Mere days before he returns to the field after missing the previous five games, Ryan Tannehill is discussing his motivation and what he’s playing for the final six games this 2018 season,
“I’m playing for the guys around me,” the Dolphins starting quarterback says. “I see how much work these guys put in. I believe in these guys, I believe we have a lot of football in front of us and we can go win a lot of football games.
“I’m going to give it everything I have with these guys and hopefully come out with wins.”
That’s a good answer. There’s fellowship and dignity in that answer.
But that answer is incomplete. Because as much as Tannehill is playing for his teammates and to get the Dolphins victories, he’s also very much playing for himself.
In that regard, Ryan Tannehill needs to play for Ryan Tannehill now.
Because his Dolphins future is at stake.
These final six games are going to be the final chance Tannehill has to convince Dolphins ownership, the coaching staff and the personnel department that he belongs on the team next season.
And that’s different. It has never been like this for Tannehill before.
Since the moment he was selected in the first round of the 2012 Draft, Tannehill’s status with the Dolphins has been secure. It has been safe.
Even when former coach Joe Philbin and some of his assistants had doubts about Tannehill and shared those internally with others inside the organization, Tannehill was safe because people like Dennis Hickey and Mike Tannenbaum and several others still believed in the quarterback and gave the quarterback a new contract to secure his future.
But now that future comes with serious and legitimate questions:
Can Tannehill stay healthy?
Can he raise his performance to heights that match his ballooning salary?
Can he lead a team to the playoffs for the first time?
Those questions buffet the Dolphins organization like threatening winds of change. Because Tannehill is going to be 31 years old next year and he has failed to answer any of those questions satisfactorily so far in his career.
Tannehill has never been to the playoffs. He has not been healthy of late. And he’s not been a top tier quarterback at any point in his career.
And there’s a looming marker that begs for answers to those questions to guarantee Tannehill can remain in Miami past this season: He’s due to cost the Dolphins $26 million of salary cap space in 2019, which is what elite quarterbacks typically cost their teams.
So unless Tannehill shows in these final six games his production as well as salary is in the same neighborhood as elite quarterbacks, then the case for keeping him as the Dolphins’ starter next year collapses.
That’s not me saying that. Multiple people within the Dolphins organization acknowledge this now.
And here’s the thing: Tannehill no longer gets the benefit of the doubt these final six games.
He has enjoyed that benefit the past six years and into this, his seventh NFL season. Tannehill, in fact, has been the beneficiary of more rationalizing than any Dolphins quarterback in team history.
Early on he was obviously a young player who had played wide receiver in college. So he deserved time to develop.
Then it was he was playing for offensive coordinator Mike Sherman who was running the same college offense he ran with Tannehill at Texas A&M. (This was considered an asset initially and then the court of public opinion turned it into a liability and Philbin was forced to fire Sherman against his will).
Then it was the offensive line was bad.
And then it was the receivers were bad.
And when the receivers were brought in, it was Mike Wallace didn’t practice hard enough to allow Tannehill to get synched up with him on deep passes.
Then it was Philbin wanted Derek Carr.
Then it was Bill Lazor gave Tannehill no say and not much respect.
Then it was …
Well, the reasons for Tannehill not playing like a championship quarterback have run out.
On Sunday in Indianapolis he will be running an offense he has been familiar with for three seasons. He will be working for a coach and play-caller in Adam Gase who has been stubbornly supportive of all things Tannehill.
So Tannehill has to produce at a high level starting this game. And then he has to repeat that three or four more times before the season ends.
Because if he doesn’t, what’s the case for keeping Tannehill in 2019?
(Other than, “We can’t figure out a way to find somebody else?”)
And here’s the interesting thing: Excuses that worked in the past no longer fly.
Tannehill cannot be excused for being less than 100 percent because his right shoulder’s capsule is admittedly still on the mend. That rationale for a poor performance would actually be a reason to jettison Tannehill because an ongoing injury concern would solidify the idea he’s injury prone and not healing as quickly as he used to.
And teams that pay injury-prone quarterbacks — Tannehill has missed 25 of a possible 43 starts under Gase — are begging for more injuries in the future.
So a re-injury, or another injury would actually seal Tannehill’s fate with Miami instead of extend questions whether he could be brought back.
Tannehill’s margin for error the final six games this season is actually small. If he plays very well, then great! The Dolphins have their elite quarterback for 2019.
But that means playing better than he has in the past. If he plays as he has previously when healthy, is that worth $26 million?
Can an organization pin hopes on potential improvement in 2019 — for an eighth consecutive season?!?!?
That makes no logical sense.
Tannehill’s days with the franchise are the stakes here. Sure, he’s playing for his teammates. And for wins.
But as much as anything, Ryan Tannehill is going to be playing for Ryan Tannehill.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero