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Is This the Ryan Tannehill Breakout We’ve Been Waiting For?

The veteran quarterback has helped the Titans claw their way back into the AFC playoff hunt—but this isn’t the first time he’s flashed his potential. Is this breakthrough for real?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ryan Tannehill’s shockingly proficient play during the past six weeks has transformed the once-stagnant Titans’ offense into one of the league’s most explosive units. The 31-year-old quarterback has picked apart defenses both through the air and on the ground in his five starts in relief of Marcus Mariota, and has mounted the type of breakout campaign that many predicted back in 2016 … and 2015 … and 2014. It may have come later than expected, but in Tennessee, Tannehill is finally having his breakthrough. He’s propelling the Titans toward a playoff berth and proving that he’s not quite ready to settle into the cushy life on the NFL’s veteran-backup circuit.

If you’ve been in NFL media long enough, odds are you’ve written a piece titled something along the lines of “This Is Ryan Tannehill’s Year.” I know I have, back in (*checks notes*) 2016, and even then I was late to jump on his seemingly never-ending preseason hype train. Things never panned out for the former eighth overall pick in Miami, of course, but there was a reason he was the subject of so many “breakout” columns: The 6-foot-4, 207-pound signal-caller has always exuded potential as a big, athletic, and accurate passer, but for most of his career, he’s been hamstrung by carousels of subpar coaches and coordinators. It got so bad for Tannehill early in his career that I even remember being excited for the stability that then-newly hired Adam Gase could provide. Imagine!

Instead of flourishing under Gase, though, Tannehill plateaued: His numbers regressed in 2016, he missed the 2017 season with an ACL injury, and he did nothing to change his perception in 11 starts in 2018. After posting 123 touchdowns and 75 interceptions with an 87.0 passer rating in 88 starts in Miami, Tannehill was unceremoniously dealt to the Titans in March for a handful of late-round picks. In Tennessee, the longtime starter took up a role as Mariota’s understudy, and quickly faded into the background of a mostly unremarkable Titans squad that started the season 2-3.

But midway through the Titans’ Week 6 loss to the Broncos, head coach Mike Vrabel made a crucial, season-swinging decision. Following an ugly Mariota third-quarter pick, Vrabel benched the team’s longtime starter and turned to the former Dolphin to create a spark. Tennessee’s offense didn’t exactly catch fire instantaneously―the Titans lost that game 16-0 and Tannehill threw a pick―but in a 23-20 win against the Chargers in Week 7, it became clear that the veteran backup gives Tennessee what Mariota was supposed to provide but couldn’t. Tannehill finished 23-of-29 for 312 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in the victory. He consistently moved the chains by getting the ball out on time, distributed to his playmakers, and when needed, picked up yards with his legs.

If you were talking to someone who hadn’t seen any of Tannehill’s 88 games in Miami and had watched only his last five starts, it probably wouldn’t be tough to convince them he’s one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. In those five games, Tannehill has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,276 yards with 10 touchdowns and three picks; he’s averaged 9.25 yards per attempt (!) while compiling a 114.9 passer rating. The Titans have come alive with the veteran under center. Since Week 7, Tennessee has averaged 2.43 points per drive (sixth) and 28.2 offensive points per game (second only to the Ravens). And as Sharp Football Stats notes, the team has led the NFL in both explosive pass rate and explosive run rate in that stretch.

Derrick Henry and the ground game remain the foundation of Tennessee’s scheme, but Tannehill has helped unlock other facets of this offense. When Henry isn’t gashing defenses with explosive runs, Tannehill is tossing play-action bombs to take advantage of out-of-position defenders downfield. The veteran quarterback has notched a 123.2 passer rating on play-action passes since taking over for the Titans (seventh best among qualifying passers, per Pro Football Focus), and is averaging 13.3 yards per attempt (third) on those throws. Tennessee’s game plan in last Sunday’s 42-20 win against the Jaguars was a case study in the power of play-action.

Tannehill was just about perfect from those looks. He alternated between deep bombs, intermediate throws, and naked bootleg runs to keep the Jacksonville defense on its heels.

With Henry and the team’s run game rightly drawing the attention of opposing defenses, the Titans have built a whole suite of plays that exploit aggressive run defenders by heavily utilizing run fakes, throwing screens to the outside, or both.

Tannehill has also added another element to the offense with his speed. He has a Josh Allen–esque ability to scramble around for first downs or get outside the pocket on a bootleg and pick up chunk yards.

He’s been excellent operating within the structure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s scheme, and that’s created plenty of opportunities for easy throws to wide-open receivers. When he’s been asked to make tough, tight-window throws that require both touch and velocity downfield, though, the veteran signal-caller has been up to the task.

Tannehill has also been fearless in crucial late-game situations. That was especially apparent in the team’s Week 10 win against the Chiefs. With the Titans trailing 32-27 with 1:21 to go in that game, Tennessee got the ball back at its own 39-yard line. Tannehill scrambled for 18 yards to open the drive, then unleashed back-to-back clutch throws downfield, the first to Anthony Firkser and the second―the go-ahead touchdown―to Adam Humphries.

Those types of gutsy plays have come to define Tannehill’s renaissance in Tennessee. Whether he’s standing tall in the pocket to deliver a pass just before getting hit, shrugging off defenders to keep plays alive, or diving headlong into the end zone knowing he’s going to get his clock cleaned, Tannehill’s toughness and playmaking gusto has clearly energized the Titans’ offense.

After starting the season 2-4 under Mariota, Tennessee has won four out of its past five with Tannehill at the helm. In a muddled AFC wild-card race, it stands poised to make a run at the postseason. By virtue of tiebreakers, the 6-5 Titans still trail the Colts (6-5), Raiders (6-5), and Steelers (6-5) for the sixth and final playoff spot, but with a Week 13 matchup against Indianapolis and a pair of crucial Week 15 and Week 17 tilts against the 7-4 Texans on tap, Tennessee is anything but out of it. Even the division title is still within reach.

Tannehill will need to keep playing like he has in the past five games if the Titans hope to keep this hot streak alive. The quarterback has certainly flashed at times during his eight-year career, but he’s never put together long stretches of sustained efficiency. Now that he’s in a Tennessee offense that seems perfectly suited to his skill set, he has a perfect opportunity to shed that history of inconsistency. If he can, Tannehill will make the well-balanced and suddenly explosive Titans one of the most dangerous dark-horse teams in the AFC. And he might play his way into a big contract extension, too.