- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- There is no way around it: The Miami Dolphins are in a dark place.
They are coming off a season that included a high-profile bullying scandal, a late-December collapse and the firing of general manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. There also was the fallout following the Ted Wells report that resulted in the firings of offensive line coach Jim Turner and head trainer Kevin O'Neill.
But one player is capable of removing the dark cloud that hangs over the Dolphins' franchise: quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The 2012 first-round pick is entering a crucial year. If he develops into a legitimate franchise quarterback, the Dolphins could be a playoff contender next season and many of their problems would be forgotten. But if Tannehill falters in his third NFL season, there will be repercussions. Jobs could be lost in Miami.
That puts a lot of pressure on Tannehill, 25, who is entering a make-or-break 2014 season after throwing for 3,913 yards, 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2013. Potential must become a reality or there could be a new quarterback under center in 2015.
After two seasons, Tannehill's resume has come closer to resembling former Dolphins draft bust Chad Henne's than Hall of Famer Dan Marino's. Henne was 13-14 in his first two seasons as a starter; Marino was 21-4 over the same span. Tannehill is 15-17, playing mostly in less-than-ideal circumstances.
"I'm a big Tannehill fan," ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson said. "I think his supporting cast, with the [depleted] offensive line and zero running game, has hurt him dramatically.
"I think he excels this year, despite his circumstances. But I also hesitate to say that until I see the status of the Dolphins' opening-day offensive line."
There already was a report this offseason indicating that Tannehill will have a slimmer margin for error. According to CBS Sports, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin told general manager candidates during the interview process that he wants more competition for Tannehill. Philbin, who might need to make the playoffs to keep his job, reportedly informed GM candidates that he would not be afraid to bench Tannehill for backup Matt Moore if Tannehill struggles.
The Dolphins neither confirmed nor denied the report last week at the NFL combine. "I can't respond to speculation," Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey said. "I'm not about that, but I believe in Ryan Tannehill."
The NFL is a passing league, and few quarterbacks get four years to prove they can flourish. Other quarterbacks from the famed 2012 draft class have already experienced success. Seattle's Russell Wilson is a Super Bowl champion. Andrew Luck led Indianapolis to the postseason twice. Nick Foles took Philadelphia to the playoffs this past season and Robert Griffin III did the same for Washington in 2012. These players are firmly grounded in their starting quarterback roles for their respective teams after just two seasons.
Tannehill has not come close to the level of success of his peers. He has yet to record a winning season. Tannehill has been just good enough to keep his starting job but not convincing enough to prove he's the long-term solution in Miami.
Former Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo recently offered a scathing scouting report on Tannehill.
"He's an athlete who is trying to develop into a QB. His arm is good, but his accuracy is questionable," Angelo wrote on TheSidelineView.com. "He isn't comfortable from within the pocket. Led the league in sacks, something isn't right, given he's an athletic QB. Protection is one thing, 'feel' is another. When things aren't going well, he can't pull himself or his team out of it. Those aren't good signs for a signal-caller."
The Dolphins changed offensive coordinators in January, hiring Bill Lazor in hopes of lighting a spark to Tannehill's career and addressing his weaknesses. Lazor was the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia and did wonders last season with Foles. The Dolphins are hoping Lazor has similar success with Tannehill, who arguably has more natural ability than Foles.
"I'm excited to work with him because I see a lot of ability," Lazor recently said of Tannehill. "[But] it would be premature to make an evaluation of what he can be and what he can do because I haven't been around him that much."
Williamson likes the addition of Lazor and what he brings to Tannehill and to Miami's offense.
"A new offensive coordinator could go a long way," Williamson explained. "Tannehill is way better than Foles. At a minimum, I bet Tannehill puts up big numbers. But the offensive line does need major upgrades."
The Dolphins clearly have a leadership void, evident in the findings in the 144-page Wells report. Three offensive linemen -- Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey -- were allowed to harass and bully Jonathan Martin, other teammates and an assistant trainer, according to the report.
Tannehill is one of the key players who must step up his leadership. One of the key components of being a starting quarterback and a face of the franchise is the ability to lead others. Tannehill has not demonstrated that ability to this point.
In many ways, it's now or never for Tannehill. The Dolphins have waited long enough for him to develop into a consistent, legitimate franchise quarterback. The 2014 season could be his final chance to prove it in Miami.