The Quarterback Class of 2012 will be the defining story of last year’s NFL season. Even as it was happening, you could sense that decades from now, folks would be talking about the significance or Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson’s rookie years. Even before it happened, when the three passers were named starters for their teams, a sense of magnitude took over the league—a sense that we were at the precipice of something.
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But right now, as the 2013 season nears, it’s worth remembering: five rookies started during Week 1 last season. Brandon Weeden was a 29-year-old mess, one of the worst three quarterbacks in the league. Whether his impressive preseason this year foreshadows improvement or disappointment, it’s unlikely that Weeden will ever be more than a footnote in the story of last year’s quarterbacks. How can he be? Dude’s going to be 30 in October. The calculus just doesn’t work out.
Then there’s Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill went eighth overall to the Miami Dolphins, behind Luck and RGIII but well ahead of Russell Wilson. For a guy who didn’t switch from wide receiver to quarterback at Texas A&M until his junior year, that was pretty high; for a guy who threw 774 passes as a college player, that was pretty high. (Luck threw 1,064; RGIII threw 1,192.) In Tannehill’s only full year as a starter, his senior season, A&M went 7-6, and Tannehill threw 15 picks, way more than you expect to see from a first-round NFL QB.
Let’s put all that aside for a second and look at one game: October 15, 2011. Griffin’s Baylor team comes to College Station. Griffin gives a performance typical of his eventual Heisman-winning campaign: 28/40, 430 yards, three TDs, an interception. And Tannehill pastes him. A&M wins the game 55-28, with Tannehill throwing a career-high six TDs for 415 yards on 25/37 passing.
As far as foreshadowing goes, this game doesn’t seem to mean much in hindsight: RGIII won Rookie of the Year, and Luck and Wilson challenged him, not Tannehill. All three of their teams made the playoffs. Meanwhile, aside from the frenzy created by his wife during the draft, Tannehill was mostly forgotten during the season, a mediocre quarterback on a bad team in a bad division.
And yet: as far as normal rookie passers in tepid offenses go, Tannehill held his own. He posted a better completion percentage and yards per attempt than Peyton and Eli Manning did during their rookie years, and he kept his interceptions low, with only 13 in 16 games. He threw for a mere 12 touchdowns, but his top two receiving options were Brian Hartline and Davone Bess, both of whom only caught one score all season. If you were to take away A.J. Green’s seven TDs during Andy Dalton’s rookie year with the Bengals, Tannehill and he would have nearly identical statlines.
Obviously, it’s not quite a zero-sum game. But the Dolphins went out and got Mike Wallace, as much of a candidate to be a No. 1 wide receiver as any wide receiver ever is before he proves it. And Joe Philbin, the offensive coordinator during Aaron Rodgers ascendance to the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks, now has a full season and two training camps as Tannehill’s head coach under his belt. Tannehill’s not racing in a Hyundai anymore.
The NFL is all about immediate results and moving on. For proof, look no farther than the fact that five rookies did start Week 1 last year. In this league, as soon as a quarterback proves he can’t be a franchise guy — read: a Super Bowl winner — it makes more sense for a GM and coach to ditch him and get another guy, a guy who at least has potential, who isn’t known yet to be sub-great. At least, it makes more sense if they want to keep their jobs: sell your boss and your fans on hope, and you earn yourself another year.
Ryan Tannehill didn’t produce immediate results in a year when his peers did. And, most importantly, he didn’t win games the way that Luck, RGIII, and Wilson won games. Until he does, he doesn’t deserve to be discussed in the same sentence as those guys. Just don’t be surprised if Tannehill does reinsert himself into the conversation as the 2013 season gets underway. He’s been hot in the preseason, for whatever that’s worth: 17-of-29 for 227 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions in three and a half quarters of play. The NFL preseason is the sports world’s ultimate tease, a hall of mirrors that sometimes looks like parody in retrospect. But it’s also football. And right now, the football that Ryan Tannehill is playing looks efficient, consistent, and improved.