Adam Gase’s 12 Steps to Rehabilitate the Dolphins: Step 7


The Miami Dolphins are hoping that Adam Gase can mold the team into a playoff contender. The road to get there is not a matter of one big leap, but rather, a series of small steps.

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase plans on bringing a little hokus pokus back to the Magic City, not by pulling a rabbit out of his new orange and aqua cap, but by giving Ryan Tannehill the freedom to do what he does best….roll out of the pocket and make big plays on the run. Yet, before we explore how such a simple trick might transform the Dolphins offense from a sputtering clunker into a high octane machine, we should ask ourselves what inspired Gase to attempt such a feat in the first place.

As it happens, Gase came to appreciate Tannehill’s mobility long before becoming the head coach of the Dolphins, having witnessed his effectiveness as both a passer and runner while still the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. Despite losing 39-36 to Gase’s Broncos back in November of 2014, Tannehill picked apart the Denver defense, completing 72.2% of his passes for 228 yards, 3 passing touchdowns, a running touchdown, and a 104.9 passer rating. As it happens, much of Tannehill’s success that day was due to his ability to consistently evade Denver’s speedy pass rush by escaping the pocket to create opportunities both through the air and on the ground.

Ironically, in order to reproduce the kind of success Miami experienced during that game, Gase has now implemented a unique mobility exercise designed to improve what many perceive to be Tannehill’s greatest weakness, his lack of pocket awareness. Essentially, the drill simulates game-like conditions, with the quarterback taking a shotgun snap, dropping back, then, moving side-to-side, forward and back, before finally throwing the ball, as if evading a swirl of defenders at the center of an aggressive pass rush.

“We’re trying to create great habits for pocket presence,” Gase explained at a press conference following a recent practice. “You try to make things as chaotic as possible so that during the game, it’s just normal for them.”

“You try to make things as chaotic as possible so that during the game, it’s just normal for them.”

While the rookie head coach’s strategy seems simple enough, the idea of using Tannehill’s natural athleticism to overcome a collapsing pocket somehow eluded Joe Philbin, not only after the Denver game, but throughout his entire tenure with the Dolphins. In fact, from the very beginning, Philbin, and offensive coordinator, Mike Sherman, were dead set against Tannehill roaming outside the pocket despite having one of the poorest offensive lines in the NFL. As the chart below shows, the results of that mindset proved disastrous for Tannehill, making his early development needlessly rougher than that of his fellow high-profile draftees, all of whom were allowed to buy themselves additional time by extending designed plays beyond the pocket.

2012Time to throwNFL Rank
Russell Wilson3.14 seconds1st
Robert Griffin III3.04 seconds4th
Andrew Luck2.86 seconds6th
Ryan Tannehill2.57 seconds30th

Things only got worse for the youngster in 2013, as he was sacked 58 times, the most, by far, of any QB in the NFL, or in Dolphins history for that matter. Regardless, Philbin and Sherman stubbornly refused to adapt.

2013Number of Times SackedNFL Rank
Ryan Tannehill581st
Joe Flacco482nd

Nevertheless, the relentless pressure Tannehill endured during that second campaign revealed some intriguing aspects of his game, tendencies which confirmed the disturbing portrait of an athlete whose talents were running in direct conflict to the offensive scheme imposed upon him.

According to Pro Football Focus, the former Texas A&M star had quickly developed into the fourth best passer in the NFL when forced out of the pocket, as occurs in the clip below.

More impressive still, on the rare occasions when he was allowed to run designed rollouts, he ranked third in the league, just behind fellow 2012 draftee, Russell Wilson, and 3rd year pro, Colin Kaepernick. In fact, in 2013, he was sacked only once on designed rollouts, threw 4 touchdowns to 1 interception, averaged a whopping 9.4 yards per pass, and amassed a stellar 117.7 QB rating.

While these statistics left little doubt that Tannehill was not a traditional pocket passer, but a mobile rover in the mold of Ben Rothlisberger or Fran Tarkenton, Philbin, and Sherman remained resolute, so much so, that Tannehill was permitted to roll out from behind the line a mere 28 times all season. To grasp just how detrimental this closed mindedness proved to be, both to Tannehill as an individual and to the Dolphins in general, all we need is to compare Miami’s offensive scheme that year to that of the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks.

