On the eve of free agency this spring, the Titans faced a dilemma that seemed unthinkable a year ago. Coming off Tennessee’s shocking run to the AFC Championship Game, Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry were both in-demand free agents, looking to prosper off excellent seasons. Henry’s rushing title and human-bulldozer act down the stretch made sense, considering his track record. But Tannehill’s magical year—and potential payday—materialized out of nowhere after the Titans plucked him out of the clearance bin last offseason.
Replete with about $60 million in cap space, Titans general manager Jon Robinson had the money to retain his offense’s two biggest names. But how he’d spend the cash was still a mystery. In the end, Tannehill received a massive four-year deal with $91 million in practical guarantees, and Henry was hit with the franchise tag worth $10.3 million. In the wake of a red-hot stretch that few saw coming, the Titans decided to run it back for (at least) one more ride.
It’s hard to blame Robinson and the Titans for trying to keep this offense intact. Tennessee finished no. 3 in weighted DVOA last season, and fourth in Chase Stuart’s adjusted yards per play. By hanging on to Tannehill and Henry, the Titans are set to return 10 starters on that side of the ball. And Robinson filled the unit’s one hole—right tackle, following Jack Conklin’s exit to Cleveland—by spending his first-round pick on Georgia tackle Isaiah Wilson. Tennessee was willing to bet big on an established offensive formula and a QB that led the NFL in yards per attempt (9.6) by nearly a full yard. Skeptics will say that Robinson was wrong to invest so heavily in a 12-game sample size that ignores Tannehill’s pedestrian résumé, and that a cheaper quarterback could still thrive with the Titans’ excellent running game and quality supporting cast. The Titans would likely counter with the fact that Marcus Mariota (who’s about as replacement level as QBs come) failed in the same circumstances, and that signing Tannehill eliminates the uncertainty that comes with a new QB.
With so many questions hanging over training camp and the preseason, the Titans believe their continuity is an advantage as they look to build on their late-season run. The challenge now is proving that they can maintain the recipe that made their hot streak possible.
Before wading into the particulars of Tannehill’s breakout campaign and future outlook, it’s worth examining what Henry and the running game might look like this season. Henry was a revelation for the Titans in the home stretch last year. From Week 10 through Tennessee’s divisional-round upset over the Ravens, Henry hit the century mark seven times in eight games. He rushed for a ridiculous 1,273 yards over that span, averaging nearly 6.3 yards per carry. In Tennessee’s two playoff wins, Henry carried the ball 64 times for 377 yards while Tannehill completed just 15 passes. Henry’s outlandish production seemed to fly in the face of the notion that you can’t build a successful modern offense around a single running back. But the cold, hard truth is that even dominant rushers move the needle only so much. During Henry’s heroic effort in Tennessee’s upset over the Patriots, he added just 2.6 expected points on 35 carries. Tannehill, in a forgettable performance, added 2.7 expected points in 21 plays.
I don’t want to slip down the running-back value rabbit hole, but let’s briefly dance around it. Over his final nine games, Henry provided about as much value as a rusher can in this era of football. He averaged a league-best 4.8 yards after contact, which falls in line with Henry’s career baseline. He’s finished first or second in the NFL in average yards after contact in each of the past two seasons and ranked fifth in 2017. Breaking and avoiding tackles is a skill that’s typically sustainable from season to season. Barring injury, Henry will probably be one of the hardest players to tackle in the NFL yet again in 2020. But even with the rest of the offense humming, the offensive line trampling defenders, and the Titans’ running game performing about as well as it possibly could during the second half of the season, there were still limits to how much Henry could lift the unit. This season, Tennessee will almost certainly construct its offensive approach around the running game and the space it creates for play-action. But for the Titans to field even a league-average unit, Tannehill—not Henry—will have to be their most valuable offensive player.
Even with time to digest Tannehill’s 2019 season, it’s still not easy to process. When QBs come out of nowhere to put up staggering numbers, you can usually point to a couple hidden factors that made the explosion possible. That applies to some extent with Tannehill, but overall, he was just damn good last year. Tannehill led the NFL in both DVOA and passer rating (122.8) from a clean pocket last season. On passes without play-action, he finished in the top five in both completion percentage (67.5) and yards per attempt (7.9). Those numbers aren’t the product of a dink-and-dunk offense, either. Tannehill finished fourth in average air yards per completion (7.5), and according to the Pro Football Focus QB Annual, he was the most accurate quarterback in the league on intermediate throws. His 2019 film is loaded with clips of Tannehill ripping deep outs, in rhythm, for 15-yard gains. Tannehill’s completion percentage over expectation—a helpful indicator of how well a QB performed given the depth of his targets and separation of his receivers—was nearly 2 full percentage points better than any other QB in the league. Several of those metrics are sticky from season to season and tend to be solid predictors of future performance. But there are plenty of other stats that cast doubt on Tannehill’s ability to repeat what he did last year.
Atypical success under pressure is a common factor in fluky QB seasons. Case Keenum’s 2017 campaign with Minnesota is probably the best recent example. The journeyman QB finished second to Tom Brady in DVOA that season and parlayed his hot streak into a sizable free-agent deal with the Broncos. During his lone season as the Broncos starter, Keenum finished 32nd among 39 qualified QBs in passer rating under pressure. A year after signing his deal, Keenum was traded to Washington for a late-round pick. To a lesser extent, Carson Wentz in 2017 and Mitchell Trubisky in 2018 fall into this category. The best stretches of their careers were buoyed by unsustainable success under pressure, and they’ve since settled into their true talent levels.
