A symptom of rooting for a team piloted by a mediocre quarterback—say, for instance, the Miami Dolphins—is being periodically reminded of how hard it is to beat a team that has a quarterback who simply makes plays. A guy who can routinely stick throws on third down or scramble out of pressure is an unbeatable trump card in a game that can go haywire for thousands of reasons.
Ryan Tannehill, of those Miami Dolphins, is not a quarterback who makes plays. When his offensive line is holding up he can generally deliver the ball to the right players in places that allow them to make plays, but if the whole car is fucked up, Tannehill is gonna drive you right off that cliff.
So his play in a miraculous win over the Chargers on Sunday was quietly one of the most eye-popping developments of the first truly eventful day of the NFL season. For once, Tannehill’s stats actually belied how good he was: 17-24 for 240 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions looks like it was ripped right out of the Game Manager handbook, but the Dolphins won their fourth straight game only because Tannehill made the sorts of plays we’re used to seeing from quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson.
His first touchdown pass of the game was the prime example. At San Diego’s 39-yard line, Dolphins coach Adam Gase called a slow-developing play-action bomb to Kenny Stills. As Tannehill gathered to throw, a defensive lineman was barreling right for his chest, but he uncorked a beautiful arching pass that fell softly into Stills’s hands in the back of the end zone. It may have been the best throw of Tannehill’s career.
He made a similar throw at a crucial juncture later in the game, immediately after the Chargers went ahead on a 51-yard touchdown pass of their own. With a hair over four minutes left in the game, Tannehill had DeVante Parker running up the left sideline and perfectly placed the ball on his outside shoulder, leading to a 56-yard completion that put the Dolphins in position for a game-tying field goal. This time, the hit Tannehill endured was even more brutal: As the replay shows, San Diego’s Corey Liuget swung his arm at Tannehill’s neck like it was a bastard sword.
But his most impressive play of the day was a third quarter scramble on third-and-long that is the sort of rabbit-from-hat trick executed only by the league’s transformational quarterbacks. The run extended the drive, and a few plays later Tannehill threw his second touchdown pass of the game.
This isn’t the first time that Tannehill has suddenly shapeshifted into an elite quarterback, and there’s no way I’m getting tricked into believing we saw some totally new player. But the Dolphins are suddenly 5-4 with games against the Rams and Niners upcoming, and their quarterback just made Big Throws to beat Philip Rivers in a contested road game. That’s, at the very least, how you make the playoffs.