Ryan Tannehill’s comeback was one of the better stories of the 2019 NFL season. He came out of nowhere to lead the NFL in passer rating and guide the Titans to the AFC Championship Game. This offseason, there were some pretty good alternatives at quarterback for Tennessee. And sure, there is a fair argument to be made that the contract Tannehill signed is too lucrative given his history. From a football standpoint, though, bringing him back made more sense than pursuing the other options.
There was a reason that Tannehill was drafted 8th overall by the Dolphins in 2012. He is a tall, athletic, strong-armed quarterback, and that’s something you can always work with. Early in his career, though, he was erratic. He struggled to hang in the pocket, get past his first two reads, fit balls into tight windows, or handle blitz pressure.
Between injuries, coaching changes, and the lack of talent around him, Tannehill couldn’t seem to get his career on the right track in Miami. That said, he did improve. If you didn’t follow his Dolphins career closely, you might be surprised to find out that he put up some pretty decent numbers during the 56 starts he made from 2014-18 (64.8 comp pct., 7.2 yards per attempt, 87 TDs, 47 INT and a 91.6 passer rating).
This might be somewhat of an indicator that Tannehill’s 2019 performance was no fluke. I don’t anticipate him leading the league in passer rating every year, but if he can perform somewhere in between the way he did at the end of his Miami career and last season, the Titans will be more than pleased.
It isn’t just the numbers that suggest Tannehill is closer to being the quarterback we saw in 2019 than in Miami, though. It’s also the overall refinement to his game that was on full display last season. He has a more consistent calmness to him that wasn’t there earlier in his career. His level of maturity at the position has finally caught up to his physical talent.
The below play is a perfect example. This was 3rd-and-10 against the Patriots during the postseason. New England would end up playing 0-coverage here (Man to man with no deep safety) and bringing a blitz. Tannehill recognized that he would have the middle of the field open as a result.
He also recognized that his tight end (Anthony Firkser) was matched up on Terrence Brooks, who had just entered the game after starter Patrick Chung came out due to injury. Tannehill went after the matchup.
More impressive than his decision-making was how Tannehill stood tall in the pocket, kept a downfield focus, and didn’t flinch with a free rusher coming up the middle in his face.
This was arguably the most impressive aspect of Tannehill’s resurgence last season. He was calm in the pocket and willing to take hits to complete passes downfield.
This 91-yard touchdown pass against the Raiders is another great example. Look at him hang in until the last possible moment, knowing he was about to get drilled, before delivering an accurate ball 50 yards downfield.
It takes a strong arm to make that throw. That’s the talent that led to Tannehill being drafted so high and clearly factored into Tennessee’s decision to bring him back.
Tannehill’s mobility is another impressive feature of his game. Play-action boot is an important aspect of the Titans Offense, especially given the attention Derrick Henry draws. Having a mobile quarterback with the athleticism and arm to complete passes like the one shown below is critical.
That’s not an easy throw to make falling away from the line of scrimmage like that.
Tannehill’s legs also make him a dangerous weapon when the play doesn’t work as designed:
We sometimes forget that he was a wide receiver for much of his college career.
Tannehill is effective enough as a runner that offensive coordinator Arthur Smith used him in numerous short-yardage situations in last year’s playoffs.
Tannehill rushed for 220 yards and 5 touchdowns in 13 starts during the regular season and playoffs. Between those rushing numbers and what he did through the air, there were few quarterbacks in the NFL as productive last season.
That said, Tannehill still does have holes to his game. They just weren’t on display often in 2019. Sometimes, he does still predetermine throws. On the below play from the AFC Championship game, it was clear that he was going to target A.J. Brown (who was running a seam down the middle against linebacker Anthony Hitchens) right from the snap.
Because Tannehill stared down the middle immediately, this kept safety Kendall Fuller in good position to be able to defend Brown’s route. That forced Brown to bend his route to the middle sooner to make sure Fuller couldn’t beat him inside.
This prevented Brown from getting much separation from the linebacker running with him down the seam.
From the end zone angle, you can see Tannehill looking down the middle right from the start of the play. This was a risky, forced ball between multiple defenders.