Like the Dolphins, the Seahawks were dealing with a 2nd year QB, as well as an offensive line that was suddenly allowing 25% more sacks than the year before. Yet, unlike Miami, Seattle had Pete Carroll, an experienced NCAA and NFL head coach, who, as Gase does now, understood that he could use his young quarterback’s mobility on designed rollouts to vary up his offense, making it more difficult for opponents to commit to an all-out rush.

2013Ryan TannehillRussell Wilson
Drop Backs in the Pocket95.8%85.5%
Designed Rollouts4.2%14.5%

In comparison, Philbin ignored Tannehill’s athleticism, essentially making him a sitting duck. That folly appears even grander when one considers that even the inexperienced Tannehill understood why rolling out of the pocket suited his playing style, and said as much when he spoke to the Sun Sentinel’s Chris Perkins back in 2013.

"“It moves the aiming point of the defensive ends where they’re not just teeing off on our tackles and aiming for the same spot,” explained Tannehill. “I’m able to get outside, have a run-pass option, change the launching point of the ball so (defensive backs) don’t necessarily know where it’s coming from if they have their back turned in man coverage.”"

Beyond his astute analysis, Tannehill was cautiously optimistic that rollouts would eventually become a regular part of Miami’s offense.

“It’s not something we’re going to do 12 times a game or anything like that,” he continued. “But it’s something I think we’ll use moving forward to help give a wrinkle to our offense.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t play out that way because, despite acknowledging that mobility was one of Tannehill’s strength’s, Mike Sherman remained resistant to rollouts.

“You’re cutting the field in half for the most part,” he insisted, voicing his doubts to Perkins. “As far as stretching the field (vertically) and horizontally it limits what you can do.”

While Sherman’s assertion might hold true for some quarterbacks, Tannehill’s ability to throw on the run with accuracy made him an obvious exception to that rule. As such, the Dolphins’ coaching staff was essentially sacrificing the strongest aspect of their quarterback’s game in favor of adhering to a specific ideology, or, in other words, they were taking the exact opposite approach that Gase has used to build his reputation as a quarterback whisperer.

In the meantime, Pete Carroll was further slowing opposing linemen with some sleight of hand of his own, employing play action passes, particularly on first down, just as Gase was doing with Peyton Manning in Denver, and later, with Jay Cutler in Chicago. Unfortunately for Tannehill, this was yet another trick Miami severely underemployed, as can be seen in the comparison below.

2013Ryan TannehillRussell Wilson
Play Action14.8%34.1%
Play Action on 1st Down18.5%45.2%

Carroll also took significant pressure off his quarterback by relying heavily on the run, especially in the 4th quarter. In contrast, Philbin and company often gave up on the running game by halftime, sending a clear message to defensive linemen that it was open season on Tannehill. This abandonment of the run was doubly foolish given that Tannehill, like Wilson, is an excellent runner, capable of putting his legs to good use well beyond designed rollouts. The Texan’s career marks of 901 yards and 5 touchdowns on a mere 177 rushing attempts are impressive, but only hint at what the former college wideout is capable of achieving. Here again, Carroll has made better use of his quarterback’s mobility, allowing Wilson to run the ball 411 times for 2430 yards and 12 TDs.

While the strategic differences employed by Seattle may appear inconsequential in the bigger scheme of things, nothing could be farther from the truth. The offensive options and additional protection the Seahawk’s provided their 2nd year QB proved monumental in his development, for Wilson was sacked 14 fewer times than Tannehill and threw 8 fewer interceptions, helping pave the way for the team’s Super Bowl win.

Considering Wilson has amassed an overall regular-season record of 48-16, three Pro Bowl appearances and a second trip to the Super Bowl, it is reasonable to expect that the Dolphins’ coaching staff would have seen the light at some point and given Tannehill more freedom. Yet, even Miami’s next round of coaches, Bill Lazor, Dan Campbell and Zac Taylor never learned from Carroll’s example, stubbornly sticking with a conservative Philbin-like scheme. The result of this can be seen in how often Tannehill has faced 2nd and long, and 3rd and long situations in comparison to Wilson over their respective four-year careers.

