The Houston Texans have won the AFC South the past two years because they have what every team in the NFL wants, but what very few have: an elite young quarterback. Deshaun Watson is the perfect player to build a winning team around, but Bill O’Brien, in his dual roles as head coach and general manager, keeps jumbling the pieces around Watson; in March, O’Brien traded away one of the best receivers in football for an expensive, injury-prone running back.
O’Brien’s perplexing offseason decisions have cleared a path to contention for other teams in the division. Well, two teams, at least: With apologies to the Jaguars, who are assembling a collection of excellent athletes who may come to represent a competitive football team at a later date, the AFC South looks like the tightest three-team race in the NFL. The Titans and Colts present compelling cases to challenge the Texans. Both teams are trying to construct a contender around a secondhand quarterback. It’s a strategy that essentially boils down to meeting your veteran quarterback where they are.
Tennessee already has the blueprint with Ryan Tannehill. Now it’s a question of whether he can sustain last season’s success. The Titans’ trade for Tannehill last year was not met with excitement. It cost them little, essentially a fourth-round pick, and the Dolphins agreed to pay $5.25 million of Tannehill’s $7 million base salary to make the deal happen. For Tennessee, it was an admission that Marcus Mariota hadn’t developed as they’d hoped; the no. 2 overall pick in 2015 was making $21 million on his fifth-year option and was still the team’s starter when the team traded for Tannehill. But by October, after a 2-4 start, Titans coach Mike Vrabel decided to pull the rip cord and make Tannehill the starter. When general manager Jon Robinson told Tannehill that the job would be his to keep, his requests of the 31-year-old were fairly simple.
“Go play starting-level football. Take command of the offense. You’ve got the keys now,” Robinson said, according to ESPN. “Get us in the right play at the line of scrimmage. When you’ve got to throw the ball, identify the coverage, find the guy that’s open and get him the football. Keep plays alive. Move the football.”
All important things, sure, but they didn’t add up to a very high bar for a player with Tannehill’s experience. As it turned out, though, it was high enough to propel offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s offense, ranked sixth by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, to the AFC championship game. Titans running back Derrick Henry led the league in rushing yards (1,540) and tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (16), and rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown had 1,051 receiving yards and 8.9 yards after the catch, an NFL best among receivers with more than 80 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. In 10 starts, Tannehill leveraged play-action and Brown’s playmaking to lead the NFL in passer rating (117.5) and yards per attempt (9.6). He threw 22 touchdowns to only six interceptions and became the third quarterback since data became available in 1991 to finish the regular season with an overall and red zone completion percentage above 70 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information. It was the best stretch of his career.
The Titans are pretty much running it back in 2020. The roster still looks set up to compete without asking too much more of Tannehill, who signed a contract extension this offseason worth $29.5 million per year that should keep him in Tennessee through at least 2022. They’ll have to replace right tackle Jack Conklin, presumably with first-round pick Isaiah Wilson, and tight end Delanie Walker, as well as some defensive pieces, but the physical offensive line and running game that fueled the rest of the offense are still in place.
Tannehill’s passer rating of 98.4 when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, was second only to Drew Brees. It’s not the most reliable indicator of success year to year, as it factors in on so many unpredictable variables, like the amount of pressure a quarterback faced, the availability of checkdown options, and the passer’s own escapability. Tannehill led the league in passer rating from a clean pocket, though, which is a product of a more isolated environment and therefore tends to be much more stable.
Tannehill’s performance offered the Titans a quick escape from the consequences of whiffing on a high draft pick. It took organizational courage to move on from Mariota, which allowed the Titans to avoid the wilderness of mediocrity that so often comes when a team begins a search for a new franchise quarterback. The Colts, one year after Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, are looking for a similar solution after signing Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million deal this offseason. Rivers, 38, is coming off his worst season, presenting a different challenge.
In 16 years with the Chargers, Rivers has built a Hall of Fame résumé out of abundance. He’s played a lot of games, made a lot of throws, and took a lot of gambles, many of which paid off. Some of them have not, and interceptions have always been as much a part of the Rivers experience as his bolo ties or his children, of which there are many as well. He has led the NFL in interceptions twice and has thrown single-digit picks in only two of 14 seasons as a starter. Last season, though, Rivers’s 20 picks, compared with 23 touchdowns, were a major reason why a talent-laden roster went 5-11; the Chargers and Rivers decided to part ways in February.
Last season, Rivers didn’t have many receiving options aside from Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and he forced too many throws into coverage, resulting in too many mistakes. The numbers were uncharacteristically bad—Rivers’s passer rating of 88.5 was nearly seven points lower than his career average (95.1), and his 48.6 QBR was the second worst of his career and worst since 2012.
“There were some bad plays,” Rivers said last week. “Certainly some throws I want back and certainly some very costly mistakes. I own up to all those. There was so much good and I had some throws last year that were probably as good as I’ve had my whole career.”
The Colts’ task is to build a roster that can maximize Rivers’s best tendencies and mitigate his worst, which requires the correct assessment of who Rivers is at this stage of his career. It’s possible 2019 was just a down year. He was, after all, an MVP candidate in 2018. But there were signs even then that he wasn’t as effective with his deep ball as he’s been throughout his career: Rivers was PFF’s 14th-ranked quarterback on passes of 20 or more yards in 2018, the fourth-worst ranking of his career. In 2019, he dropped to 22nd and led the league with nine interceptions on deep targets.
Indianapolis doesn’t seem interested in asking Rivers to abandon the deep ball. With running backs Jonathan Taylor, Marlon Mack, and Nyheim Hines, the hope for the Colts is that they’ll face more single-high safety defensive looks, which will help Rivers generate more big plays.
“We know that Philip [Rivers] can make them pay when they have that,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni told reporters in Indianapolis last month.
Like Colts head coach Frank Reich, Sirianni has experience working with Rivers from their time with the Chargers, so he should have a good sense of what will work. There’s some built-in projection of how much of Rivers’s 2019 downturn is attributable to getting older, though, and the Colts hope a fresh start with a familiar coaching staff, the only offensive line in the NFL returning all five of last season’s starters, and receivers like T.Y. Hilton and second-round draft pick Michael Pittman Jr. will help stave off any decline. Hilton averaged a career-low 11.1 yards per reception last year while the offense ranked 30th in passing with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Pittman Jr. offers a big catch radius as a 6-foot-4, 223-pound target and was productive in college, but it’s hard to predict how quickly any rookie receiver, not to mention one with an abbreviated offseason, will be able to make an impact.
Rivers is a high-risk, high-reward option, but he might present a pretty safe bet for the Colts—especially if they get a few good breaks in the division. They already got one when the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins. Houston seems to be hoping Watson can cover up all of its roster issues. That this isn’t a wholly unreasonable assumption—favoring the Titans requires faith in Tannehill to sustain outlying results; picking the Colts means trusting that Rivers’s 2019 season was an outlier and not the product of irreversible decline—underscores the challenge the Titans and Colts face. You can paper over a lot of flaws with an elite young quarterback; without one, you better hope a lot of other things go your way.
The Colts and Titans haven’t found their Watson. They’re trying to play the middle ground—finding a good passer in the latter stages of his career and putting enough pieces around him to contend. That they both have a shot to succeed with this strategy is already an upset.