- In March 2019, the Tennessee Titans traded a fourth- and seventh-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for Ryan Tannehill and a sixth-round pick.
- Expected to be a backup, Tannehill was instead named the starting quarterback in Week 7, and he flourished, putting up big numbers while leading the Titans to a 7-3 finish and playoff spot.
- The Titans are now one win away from the Super Bowl, and Tannehill appears to be their long-term answer at quarterback.
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The Tennessee Titans are one win away from the Super Bowl, thanks in no small part to the play of Ryan Tannehill.
Since Tannehill took over as starting quarterback in Week 7, the Titans have gone 9-3, with postseason upsets over the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. In that span, their offense has been one of the best in the NFL, while Tannehill reached new heights on the field.
Few could have seen such a twist coming when the Titans traded for Tannehill in March.
Tannehill’s tenure with the Miami Dolphins came to an uninspiring end over the offseason. He had flashes of greatness in Miami, but was largely inconsistent and hampered by injuries. Over six seasons, Tannehill went 42-46, completed 62% of his passes, and averaged 231 passing yards per game. He also missed 28 total games, including the entire 2017 season, over his final four seasons.
The Dolphins ended up trading Tannehill and a 2019 sixth-round pick to the Titans for a 2020 fourth-round pick and 2019 seventh-round pick. The Titans restructured Tannehill’s contract, giving him a base salary of $7 million, with the chance to earn up to $12 million in incentives. The Dolphins paid $5 million of his salary as a signing bonus.
The deal looks like one of the most lopsided in recent history.
By Week 7, the 2-4 Titans named Tannehill the starter. Marcus Mariota, in a contract year, had been struggling, and the Titans ranked 30th in points per game. Tannehill, expected to serve as a quality backup to the oft-injured Mariota, instead was given the keys to the offense.
Almost right away, he made a difference. Over their last 12 games, the Titans have averaged 29.3 points per game. They were the third highest-scoring offense after Tannehill took over and finished the year sixth in offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
In 10 regular-season games, Tannehill completed 70% of his passes, threw for 2,742 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions while posting a 117.5 passer rating. He was on pace to finish with 3,656 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in a 16-game season. The only quarterback this season to throw for over 3,600 yards and throw more than 28 touchdowns was Russell Wilson.
Tannehill’s emergence seemed to open up the entire Titans offense. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown broke out and became a downfield threat. He posted at least 100 yards and a touchdown in four of Tennessee’s final six games and finished the year with 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Titans also became the NFL’s deadliest red-zone offense under Tannehill. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, with Tannehill at QB, the Titans scored touchdowns on 86.7% of their red-zone trips — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were second in the league at 71.9%. The Titans ranked 18th in the same category with Mariota as the starter.
“Ryan has an undying belief that we are going to score every time we get down there, and he should. Every quarterback should,” Titans quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara told Cameron Wolfe of ESPN. “We started working hard on our red zone efficiency in the spring. It’s paying dividends now.”
Additionally, since Tannehill took over, Derrick Henry has transformed into the scariest running back in the league. Since Week 10, including the playoffs, Henry has 1,273 rushing yards on 203 carries. He has tallied 377 yards in two playoff wins.
The Titans have leaned on Henry in the playoffs, while Tannehill has only had to be competent. That still counts for something. In two playoff games, Tannehill is 15-of-29 in the passing game for 160 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick even designed the Patriots defense in the Wild Card to take away Tannehill’s deep throws, instead, letting Henry rush for 182 yards.
Tannehill’s play in the postseason hasn’t exactly been inspired, but he’s made big throws when it mattered.
—NFL (@NFL) January 12, 2020
The Titans face another giant task on Sunday, facing the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City in the AFC Championship. Given that one of the Chiefs’ biggest weaknesses was stopping the run, it won’t be surprising if the Titans lean on Henry again, minimizing how much Tannehill has to do.
But as The Ringer’s Robert Mays argued, a quarterback is of such importance that an upgrade does more than simply improve the quality of play at that position — it lifts the rest of the roster.
Tannehill is a free agent at the end of the season. ESPN’s Diana Russini reported in December that the two sides had an interest in agreeing to a long-term deal. If Tannehill helps the Titans get yet another win on the road against a favored opponent to make the Super Bowl, he could be in line for massive payday from a franchise that hasn’t had an answer at quarterback in a long time.
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