By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - With a talented quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and additions across the field that have already had an impact, the undefeated Miami Dolphins enter Sunday's clash with the Atlanta Falcons in a rare mood of optimism.
For the Dolphins, the National Football League season has begun with road wins at Cleveland and Indianapolis, the latter leaving head coach Joe Philbin declaring "we've got the makings of a helluva team."
Philbin's statement, in the excitement of a post-victory locker-room speech, was uncharacteristically upbeat but reflects a general sentiment in South Florida that the Dolphins might just be on the way to being a factor in the AFC East again.
Miami, a force in the game in the 1970's and 80's, have played only a single post-season game since the 2001 season and have not featured in a Super Bowl since the 1984 campaign.
The Dolphins are still some way from being a championship contender but at least they seem to be heading in the right direction.
Since Dan Marino retired in 1999 after following a Hall of Fame career, the Dolphins have struggled to find an elite quarterback to build their team around. But in Tannehill they may have finally ended their search.
Drafted out of Texas A&M where he was a converted wide receiver, Tannehill had a promising rookie year (3,294 yards passing and 12 touchdowns) but lacked the offensive targets to truly make an impact.
This season, however, the 25-year-old Texan has looked at ease and with former Steeler Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline providing quality options at receiver and has led Miami to two victories, putting up 591 yards based on 8.21 yards per attempt and a 65.3 percent completion rate.
The quarterback puts his performance through two games down to a combination of his increased awareness of his role and the improved performances of his teammates.
"I feel more comfortable at the line of scrimmage. We are moving the ball, we are converting third downs and I think all that plays a big factor," he said. "And we have great guys on the team that are making plays for me. I wouldn't say that I am doing anything special."
'Comfort' is a word both Tannehill and his coach have used several times in the past week as they assess Miami's fast start in the AFC East and he puts most of that comfort factor down to increased experience.
"It is my second go around at everything, so everything moves a little slower, especially pre-snap. I am able to see things and identify and know where to go with the football," he added.
Nonetheless, Tannehill has been sacked nine times this season and a slight shoulder injury limited his participation in Wednesday's practice, although it is not expected to impact on his involvement against the Falcons.
It is not just at quarterback and receiver that Miami have impressed.
Cornerback Brent Grimes will be relishing the chance to face his former team this week after snaffling an interception against the Colts while fellow corner Dimitri Patterson had two interceptions against Cleveland.
Tight end Charles Clay has stepped into the gap left by the season-ending injury to Dustin Keller and has had an instant impact; linebacker Philip Wheeler has also shined while kicker Caleb Sturgis's 54-yard field goal just before half-time in Indianapolis was a key play in that win.
The Dolphins badly need a good season, especially given the rise of the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat, with stars such as LeBron James, which has pushed the city's oldest sport's franchise into the background.
But it is not only the fans who are desperate for something to excite them that are noticing the progress Philbin has made with Miami.
"Miami, you've got a football team to go with your basketball team now. I think Miami's legit," said Tony Dungy, an NBC television analyst and former coach who won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis.
The Falcons, a playoff team for the past three years, should provide the perfect test for whether Dungy's verdict is justified.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)