If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The Tennessee Titans went 7-3 in the 10 games Ryan Tannehill started in the 2019 regular season. They earned a wild card berth and beat both the Patriots and Ravens to advance to the AFC Championship. While the season ended with a 35-24 loss to the Chiefs, the Titans have evidently decided their best shot at making the Super Bowl is to keep the band together.
Step one was retaining their breakout quarterback. Three days before the beginning of free agency, Tannehill agreed to a four-year contract with Tennessee worth $118 million and $91 million guaranteed.
The next step was keeping Derrick Henry in Nashville. Tannehill’s contract freed up the option of giving Henry the franchise tag, and the team took advantage of that window Monday by tagging the running back.
It appears the Titans are pinning all their hopes on duplicating their late-season Cinderella success. That’s a risky bet.
Ryan Tannehill was more than just a game manager in 2019
Tannehill spent the first part of his NFL career as the Dolphins’ starter. In Miami, he was a mostly OK quarterback, but never quite good enough. He had an 87 passer rating in 88 starts with the team and threw 123 touchdowns with 75 interceptions. The Dolphins went 42-46 in six seasons with Tannehill at the helm.
In his final three seasons with the team, he missed 24 games due to knee and shoulder injuries. The Dolphins’ only trip to the postseason during his tenure came in 2016, when he was sidelined with an ACL sprain.
Eventually Miami gave up on hoping for more than .500-level play from Tannehill. In March 2019, he was traded to the Titans in a swap of Day 3 draft picks.
Tannehill was supposed to be Tennessee’s backup. But when Marcus Mariota struggled early in the year, the former Dolphins quarterback took the reins and shined. He completed a career-best 70.3 percent of his passes and led the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating.
While the Titans leaned heavily on their Henry-led run game, Tannehill still averaged 27 pass attempts in his starts during the regular season. He averaged 9.6 yards per pass attempt, which was a league best in 2019 and the second-most any quarterback has had since 2000.
Tannehill’s play earned him NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors and, now, a new contract that is among the richest in the league. And in many ways, it’s entirely justified. Tannehill’s production would’ve been difficult for the Titans to replace had he left in free agency. Tennessee needs a quarterback capable of capitalizing off play-action and Tannehill thrived in that role.
The Titans are taking a tremendous chance, though. One that has burned other teams in the past.
Rewarding a one-year breakout year is risky. A little too risky.
Jared Goff gave the Rams two years worth of evidence that he could be a franchise quarterback. After a Pro Bowl season in 2017, Goff wasn’t far from the MVP conversation in 2018, when he had 4,688 yards and a 101.1 passer rating.
Even though Los Angeles came up short in Super Bowl 53, it rewarded Goff with a four-year, $134 million extension. The immediate results of that deal weren’t promising. Goff regressed in 2019 with 10 fewer touchdowns, but four more interceptions.
The Jaguars ran into an even more significant problem (albeit a cheaper one) a year earlier when they handed Blake Bortles a three-year, $54 million extension. Bortles had just led Jacksonville to the AFC Championship, although he was helped by an elite defense and a steady running game. He turned back into a pumpkin in 2018 and was released in 2019.
Tennessee is walking the same tightrope. Tannehill was the perfect man for the job in 2019, but his play was buoyed by a rushing attack that averaged 5.0 yards per carry. When the Titans made the playoffs, he attempted only 29 passes combined in the wins over the Patriots and Ravens. Tennessee’s finest moments came when Tannehill was asked to step aside.
Now the Titans are banking that a quarterback who had his breakout year at age 31 will continue to excel for the team.
Tannehill can still be that player for the Titans in 2020 and beyond, but what happens if the running game falters or injuries force Tannehill to shoulder the offensive load? That’s a scary question the Titans will hope they won’t have to answer.