with a ton of raw talent physically but some questions with accuracy that still remain along with some extremely questionable choices on the offense. In addition, if the offense is the 75% of the A&M offense as Tannehill suggested, he should have this offense mastered in year two and should really come out firing. If the supporting cast struggles, that could really hurt Tannehill’s development but he still needs to show progress and like if he had a better supporting cast and specifically a legitimate left tackle, he would be able to take them to the playoffs. And the opinions are certainly mixed on whether Tannehill can do that as there are people who are predicting the Dolphins will make the playoffs this year while others think they will continue to struggle (this author included) to find their way and become a cohesive unit. Both of these teams seem to be relying on a huge contribution from their defenses to be successful this year and the offense can get much better, but is going to be the weaker unit at least for this year.
Between being the ‘other two’ first round quarterbacks as well as the fact that the Browns could have selected Tannehill and passed makes this an intriguing matchup. There are so many potential headlines to both guys coming out firing to both looking terrible to Tannehill making Browns ‘ fans wishing their team would have selecting him to Tannehill losing to an old man. The reality is this is going to be an evolving picture no matter what happens on Sunday but it makes for a terrific starting point for both and could be a launching point. Both have a tough stretch on the schedule after this game and if they lose this game, could be staring at 1-4, so there is a significant amount of pressure for these teams to come out and win what both teams are going are accurately describing as a winnable football game.
For the sake of the teams and fans, it would be great if both quarterbacks came out and threw for 400 yards and 4 touchdowns and really establish themselves as great quarterbacks in this league, but the more likely reality is that one or both will be busts. The key issue for each team will be the reasons for the failure. For the Browns, Weeden is largely set up to sink or swim on his own merits while there are far more mitigating circumstances that could destroy Tannehill in Miami. Tannehill could certainly fail on his own merits but there are legitimate issues that fans and analysts can point to that could really impact his ability to be great for them. The game this week is huge for both teams and if the media could stop being obsessed with the Jets and the degree to how much of a disaster their season is going to be, there would be more quality discussion and insight into this matchup. With an iffy rookie quarterback class, these two are going to figure that much more prominently into this season; hopefully, for the right reasons.