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Evaluating Ryan Tannehill’s First Game and the Titans’ Future at Quarterback

Ryan Tannehill played well in his debut as the Titans’ starting quarterback. How does that affect the position going forward?

Los Angeles Chargers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

One of the biggest questions for the Titans coming into the 2019 season was about the future of the quarterback position. What was supposed to be Marcus Mariota’s make-or-break year has seemingly become Ryan Tannehill’s prove-it campaign as he works to earn a starting job somewhere in the NFL in 2020.

Could that “somewhere” be Tennessee?

Tannehill finished his first start completing 23 of 29 passes (79.3%—a career high for Tannehill) for 312 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw one interception (not really his fault) and fumbled twice, both of which were recovered by the Titans.

Importantly, the Titans were able to move the ball with Tannehill under center with more success.

Through the first 6 games, the Titans ranked 28th in the league in Drive Success Rate, a Football Outsiders statistic measuring the percentage of 4-down series which result in either a first down or touchdown (discarding end-of-half kneel-downs), at 65.1%.

They were 29th in the league in average offensive Yards per Drive with just 24.88 yards. And the Titans entered Week 7 tied with the Jets for the most three-and-outs with 20 total in 6 games.

Sunday was a different story. While the Titans only managed 23 points, the offense was objectively better. The team’s drive success rate was much higher than the season average, finishing successful on 20/26 down series, good for a success rate of 76.9%, which would rank 7th in the NFL based on current season-long numbers.

The Titans averaged 44.7 yards per drive against the Chargers (and that includes a -1 yard, 1-play drive to end the game), up nearly 20 yards per drive compared to their season average.

Best of all, the offense produced zero three-and-outs in this game.

Granted, the Chargers held the 27th rank in defensive DVOA heading into this contest, so while the Titans were much more efficient on the offensive side of the ball, the matchup must be taken into account.

Even so, Tannehill exceeded my expectations in this performance. He challenged tight windows with confidence while giving his pass-catchers a chance on 50-50 balls, and his receivers (and tight ends) rewarded him for that trust.

So while the Chargers’ defense ranks among the worst they’ll see this year, I actually thought the Titans offense performed at a very high level independent of opponent. There were only a few instances of busted coverages or blown assignments; most of the Titans’ big plays came on tight-window contested catches.

That high level of play by the quarterbacks and pass-catchers should be good enough to compete with any defense... assuming they can stay consistent.

Mike will have a much more detailed breakdown with his weekly All-22 soon, but in the meantime, let’s take a closer look at some of Tannehill’s best throws from Week 7.

1st & 10 at TEN 31 — Ryan Tannehill to Jonnu Smith for 24 yards

Let’s start with the Titans’ first offensive play. Tannehill drops straight back and notices the linebacker step downhill (despite no play-action fake). Knowing Jonnu has inside leverage, Tannehill directs this pass to the inside and effectively throws his man open for a big play downfield to start the drive.

2nd & 5 at TEN 26 — Ryan Tannehill to Corey Davis for 11 yards

On this next pass, the Titans are running a traditional yankee concept with a slight alteration. Rather than continue across the field, Corey Davis stops his route and drifts back to the outside. It’s a two-man concept where neither receiver really gets open, but Tannehill stands tall against the pass rush and delivers a strike to Davis, perfectly placed between the bracketed coverage. Davis does an excellent job providing a target for his quarterback, but this is a heck of a throw by Tannehill.

2nd & 8 at TEN 39 — Ryan Tannehill to Corey Davis for 16 yards

In my opinion, this was Tannehill’s best throw of the game. While I don’t love him running out of a clean pocket, you can tell he’s moving to get away from pressure allowed by Nate Davis, although Davis actually recovers nicely here to maintain the pocket. But Tannehill is already moving; he has three receivers running towards the far sideline, so he takes off that direction. Somehow, Tannehill fits this pass into Davis, on the move, across his body, into an impossible window.

2nd & 8 at TEN 32 — Ryan Tannehill to AJ Brown for 15 yards

On this play to AJ Brown, Tannehill does a nice job feeling the pressure and moving in the pocket to help Dennis Kelly push Bosa around the arc. With the deep middle linebacker showing Tannehill his backside, Tannehill zips this pass to Brown, who does a nice job coming back to attack the ball. Tannehill is rewarded for giving his receiver a chance downfield.

