How the new Ryan Tannehill is tearing up the NFL

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There is an NFL story we’re all ignoring, maybe because of the pandemic and the willy-nilly weekly COVID headlines, maybe because once we form an opinion about a quarterback, we don’t like to change it. It is time to change the narrative about Ryan Tannehill. He is not an injury-prone quarterback of middling ability who you keep around while you search for the franchise guy. Tannehill’s a top 10 quarterback in the NFL, period. After his 15th start in Tennessee on Sunday against Houston, he’s 12-3 as the Titans starter and has proven he’s not just a chains-moving, play-action-crutch game manager. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in football, an excellent downfield thrower, a strong leader, a player who hangs in against the strongest rushes and still makes plays.

Comparing Tannehill to all quarterbacks since opening day 2019 (minimum 10 starts) proves his efficiency and his downfield production.

Highest-rated quarterbacks since opening day 2019: Tannehill 116.0, Russell Wilson 112.1, Drew Brees 112.0, Lamar Jackson 109.3, Patrick Mahomes 105.9.

Highest yards per attempt since opening day 2019: Tannehill 8.95, Dak Prescott 8.26, Jimmy Garoppolo 8.20, Wilson 8.19, Jameis Winston 8.16.

Who knew? Tannehill, since taking over as Titans quarterback one year ago this week, is the missing piece for a team that can grind it out and be explosive in the passing game too. There are many amazing things to his story, but this one might pop the most: To acquire Tannehill, the price was the 135th pick in the 2020 draft, a fourth-round pick. Such is the craziness of quarterback-mining in the NFL. Tennessee spent the second pick in 2015 to pick what the franchise thought was its franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota. But a year ago tomorrow, coach Mike Vrabel benched Mariota and started a guy the Titans paid peanuts for. That changed the course of current Titans history and gave the best teams of the AFC an unexpected major rival.

Sunday was a perfect example of why Tennessee is so dangerous. On the surface, we think of Tennessee as a classic power-running team with the best big back in football, Derrick Henry. He had one of the best games of his life Sunday, with 264 yards from scrimmage—a personal best—and two incredible plays, a 94-yard touchdown run and 53-yard reception. Well, there was a third, which we’ll get to. Vrabel made the call that changed his franchise, Mariota to Tannehill. Arthur Smith is the daring choreographer who never met a calculated risk he didn’t like, the kind of ethos that will have him high on the list of head-coaching candidates come January. Henry is the 2019 rushing champ who might be on the way to two straight. And that’s all supplemented by the egoless Tannehill, who only cares about the stats I just mentioned because they mean the offense is really good, not that he is really good.

Back to this running clock.

Tannehill took the shotgun snap. The first option was Brown, to the far left, and Tannehill saw right away that the nearest safety would not be able to come over to help in time.

:06 . . .

He launched a rainbow toward the left boundary, five yards deep in the end zone. Tannehill loved his chances. Brown is 6-1, but plays like he’s 6-3, and he had 30 pounds on the 5-11 Roby. The Titans love Brown in the red zone because the 50-50 balls are usually 65-35, Brown.

:05 . . .

Reaching over Roby, Brown high-point snagged the perfectly thrown pass with Roby draped on him, and fell out of bounds, his right big toe looking like it barely scratched the grass before his torso landed on the sideline.

:04 . . .

Touchdown. It survived replay, a very close call.

Good thing about it? If the Titans needed another play, they’d have had four seconds to run it.

(I do not get why the Texans didn’t call time once they saw Tannehill in the shotgun, with the two-by-two set. That’s like a Kodak play: The Titans were giving Houston a snapshot of their plans. The defense, on its heels, could surely have benefited from a breather there. Two Houston timeouts died on the vine, and you’ll never convince me the Texans’ defense wouldn’t have benefited from using one right there.)

Overtime. Tennessee won the toss. Ballgame.

On the second snap of OT, Tannehill flipped a throw to the right for Henry, who galloped for 53 yards. In the definition of Man Among Boys in any dictionary you’ll find, there’s a picture of the unassuming, unemotional Henry with that unique cone-shaped ponytail. He’s just bigger and better than everyone else.

Sixth play of OT. Third-and-goal from the Houston 5-yard line. Huddle breaks. Tannehill jogs left, wide left. The quarterback: Derrick Henry.

“That’s Arthur, man,” Tannehill said, with a nod to his coordinator. “I didn’t know when he’d call it, but we had it ready, and he picked the right time to call it.”

Suddenly, Tannehill waves his right hand. You think, He’s signaling Henry, “I’m open over here!”

No. “I wanted to get one of their [defensive] guys out there on me,” Tannehill said. To take a body that could help stuff Henry out of the middle of the field. Tannehill was trying to get the attention of the Texans, like, Hey, I’m open! Cover me! And safety Justin Reid came over. “If nobody walked out on me?” Tannehill said. “Maybe Derrick rips me a pass and we win that way. How incredible would that have been?”

That is a smart football play right there.

Henry took the Wildcat snap—that’s exactly what this play was, a Wildcat run—and did a classic Le’Veon Bell thing. He waited for the play to develop, got a great block from backup left tackle Ty Sambrailo to seal the Houston end, Carlos Watkins, and powered in just outside the left end. Reid hustled to try to stop Henry, but he was too late.

Henry capped his incredible game with that overtime game-winner. Great for him. But with really good teams, it’s the little things that mean a lot. In this case, the backup left tackle Sambrailo’s seal block, and Ryan Tannehill’s look-at-me wave that delayed the safety getting into the pig-pile.


Last point: I watched some tape of Tannehill over the weekend. I remember being in Titans camp in August, talking to people about Tannehill, and I was told the difference in the Titans started the week he took the job, a year ago this weekend. His communication, his quiet leadership, his ability to take over the team while not trampling on the demoted Marcus Mariota. Before he started his first game against the Chargers, Tannehill saw the game plan, and he saw one of the first passes. It happened to be a throw to tight end Jonnu Smith, starting from tight left of the formation, running diagonally upfield toward the right pylon.

Tannehill anticipated Cover-3. That’s what the Chargers played. Tannehill anticipated linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. covering Smith. That happened too. Tannehill anticipated Davis cutting off Smith’s upfield shoulder so Tannehill wouldn’t be able to lead him. That happened too. Before the game, knowing that pass was coming, Tannehill told Smith to expect a back-shoulder throw, behind him. On the first snap of his first Titans start, Tannehill got the call of that play from offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. With an old-style power formation (a fullback and large tailback Derrick Henry), Tannehill took the snap, dropped, and throw a soft liner up the right seam, 26 yards in the air, right where he said it’d be, behind Smith, right in his hands. Gain of 24.

The trust, then, started on the first play of his first start. Fifteen starts and 12 wins later, Tannehill is the trusted quarterback Vrabel sought when he pulled the bonus baby one year ago. He’s more than trusted. Tannehill’s a star.

“It’s a wild story,” Tannehill told me Sunday. “It’s been a fun ride. A ton of fun, really. What’s great for us is we’re not only having fun on Sundays. We’re having fun every day. This is a team where the players really like each other, and that shows up on Sunday.”

Oh. Almost forgot. The Rescheduling Gods are giving us a great one Sunday: Pittsburgh (5-0) at Tennessee (5-0). High noon. Downtown Nashville. You’ve got to put an asterisk on every game this year because of the COVID threat, but Tannehill-Roethlisberger, suddenly, is Week 7’s heavyweight attraction.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.

NFL Week 12 key takeaways: Josh Jacobs is extraordinary

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This Josh Jacobs is a fabulous player. We’ve got 15 more pennant-racy things to talk about today than the 4-7 Raiders—the 49ers haven’t allowed a second-half point in five weeks, no one wants to win the NFC South, here comes Deshaun Watson, here come the Dolphins, Jalen Hurts could seriously challenge Patrick Mahomes for MVP, the NFL can’t be serious in keeping Denver on Sunday night in two weeks, Washington could dump the Giants into last place in the NFC East next week, what should we think of the North Little Rock Jerry Jones?—and I will get to every one, and more. But what happened in Decibelville Sunday, that 40-34 overtime win for the Raiders in Seattle, was extraordinary.

“It all started before the game,” Jacobs, the hero of Week 12 in the NFL, told me from the Raiders’ giddy locker room in Seattle. “This fan, when we came out of the tunnel, held up a sign: ‘3-7. NOT BAD FOR A TEAM WITH NO TALENT.’ And he was screaming at us, all this bad stuff. I just looked up at him and said, ‘Thank you for that. I needed that today. You turnt me up.’”

Jacobs needed it because he entered the game with a sore calf, and the Raiders didn’t know how long he’d last. Oh, he lasted. Never in his college or pro career had he touched the ball 39 times in a game. Never had he gained 303 scrimmage yards in a game. Never had he rushed for a touchdown as long as 86 yards. He did all of those things Sunday, the final winning one on his last touch of the day in overtime.

But there were losses for Jacobs too. This was a gnarly, feisty game. You think when a guy rushes for 229 yards and walks off in triumph that it was a game of joy with few trials. Not so. Seattle’s got a puncher’s defense, a physical Joe Frazier-type of D that makes you earn every inch. Jacobs was waaaay down when he failed to convert a fourth-and-one run with nine minutes left, leaving Seattle a short field; that touchdown gave the Seahawks a 34-27 lead. But the Raiders came back to force OT. And on the first play of the Raiders’ second overtime drive, the call was a Jacobs burst over right guard.

