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.