2012 – 2015Ryan TannehillRussell Wilson
2nd Down and 10+312 times242 times
3rd Down and 10+209 times158 times

Fortunately for Tannehill, in Gase he finally has a coach who understands the lessons inherent in Pete Carroll’s penchant for accenting his signal caller’s strengths, and then some. Evidence of this lies in what Gase accomplished in 2011 as the quarterback coach in Denver. There, he oversaw the development of Tim Tebow, a former college superstar most NFL teams wouldn’t even consider placing on their roster due to his sub-par passing skills, which, despite his winning the Heisman Trophy, didn’t transition well into the pro game.

Rather than ignoring Tebow’s attributes and trying to force him into an aerial style he was woefully incapable of mastering, Gase helped the young QB by applying the kind of ingenuity Philbin and Sherman never displayed. First, he educated himself on Tebow’s style by reviewing film of him while at the University of Florida. Gase then reached out to Urban Meyer, Tebow’s college coach, as well as others familiar with the quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses. Finally, once Gase felt he had a strong grasp of Tebow’s game, he got truly creative, consulting former NCAA stars for college football concepts that could be easily applied at the pro level, such as variations on the read-option.

In the end, Gase helped offset Tebow’s dismal 46.5 completion percentage and faulty pocket presence by allowing him to use his legs to the tune of 660 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns on 122 attempts. More impressive still, Gase helped his one-dimensional QB lead the Broncos into the playoffs, where they even managed to win a game. Considering how poorly Tebow has fared since he parted ways with Gase, their playoff run could be seen as extending well beyond the metaphoric bounds of magic and into the realm of minor miracles.

“Getting Tebow helped change the way we thought on offense,” Gase explained to Pete Prisco of, pointing out that the experience marked a turning point in his evolution as a coach. “The big light went on for me.”

Gase’s fervent adherence to building an offense around his quarterback’s unique characteristics is something we have touched on before in this series, but it is of particular importance in this instance because among Tannehill’s greatest attributes are his toughness and ability to break long runs.

While Gase’s meticulous approach has worked wonders on each of his former protégés, the key to maximizing Tannehill’s mobility will depend on something the young QB has been given little chance to practice prior to Gase’s arrival in Miami…..audibling at the line of scrimmage. If done well, changing plays and blocking schemes will permit Tannehill to get out of disadvantageous situations, as well as seize on defensive alignments that are susceptible to designed rollouts, or even the read-option, which he has run with great effectiveness, albeit sparingly. That said, given how much hangs in the balance, it is natural to wonder how the fifth-year signal caller is adapting to his newfound freedom.

“I’ve thrown a couple of things at him that have been tough and he’s really gotten us out of a few bad plays in some of these blitz situations,” Gase said, speaking to the media at the conclusion of the team’s first night practice this preseason, seemingly satisfied with the progress he is seeing.

For his part, Tannehill appears equally optimistic about having a greater say in how his abilities will be used.

“We have a big toolbox and coach Gase allows me to get up there and equips me with plays that we can change at the line and get ourselves in good looks,” he declared, speaking to the press after a recent training camp session. “It’s a great feeling to have and it’s going to help us throughout the year.”

Tannehill has several reasons to feel encouraged. As a former college receiver, he has proven he has the physical durability and athletic tools to turn designed rollouts into big gains, be it through the air or the ground. Furthermore, Gase’s offense relies on spreading the field, which is likely to present him with plenty of space to do both. More important still, Tannehill finally has a coach that will allow him to audible at the line of scrimmage, and that, in turn, should give him what he covets most – the long-awaited opportunity to combine his natural mobility with an underappreciated understanding of the game to, not only deploy the impressive arsenal of weapons Gase has amassed at his disposal, but to become a weapon himself.

As for Gase, well, he has the chance to end Miami’s long playoff drought, and in the process, prove a simple truth that somehow escaped Joe Philbin’s understanding. As any good magician or football coach will tell you, pulling off the most dazzling trick often hinges on spotting the obvious. In this case, that happens to be that Ryan Tannehill is at his best when he’s on the run.

To read step 6 in this series, click here

To read step 5 in this series, click here

To read step 4 in this series, click here.

To read Step 3 in this series, click here.

To read Step 2 in this series, click here.

To read Step 1 in this series, click here.