DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — Ryan Tannehill dropped back to pass and the pocket quickly collapsed, making it just like old times.
An onrushing end merely waved as he went by because Wednesday’s drills involved no contact, which spared Tannehill a blow. Instead, he scooted away on his reconstructed left knee toward the sideline and encountered a linebacker, who also pulled up at the last moment.
The hits will come soon enough, but for now Tannehill is healthy and optimistic about leading a turnaround by the Miami Dolphins.
He’s practicing this week for the first time since a torn left ACL in training camp ended his 2017 season before it began. A serious injury to the same knee forced him to miss the final four games in 2016, meaning he hasn’t played in nearly 18 months.
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“It was a long year, some dark times,” Tannehill said, speaking publicly for the first time since he was hurt last August.
Tannehill has received medical clearance without limitations and isn’t even wearing a knee brace this week, although he plans to wear one in games.
“It’s purely to prevent what started the whole train wreck,” he said.
Tannehill said his return to practice stirred painful memories of watching workouts last year while sitting inside the team complex, his injured leg in a brace and propped on a chair.
“It feels amazing to be back out there,” he said. “It has been a lot of work to put a helmet back on and step on the grass again. I was just telling the guys, I can remember sitting in the cafeteria looking through the glass like a little kid that’s not allowed to go outside and play.”
Also back were linebacker Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Tony Lippett, both of whom missed the entire 2017 season because of injuries. The entire roster was on hand, although 35-year-old running back Frank Gore was on the field only briefly and won’t be involved in drills much this spring to keep him healthy.
Tannehill, a starter since his rookie season in 2012, has never played in the postseason. But he and the Dolphins are optimistic he can regain the form he showed in 2016, when he enjoyed the best stretch of his career and helped put the team in playoff contention before his injury.
“I feel like I kind of went on a run there,” Tannehill said. “I felt like I was finally starting to play really good football, being in command of the offense and understanding what we were trying to accomplish with every play call.”
With Jay Cutler as an emergency replacement for Tannehill, the Dolphins slipped to 6-10 last year. Gase is so confident about Tannehill that they didn’t draft a quarterback last month.
“It’s great to have him back out there,” Gase said. “As long as we don’t have a setback, I feel good. We’re in a good place. I’ve seen him move around just as well as he ever has.”
Newcomer Josh Sitton, a four-time Pro Bowl guard, offered an endorsement of his new QB after just two practices together. Sitton took particular note of one strike Tannehill threw.
“He rolled out after a play action and was running to his left,” Sitton said. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty impressive.'”
Tannehill didn’t miss a game in his first four NFL seasons, enduring 212 sacks behind a leaky line without serious injury. He said he’s not worried about his knee holding up, and won’t be thinking about it on the field.
The knee probably won’t be tested with contact until the preseason in August.
“I’m never eager to get hit,” Tannehill said with a chuckle. “I’d be sadistic. But I don’t think about it any different than I would any other season going into a new season. It’s a physical game, and I love that.”
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