1st & Goal at LAC 8 — Ryan Tannehill to Corey Davis for 8-yard touchdown

On this touchdown pass to Davis, Tannehill does an excellent job of being confident decisive with the football. Notice how he begins throwing as soon as he reaches the top of his drop. Plant, fire, touchdown. This kind of decisiveness has been missing from the Titans offense for most of the season. Any hesitation here and the window disappears.

2nd & 9 at TEN 30 — Ryan Tannehill to Adam Humphries for 11 yards

This is a pretty simple play on a second-and-nine, but I’m highlighting it to point out the way Tannehill is helping Dennis Kelly. Kelly has a tough matchup with Joey Bosa, who wins around the edge pretty quickly. But Tannehill hardly reaches the top of his drop before he steps forward to avoid the rush and lasers a first-down strike to Adam Humphries.

3rd & Goal at LAC 5 — Ryan Tannehill to Tajae Sharpe for 5-yard touchdown

The touchdown pass to Tajae Sharpe may seem simple on first glance, but despite the blown coverage, this is not an easy throw. The ball has to travel over the linebackers while remaining catchable. Tannehill does a nice job delivering the ball just over the reach of the defenders to hit Sharpe at the back boundary.

3rd & 1 at TEN 34 — Ryan Tannehill to Corey Davis for 38 yards

The last play I want to look at went 38 yards to Corey Davis. The Chargers are in zone coverage, and Tannehill catches Desmond King with his hips facing the left sideline. He squeezes the pass between King and the cornerback into another impossible window, letting Davis do the hard work after the catch. Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest decision on this 3rd down with only one yard to gain, but it resulted in the Titans’ longest gain of the day. Hard to fault this throw too much.

Was Tannehill perfect? No, he did take a couple of sacks after holding the ball for too long—to be fair, the options downfield were spare at best on both of those sacks—when he could have maybe thrown the ball away. And there were a couple of open plays he missed downfield (AJ Brown had a step on a corner route where Tannehill ended up throwing it away). But overall, Tannehill was the main engine driving the offense to its first 400-yard outing of the 2019 season.

A lot of these throws could be considered dangerous passes, but just giving the receivers more chances will result in more positive plays than negative ones. Even if some of these tight-window throws don’t work out (or worst-case, get intercepted), the volume of passes is going to lead to a lot more big gains, the type that have been missing from this offense.

Consider this: through 7 games, the Titans rank 19th in explosive passes (20+ yards) with 21 such plays. 5 of those 21 explosives have come in just over 5 quarters with Tannehill under center. A large part of that is giving his receivers more chances to make plays downfield.

So what does all this mean for the Titans?

Ryan Tannehill may be setting himself up for a longer stint as the Titans quarterback than most would’ve expected. If he can maintain this level of play—a big “if,” I know—the Titans offense should be capable of supporting the defense and winning some games down the stretch.

At 3-4, while playoffs are still a bit of a long shot, the Titans season is certainly not over. They would likely have to leapfrog the Colts or Texans to secure a wildcard spot (as overtaking Buffalo looks increasingly less likely each week), but bigger mid-season turnarounds have been accomplished, especially if Tannehill can continue to spark the offense. Just last season, the Texans ripped off 9 straight wins while the Colts won 9 of their last 10, and both made the playoffs. Could that be the Titans this year?

There are some very winnable games coming up on the schedule. If Tannehill can keep this train going, the Titans could be a playoff contender yet. As always with this team, consistency will be key.

Looking long term, if Tannehill continues to excel, the Titans may decide to bring him back as the starting quarterback for 2020. They would likely still be looking for their franchise quarterback early in April’s draft, but Tannehill appears capable of bridging the gap for at least a season, maybe more. If the Titans decide they don’t like the 2020 quarterback options—or don’t want to fight it out with all the other QB-needy teams—they could push that franchise quarterback decision to the 2021 offseason. That would give Robinson a chance to evaluate Art Smith for another full season before handing over the reigns to a rookie QB.

Tannehill could easily be this decade’s Matt Hasselbeck, capable of keeping the Titans competitive on a weekly basis while mentoring a rookie signal-caller.

It’s a big reaction after just one game, but in this week-to-week league, things can change quickly. How much has the Titans’ outlook changed in the last week at the most important position in sports?