This wasn’t an egregious mistake, but it is an example of where Tannehill can get better. Despite his improved ability to work through his progressions and hang in the pocket, you don’t see him attempt to influence defenders very often. Tannehill may have had a chance to hit Brown had he held Fuller. He also might have had a chance to hit the outside vertical route to the 3-receiver side had he pump faked or used his eyes to bring Fuller inside.
At his worst, Tannehill still has momentary lapses in judgement. He still can be too slow to pull the trigger on throws and work through his reads, which leads to missed opportunities. It’s also completely legitimate to wonder if he can succeed without the threat of Tennessee’s rushing attack.
The Titans lean heavily on their running game and play-action. They called runs on 48.8% of their plays in 2019, good for 3rd most in the NFL. They also called the 7th highest rate of play-action passes. During the regular season, Tannehill had the 3rd highest drop off in passer rating from play-action passes to normal drop-backs. He still played to a 104.8 rating on those regular drop backs, so this wasn’t exactly a hindrance to the offense. The postseason was a different story. Tannehill had a similar drop off when play-action wasn’t used. However, he really was not that effective on those regular drop backs, completing less than 50% of his passes for just 4.11 yards per attempt.
It is fair to wonder what will happen during games when the rushing attack isn’t a factor. Or when Derrick Henry isn’t in the lineup. Or later in Tannehill’s contract, when Henry inevitably wears down or is potentially not even a part of the team.
Was Tannehill the Best Option?
We have to take a look at what the Titans passed up in evaluating the signing of Ryan Tannehill. Tom Brady was probably the best available alternative, assuming he legitimately had interest in Tennessee. We can compare these two quarterbacks in a few ways.
First, long-term value has to be considered. The Titans did not have a choice between signing Tannehill or Brady to a short-term deal. It was either 1-2 years for Brady or a longer deal for the much younger Tannehill. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll see the exact same type of season out of Tannehill over the next 4 years as we did in 2019. But when you see a quarterback perform like that at age 31, you do what you can to bring him back for the forseeable future. And 4 years is relatively low-risk. On the other hand, Brady will be 43 this season, and his physical skills have already started to drop off. Over the next 4 seasons, the Titans are more likely to get better play out of Tannehill.
Second, let’s look at short-term value. Would it really have been worth it to forego the potential of locking up a much younger QB in his prime for 4 years in the hopes that a 43-year old Brady could lead the Titans to Super Bowl glory? I’m sure some would say, yes.
But think about it. The Titans went 9-4 with Tannehill at the helm in 2019. This was not a team with Super Bowl-caliber talent at every other position that just hid their quarterback. With the exception of Derrick Henry, there wasn’t a player more responsible than Tannehill for Tennessee making it to within one game of the Super Bowl. Is it realistic to believe that Brady would come close to matching Tannehill’s 2019 production levels if he suited up with the Titans in 2020? The answer is very likely, no. Even with Tannehill’s off-the-charts performance for most of last year, Tennessee was still a 9-7 team that almost missed the playoffs. So why would Brady be more likely to get the Titans to the Super Bowl than Tannehill would in 2020?
Finally, and this helps answer the question about short-term value, Tannehill is just a better fit than Brady is in Tennessee’s offense. Not only does he have familiarity with the players around him, but his skills complement the system better. Yes, it is a run first offense that uses heavy doses of play-action. But as we mentioned earlier, an important component of the offense is play-action boot. This would be practically nonexistent with Brady at the helm.
Tannehill also has a stronger arm and is more of a threat when it comes to taking downfield shots, which are a significant element of Tennessee’s passing game. Not to mention, when the play breaks down, he can use his legs to make something out of nothing. Brady is largely a statue in the pocket at this point.
In the end, Tannehill makes the most sense for the Titans. I say this with the 100% confident belief that Brady will have a better season in Tampa in 2020, given the system and talent around him, than Tannehill will in Tennessee. But that wasn’t the choice for the Titans this offseason. The choice was Tennessee’s talent and system with either Tannehill, Brady, or some other alternative at the helm. The Titans made the right choice.
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