Adam Gase Reportedly Likes What He Sees in Ryan Tannehill, But Can He Fix Tannehill's Propensity for Sacks?

By Jason Lisk
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Adam Gase has worked with Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler in the last two seasons. Now, the head coach in Miami, he has leaked/planted word with the Miami Herald that he likes what he sees in Ryan Tannehill and believes he has a quarterback to work with.

"Indeed, Gase has told multiple people within the Dolphins organization that he doesn’t quite understand why some people are up in arms about Tannehill because what he sees on tape is the makings of a good NFL quarterback."

Tannehill is a divisive figure. He came in with very little college starting experience having converted from receiver. On the other hand, he’s not young, as he turns 28 before the start of the next season. He was expected to take a leap statistically this year. It didn’t happen. Once you adjust for the league averages, it looks very much like other Tannehill seasons. Below the average in yards per attempt. Decent at avoiding interceptions, but modest completion percentages, touchdown rates, and a below average sack rate.

He’s had four straight seasons to start his career with below league-average numbers. The list of other quarterbacks to do that since 1978 is not an inspiring one: Joey Harrington, Rick Mirer, Jake Plummer, and Mark Sanchez.

There is always the question of teammates. Bad supporting cast, or Tannehill? Yes, probably, is the answer. From the Miami Herald’s piece on Gase:

"One obvious issue the coaches are going to make sure to correct is Tannehill getting hit time and again, every game. Recognizing Tannehill has been sacked 184 times in his four seasons, the Dolphins new staff is going to make sure to cut down on the pressure. That will be addressed any number of ways, including improving the offensive line, getting the football out quick and improving Tannehill’s recognition and reaction times."

 

Sack rates are one of the least appreciated statistics when looking at quarterback numbers. In truth, they are a lot like walks for batters in baseball. Does this mean that an offensive line has nothing to do with a sack? Of course not. We see blown assignments and quick sacks all the time. But over the course of time, it also represents quarterbacks who hold the ball longer, react to coverages slower, and don’t read the pre-snap blitz looks as well. (I’ll go ahead and predict I will get many tweets from people who do not read this, by the way).

Let’s compare Ryan Tannehill to some other quarterbacks in 2015. Pro Football Focus ranked the Chargers and Patriots as the two worst pass blocking lines in the league, so we’ll use them. Ah, you say, unfair to grade Tannehill against two of the best. So, we’ll also throw in Blake Bortles, who took a league leading 51 sacks this year, and who has less experience than Tannehill, playing in his second season.

I viewed every sack for these quarterbacks and logged the time to the first contact by a defender on every sack. (This often, but not always, was the same contact that took them down, but could include being swiped and trying to step up into other pressure).

Here is a summary for all of them:

 

While Tannehill has not played behind a good line, the number of sacks that happen very quickly to Tannehill is not appreciably different than the other three who also played behind bad lines. The Chargers struggled all around but particularly in giving up quick pressure up the middle. The Patriots line regressed badly as the season went on and also allowed pressure up the middle. The Jaguars’ main issues on sacks were at both tackle positions; Luke Joeckel looked awful on plenty of those quick sacks.

Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill has by far the most sacks that take 3.6 seconds or more, with 12 of the 45, compared to 15 of the 129 for the other three.

That second between quick and slow may not seem like much and would be almost indistinguishable in real time as you are watching multiple games. But decision making in that second that elapses from about 2.5 to 3.5 seconds after the snap is huge.

Back in 2009, I looked at what happened when quarterbacks changed teams, and when teams changed quarterbacks. I summed it up thusly: “[sack rate] is one of the most consistent things when a quarterback changes teams. It is one of the least consistent things when a team changes quarterbacks. This tells me that the quarterback plays a larger role than people think in determining a team’s sack rate.”

Nothing that has happened in the last six years has changed that. Nearly three years ago, I talked about how Kevin Kolb being the patron saint of quarterback committees was a good thing if you wanted to study the issue. Now, I took all quarterbacks from the last two seasons who threw the required number of passes to qualify (224), and found all that played for the same team. That’s 22 of them, including Tannehill. Here were the year-to-year correlations for the key statistical measures:

  • Sack Rate: +0.87
  • Completion Percentage: +0.50
  • Yards per Attempt: +0.05
  • Touchdown Rate: -0.10
  • Interception Rate: -0.24

To translate this to English, the quarterbacks who took sacks at a higher rate in 2014 almost universally took them at a higher rate in 2015. Completion percentage showed a positive relationship, where those that had high ones in 2014 tended to have high ones, though it was not as strong as sack rate. Yards per attempt and Touchdown rate showed no relationship from 2014 to 2015, with players who had good years in one year sometimes being among the worst the next, and vice versa. Interception rate actually showed a slightly negative correlation in 2015.

Eight quarterbacks had a below average sack rate in 2014, and returned to the same team and threw enough passes again in 2015. Seven of them were again below average (and Cam Newton was exactly average). Ryan Tannehill, of course, was among them.

At least that article acknowledges the need to work on Tannehill’s reaction and recognition times and the need to get the ball out quickly. While sack rate is a relatively “sticky” stat that seems to travel with quarterbacks, they can mature and change their stripes to some extent. The best recent example is Ben Roethlisberger. Prior to 2012, Big Ben took sacks on 8.7% of his drop backs. Since he turned 30 and Todd Haley became offensive coordinator, Ben has taken sacks on 5.6% of his drop backs. He set a career best in sack rate in 2012, and again in 2014, and then topped it this year when he was sacked on only 4.1% of his pass attempts.

If Tannehill is to fulfill any potential to be a good quarterback, and justify enthusiasm, he must get better at reacting and getting rid of the ball. 2016 will be a key year to see if that is going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith there will be in a year if it does not improve.

 

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