Not surprisingly, Tannehill’s passing numbers under pressure last year were fantastic. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Tannehill ranked no. 1 in both completion percentage above expectation and passer rating when pressured. He was also the only QB to average more than 10 air yards per target when under duress. Those numbers are undeniably impressive, but based on Tannehill’s history, they’re unlikely to continue. In 2016, Tannehill’s 49.1 passer rating under pressure ranked 31st among 39 qualified quarterbacks.
All quarterbacks struggle when pressured, but Tannehill has often had more trouble than his peers. Taking unnecessary sacks has been a problem throughout his career, and that continued last season. Despite being pressured at the seventh-lowest rate in the league, Tannehill finished with the NFL’s third-highest sack rate (31 percent of dropbacks). Only Mariota and rookie Dwayne Haskins were worse. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out in April, Tannehill’s tendency to take sacks explains the discrepancy in his passing numbers when pressured (top three in completion percentage and YPA) and his awful QBR (30th in the league). Tannehill’s issues late in downs extended to his inefficiency when targeting second or third reads. Only Jared Goff had a larger drop-off in PFF grade between first-read throws and non-first-read throws in 2019. His fluctuating efficiency under pressure and relative struggles when asked to move beyond his first option are familiar signs of potential regression.
Some parts of Tannehill’s success do seem replicable, though, and those stem from the Titans’ basic offensive philosophy. It’s OK for a team’s system to prop up its quarterback—as long as the tenets of that system remain intact. Tennessee is hoping that the basic ingredients of the formula it used last season will have a similar effect in 2020. Like other teams that rely on some variant of the Mike Shanahan–Gary Kubiak offense, the Titans’ approach is rooted in a seamless connection between the run and the pass. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith wants to use a heavy amount of play-action to create space and easy, defined throws for his quarterback. Tannehill thrived in that scheme last fall. Using play-action on 29.9 percent of his dropbacks (the ninth-highest rate in the league), Tannehill averaged a league-leading 13.5 yards per attempt and ranked second with a 76.7 percent completion rate. Smith’s mix of play-action and vertical throws unleashed a version of Tannehill that the league had never seen. For most of his tenure in Miami, Tannehill was a fairly conservative quarterback who rarely pushed the ball downfield. During his final season with the Dolphins in 2018, Tannehill had the sixth-lowest air yards per completion in the NFL (4.9 yards). Last season, he had the fourth highest (7.5 yards).
Along with scheming vertical shots out of play-action, the Titans also did an excellent job manufacturing yards-after-catch opportunities for their playmaking receivers. Wideout A.J. Brown was a YAC machine as a rookie, leading the NFL in YAC per reception (8.8), YAC above expectation, and Football Outsiders’ YAC+. Part of that ridiculous efficiency is tied to Brown’s unique ability with the ball in his hands. At 6-foot, 226 pounds, Brown just isn’t built like most elite receivers. His strength and power can turn any arm tackle into an embarrassing gaffe and any short reception into a 50-yard touchdown.
Beyond Brown’s innate abilities, though, Smith seems committed to creating room for his receivers to work. Tight end Jonnu Smith is an exceptional YAC receiver in his own right, but it’s not a coincidence that he ranked second in the NFL behind Brown in YAC above expectation last season and second among tight ends in YAC+. Plus, a ton of Brown’s receptions as a rookie came on in-breaking routes that featured natural picks from other Titans or switch releases that created runways for Brown after the catch. Designs like that were a big reason why Tannehill comfortably led the league in YAC+ among quarterbacks. It’s tempting to view that efficiency as unsustainable, and yet another reason why Tannehill may regress this season, but there are some encouraging recent examples of other teams sustaining that element of their offense over multiple seasons.
Watching Tannehill last year, it was hard not to draw parallels to Goff’s stellar work with the Rams in 2017 and 2018. Arthur Smith’s offense is, at least in part, derived from the scheme that former Titans offensive coordinator and current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur took from his stint on the Rams’ staff. The similarities between Tannehill’s and Goff’s tape are everywhere, from the amount of hard play-action, to the design of the screen game, to their average time to throw. As PFF’s Kevin Cole pointed out, even the route distributions between Tannehill’s 2019 season and Goff’s recent campaigns look similar.
In his first two seasons with the Rams, head coach Sean McVay was able to create an efficient system around Goff that allowed his quarterback to thrive. But last season, that system began to deteriorate. As the Rams’ rushing efficiency fell off and their offensive line declined, Goff was forced to carry a larger portion of the load—and he stumbled. The Rams tried to stay ahead of the schematic curve with wrinkles like more toss runs and varied personnel packages, but ultimately couldn’t keep pace. When your offensive success is already predicated on deception and counterpunches, it’s tough to reinvent yourself to keep the rest of the NFL guessing. Kyle Shanahan has succeeded in doing just that during his long career as a play caller (Shanahan has consistently produced the best YAC passers in the league, for multiple franchises), but it’s possible that he’s in a class by himself when it comes to reimagining this type of system-focused offense.
The question now is whether Smith can replicate the (relative) success that coaches like Shanahan and McVay have had in maintaining that system for their quarterbacks. In terms of highly paid QBs, Tannehill is closer to Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo than he is to Patrick Mahomes. Smith’s challenge will be keeping the structure that earned Tannehill his payday while updating it enough to justify the Titans’ gamble on their 2019 approach.