“We were running outside zone a lot, and I saw the linebackers pointing outside. So we ended up running inside zone, and I knew if I got through the line, it was a foot race after that,” Jacobs told me.

I asked Jacobs if he thought he was the best running back in football, and he demurred, saying he loved watching and learning from Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry. Let’s compare the three men who lead the NFL in rushing entering December:

Jacobs: 1,159 yards, 5.4 per rush, nine touchdowns.

Henry: 1,048 yards, 4.2 per rush, 10 touchdowns

Chubb: 1,039 yards, 5.2 per rush, 12 touchdowns.

Yes, Jacobs has a 111-yard lead for the rushing title with six games left. On Sunday, he cared more about the win. He also cared about the fan with the sign.

“He’s the first one I wanted to find after we won,” Jacobs said. “I went over to him and said, ‘Thank you.’”


The 10 stories in the NFL that interest me the most entering the home stretch of the regular season:

The NFL’s Denver problem. With the Broncos locked into one high-profile stinker in a standalone Christmas-afternoon game at the equally moribund Rams, the league has till tomorrow to flex out of the Week-14 Sunday nighter, KC at Denver.

Should Jerry Jones be publicly flogged for a 65-year-old photo? Jones, thanks to some digging by The Washington Post, is smack dab in the middle of a story of race and culture and the NFL’s bad head-coach hiring practices.

Did Odell Beckham wreck his chances to be a rare late-season playoff vaccine for a contender with his weird Florida airplane story Sunday? Probably not. The Cowboys, Bills and Giants will be the judges of that.

Doug Pederson and Brandon Staley made ballsy calls to go for two instead of playing for OT Sunday—or did they? Our sporting society is so messed up. Pederson and Staley are geniuses for going for two and converting and winning Sunday. If they’d failed? My guess is Stephen A. Smith and the Mad Dog would have them on the public grill today for bad calls.

Mike White did Robert Saleh a solid. In seven days, the Jets’ coach went from saying he wasn’t even thinking about a quarterback change from Zach Wilson, to benching Wilson for White, to watching White play the best-quarterbacked game by a Jet this season. Controversy over. There really never was one.

Well now, Jordan Love. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined by thumb and oblique injuries, and the 4-8 Packers out of any realistic playoff contention, the more-than-encouraging performance by Love should earn him a start next week at Chicago. And perhaps four more after that.

Lord, San Francisco’s defense over the past month looks like something out of the Noll days. The Niners had the league’s fourth shutout of the season Sunday. How great a clash of styles would it be to see the Niners against Dallas or Philly or the Vikes in the playoffs?

Matt Rhule’s coaching Nebraska. Mike Rozier’s not walking through that door. But the King of the Reclamation Project should have a chance to make the ‘Huskers competitive. If you can win at Temple, you can win in Lincoln.

Deshaun Watson’s back. With his mates off Monday and Tuesday after the Browns stunned Tampa Sunday, Watson will be in the facility digesting and contributing to the gameplan for next Sunday’s game in Houston. Weird and somehow fitting: Watson’s first NFL game in 700 days will come in NRG Stadium Sunday at high noon CT.

Justin Jefferson cracks my MVP top five. Part of the reason is what he does without the ball.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

What Deshaun Watson return means for Cleveland Browns

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The Browns are 4-7. They’ve lost six of the last eight, but the return of Deshaun Watson gives them a prayer that, if he hits the ground running (certainly no sure thing), they could be a factor in the playoff race. Cool thing that coach Kevin Stefanski gave Jacoby Brissett, who has kept the seat warm for Watson, a game ball for engineering the comeback to beat Tom Brady and the Bucs in overtime.

Brissett’s been an excellent leader and okay player, and 4-7 is about what the public thought the Browns would be when Watson returned. “Y’all feel like I’m about to die or something,” Brissett told reporters Sunday. “I still have a job to do.” But that job now morphs into helping Watson win six games down the stretch. I still think asking Watson to play great after 23 months out of the saddle is a huge ask, but we’ll see. Who sits for two years, then has to play the most important position in the game for the six most important games of the season, and can do it at a winning level week after week?

The players are off till Wednesday. Watson will be in the building Monday and Tuesday working out and getting a start on the gameplan. He’ll take over the offense Wednesday in a 10:45 a.m. walkthrough practice, then a real practice at 1:15 that afternoon. Will the circus be around for the game in Houston—protests or vociferous booing? Likely. And with Cleveland being on the road for four of its last six games (also at Cincinnati, Washington and Pittsburgh), Watson can expect road crowds to remember exactly why he was suspended for 11 weeks in the first place.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column