Ryan Tannehill’s standout stretch leaves Titans only one choice

NFL Free Agency, Tennessee Titans

Don’t be fooled. The Tennessee Titans can only go in one direction at quarterback this offseason and that’s to stay the course with Ryan Tannehill.

If you believe what you read this time of year as an NFL fan, the Tennessee Titans might fool you.

Their inclusion on lists of teams who are wild cards at the game’s most important position—quarterback—is a popular notion. It’s also incorrect. In fact, the Titans have only one choice this offseason: to stay the course with Ryan Tannehill.

Technically speaking, the Titans have options and if they wanted to throw a curveball (wrong sport, I know) for the sake of throwing one, then I suppose it’s possible the Titans could be a wild card here. However, the Titans made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game partially thanks to having a solid head coach and decent decision-makers in place.

In other words, the Titans aren’t going to do anything but what they have to do.

Tannehill is technically going to be unrestricted free agent, which makes him available for any team on the open market. There are also plenty of other veteran options, many of them exciting, including Philip Rivers and Tom Brady along with potential trade candidates like Cam Newton or Andy Dalton or even Derek Carr. The NFL Draft also holds yet another class of potential.

On paper, the Titans have options.

In reality, the Titans are already locked in with Ryan Tannehill for another season. Reality simply hasn’t caught up with them yet.

The ceiling of an NFL franchise has been defined by quarterback play for quite some time, but that’s become even more true in the last decade. If a team is lucky enough to find a franchise quarterback, they lock him up for life. For teams without the privilege of having a definite franchise face, the search goes on in hopes of striking gold.

One year ago, the Titans traded a seventh-round pick in 2019 and a fourth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for Tannehill and a sixth in 2019.

The idea was to light a competitive fire under Marcus Mariota for the first time in his pro career and hope the whole contract season thing would kick in. Instead, Mariota started the year 2-4 as the team’s quarterback and couldn’t even complete 60 percent of his passes, setting a career low with 59.4 percent. His QBR was nearly 20 points lower than any other season in his career (31.4).

When head coach Mike Vrabel switched to Tannehill with 10 games left in the regular season, no one could have predicted the sort of success ahead for the Titans. Tannehill would win three of his first four games and seven of 10 overall, which culminated in a 9-7 record that was just enough for the Titans to squeeze into the postseason.

From there, Tannehill and company went to work by rolling over the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens in consecutive road games in January. The Titans even had the future Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes until Patrick Mahomes worked his magic. With Mariota at the helm, the Titans averaged just over 16 points per game. With Tannehill, the number jumped to just over 30 points per game—nearly double the total of Mariota. That’s an incredible figure.

From simple box score stats to more advanced metrics, it’s clear Ryan Tannehill put up a hell of a half season in Tennessee. The only negative to be said would concern the sample size of only ten games, but Tannehill was a magician at quarterback outside of Miami.

Tannehill led the league in yards per completion with 13.6, an incredible figure that belies the run-first reputation of the Titans. That’s a full yard more than Patrick Mahomes, nearly two yards more than Lamar Jackson, and three yards more than Drew Brees. For the sake of comparison, Mitch Trubisky was the NFL’s worst at 9.6.

Not only did Tannehill show himself to be a strong-armed quarterback who can move the chains with the league’s best, but he also completed 70 percent of his passes on the year, finishing third in the NFL in that category. No one in the NFL came particularly close to matching Tannehill’s tremendous accuracy mixed with his downfield passing tendencies. It’s Drew Brees meets Patrick Mahomes.

It’s easy to forget that Tannehill was, at one point, a first-round draft choice hailed as a potential franchise signal-caller who needed time to develop several facets of his game.

The Dolphins responded by throwing him to the wolves as a 16-game starter as a rookie. From there, Tannehill would play under four offensive coordinators and three head coaches before ultimately being traded for a mid-round selection.

Given the 10-game stint in 2019, Tannehill looked the part of a first-round pick for the first time in his NFL career—at least for an extended period. Not only was the regular season filled with sensational stats, but Tannehill helped lead the team to victories against two of the toughest possible opponents in the postseason before falling to the Chiefs. It was an inspired run, a courageous display, a heartening performance that shone a light forward.

Except NFL analysts would have you believe that Tannehill might be going somewhere, that a team this close to representing the AFC in a Super Bowl might want to, say, import Tom Brady for a final experimental leg of his career. Rumors will persist because sells papers and creates clicks, but the move doesn’t make sense. Nor does it compute that the Titans might sell on the small sample size

In a way, it’s a bit frightening for the Titans to not know whether or not Tannehill is the real thing. The larger data set says that Tannehill is a middling option, an indecisive quarterback who will take too many sacks and can’t move the chains at a rate that would impress anyone. His completion rate in Tennessee was 7.5 points higher than five years in Miami. His six interceptions were less than half of his annual average in Miami (12.5).

What should the Titans think about three months of great football?

The issue is found in this tension. If an NFL team has even the potential of finding that franchise face, then conventional wisdom says they have to go for it. They have to find out if it’s the real deal or not. A team simply cannot look at a 10-game stretch like the one enjoyed by Ryan Tannehill in 2019 and dismiss or reject it. It’s the sort of performance that over half of the NFL is searching for.

Yes it was an outlier. Yes it goes against the statistical grain. But it happened. And until Tannehill can’t make it happen again, the Titans simply cannot—and will not—go in any other direction.

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