Ryan Tannehill, Titans Continue To Be Perfect Player-Team Fit

Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There are few, if any, quarterbacks who would be so bold to effectively run a no-huddle offense down by six points with just under a minute in regulation. If a passer were to execute a nine-play, 76-yard scoring drive to force overtime, it would be the masterful Russell Wilson or other-worldly Patrick Mahomes. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Lamar Jackson could also quickly get their offense 10 yards to the line of scrimmage and, instead of downing the ball with no timeouts and only a few seconds on the clock, send a short pass to their wide receiver for a game-changing score.

None of those quarterbacks did that Sunday. 

The confidence that was oozing out of Ryan Tannehill helped push the Tennessee Titans past the Houston Texans 42-36, and cemented him as one of the NFL’s elite quarterback; yes, Tannehill should be in the top-quarterback conversation, and as a former non-believer, I too now see the light. The Titans, once again powered by the quarterback-running back duo of Tannehill and Derrick Henry, are 5-0 to start the season for the first time since 2008.

“There’s really nothing to be hesitant about,” Tannehill said after the game with ease like he’s been performing at this level for the better part of his career when really it’s been nearly two seasons at this level of play.

Tannehill is teaching us all an important lesson when it comes to player-team fits. Some quarterbacks can overcome bad play-calling, non-existent support, and an overall middling-to-bad team if they weren’t in the pocket. Tannehill was not one of them. But his emergence as an elite passer in his second season with the Titans shows sometimes, most times, the system matters. 

Tannehill had the unfortunate luck of being paired with head coach Adam Gase in Miami. The Gase-led Dolphins didn’t last long after back-to-back losing seasons in 2017 and 2018. Gase was fired after three seasons and when he landed with the New York Jets, Tannehill ended up in Tennessee as a backup quarterback to Marcus Mariota. The Titans weren’t getting the success they hoped with Mariota more than five weeks into the 2019 season. They benched the former second overall pick for another top-10 passer, but despite Tannehill’s fairly successful early years, he was unproven. He was streaky and inconsistent in Miami; it was, in part due to Gase and a preseason ACL injury that forced him to miss all of 2017.

When Tannehill became Tennessee's starting quarterback in Week 7 last season, he began what we now know as a string of games comparable to the likes of Mahomes. Everything is working for the former No. 8 draft pick. After his 2019 season ended with Comeback Player of the Year honors, many—or at least I—was wondering if it was a fluke. If you’re a good quarterback, you should be maintaining that level of play when fully healthy. What Tannehill has done is not just show us that he’s capable of executing at this high level consistently, but that, when factoring in quarterback success, somethings can’t be looked at in a vacuum. 

The biggest part of the Titans’ success is their red-zone efficiency. Tennessee ended 2019 ranked first in the NFL in red-zone scoring (77.36%), and, almost halfway through 2020, the Titans trail only the Seattle Seahawks (88.89%) for the second-highest red-zone scoring percentage (82.35%). Tannehill, who was easily replaceable in Miami and a middling quarterback, at best, has become a quintessential example of marrying a passer with the perfect system. He’s on pace to have some of his career-best marks; building off the success from 10 starts in 2019, Tannehill already has more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. He rounds out the top five quarterbacks with a 110.8 rating and has had ample protection from the offensive line, which will be the key to improving to a potential 6-0 record against the Pittsburgh Steelers next weekend.

What’s most impressive is Tannehill’s effectiveness with such low volume. Coming into Week 6, the Titans had 132 pass attempts, second to the New England Patriots (128), and have the fourth-best on-target percentage (82.9%). Tannehill had a season-high 41 pass attempts on Sunday and it resulted in 364 passing yards and four touchdowns. Head coach Mike Vrabel has found a way to maximize a quarterback that succumbed to poor coaching in the past. The confidence the Titans have infused into Tannehill reverberates throughout the offense and sets up game-changing and game-winning drives like the final play in regulation and the only offensive drive we saw in overtime Sunday.

Vrabel’s high praise earlier in the week can be copied and pasted to apply to Tannehill’s Week 6 performance. 

“He’s become a very efficient quarterback for us, a very good leader,” Vrabel said. “This team means a lot to him. He’s a captain, obviously. In his command and what we’re trying to do each and every week, gets us in the right plays. He gets the ball out of his hands. He can keep plays alive. He can scramble.

“I think he’s having fun. I think he’s enjoying it. That’s something that he would say is that he’s having fun and took advantage of the opportunity last year when it came to him and certainly has not looked back.”

This time, and with this team, Tannehill is visibly enjoying his time on the field because he finally has something to enjoy.