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After four starts, what do we know about Ryan Tannehill and his version of the Titans offense?

Could Tannehill be the Titans starter in 2020 and beyond? Does this offense have enough bite for a playoff push through a tough remaining schedule?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Originally expected to be high end insurance for the oft-injured Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill took over for an ineffective Mariota midway through the Titans Week 6 loss in Denver. Now four starts into the Tannehill experiment, Tennessee is back even at 5-5 thanks to a 3-1 run under their new quarterback.

The former Dolphins signal caller has breathed new life into both a floundering Titans offense and the team’s hopes of returning to the postseason. Sure, the road to the promised land is still riddled with roadblocks, but just a half game out of the second wildcard spot with six games left is quite a bit better than where they were four weeks ago and with games remaining against the Colts and Raiders along with two matchups against the division-leading Texans, the Titans control their own destiny from this point forward.

There are plenty of reasons for doubt — the tough schedule, the continued pass protection issues, a shaky kicker, no Malcolm Butler, general inconsistency from week to week, etc — but the biggest reason for optimism right now is the Titans offense. Yes, you read that right... the Titans offense with Ryan Tannehill at the helm is a reason to hold out some level of hope over the next six games.

Let’s take a quick index of exactly what this offense has done over the last four weeks (stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference and Sharp Football Stats):

  • Passer Rating: 107.7 (7th in the NFL)
  • Completion Percentage: 70.2% (5th in the NFL)
  • Net Yards Per Pass Attempt*: 6.99 (10th in the NFL)
  • Pass Success Rate: 50% (11th in the NFL)
  • Yards Per Offensive Play: 6.3 (5th in the NFL)
  • Yards Per Rush Attempt: 5.31 (3rd in the NFL)
  • Points Per Game: 26.3 (10th in the NFL)

*This stat takes passing yards and subtracts out lost yardage due to sacks and divides by total dropbacks.

That’s all happened despite facing three defenses — Panthers (9th), Chiefs (11th), and Buccaneers (16th) — that currently rank in the top half of the league in defensive DVOA. The Chargers are the lone bottom dweller, checking in at 26th.

Have there still been issues with the offense over the last few weeks? Sure. The unwillingness to challenge a bad Bucs pass defense and the inability to get Derrick Henry established early against a bad Panthers run defense being chief among them, but the numbers above suggest a real, tangible improvement in the Titans offense since Tannehill took over (all without the services of Delanie Walker as well). The offense ranked in the bottom half of the league in every single one of the stats listed above through Week 6. In fact, they were bottom ten in most of them.

Regardless of where you stood with Marcus Mariota, I think we can all agree that Ryan Tannehill has played well since he came into the starting job. If he hadn’t won you over before yesterday, the comeback drive and this gutsy run for the two-point conversion should have done it.

I suspect that most of the locker room believed in Tannehill prior to this moment, but I can’t imagine he has anything less than universal support after it.

We shouldn’t make Tannehill out to be some perfect quarterback, obviously. We saw what perfection — or as close as you can realistically get to it — looks like on the opposite sideline yesterday. Tannehill still takes some unnecessary sacks, really seems to struggle with ball security in the pocket, and sometimes his aggression throwing downfield can result in interceptions. Turnovers are up over the four weeks that he’s been under center and that is contributing to the backslide of the Titans defense in recent weeks (though playing without Jurrell Casey, Malcolm Butler, and Jayon Brown for multiple games of this stretch certainly has something to do with it too).

However, if you asked me if I could live with one extra turnover per game in exchange for 10 more points per game, I’d make that trade every time. That’s essentially the trade off the Titans have made.

Tennessee now has two weeks to get healthy — Paul Kuharsky has already reported this morning that the team is optimistic that Delanie Walker and Jurrell Casey will be ready to return against Jacksonville — and do some self-scouting to prepare for the stretch run. They also will get a chance to use the extra time to tweak a few things further to suit Tannehill’s preferences. With the progression that we’ve seen from this offense over the last four weeks, there is at least a flicker of hope for a miraculous run to the playoffs.

Regardless of whether the Titans actually get into the postseason, I think we are at a point where we have to have a conversation about Ryan Tannehill as a potential extension candidate. With no quarterbacks currently under contract past the end of this season — besides injured practice squader Logan Woodside — Jon Robinson is going to have to sign a quarterback between now and mid-March. Even if the team decides they want to draft a QB of the future in Vegas in April, they’ll need a veteran to either backup the rookie or be the bridge to get the team to the spot when the young passer is ready.

Why not Tannehill at this point? The other options are either unrealistic — I’ll believe that Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, or Tom Brady ever suit up for another team when I see it — or uninspiring. I could maybe be talked into Teddy Bridgewater if he doesn’t end up replacing Drew Brees in New Orleans, but let’s strip the names off the resumes below and think about which is more impressive:

  • Quarterback A came off the bench for the Saints — an offense led by Sean Payton and featuring an elite offensive line, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas — and went 5-0 while completing 67.7% of his passes for 1,370 yards (7.0 YPA), 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He added 22 runs for 37 yards and no touchdowns on the ground. The team averaged 25.0 points per game.
  • Quarterback B came off the bench for the Titans — an offense led by first time playcaller Arthur Smith and featuring a struggling offensive line, Derrick Henry, and rookie receiver A.J. Brown — and went 3-1 while completing 71.3% of his passes for 1,161 yards (8.5 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. He added 19 runs for 83 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The team averaged 26.3 points per game.

Which QB would you choose?

I would be OK if the Titans took the bye week as an opportunity to work on an extension for Tannehill at this point. I still strongly believe that they need to draft one of the top quarterbacks coming out this year, but Tannehill has proven that he can give you a chance to win and allow the organization to be patient with it’s next “QB of the Future”, a luxury that was not afforded to Marcus Mariota. If Tannehill continues to take off, you’ve got a low cost, high end backup for the next few years — Tannehill’s injury history suggests a high quality backup would be a good idea — and a top shelf trade chip.

I’m not sure I’m fully ready to buy the idea that Tannehill could experience a late career renaissance in Tennessee similar to Rich Gannon in Oakland or Trent Green in Kansas City or Carson Palmer in Arizona, but his play to this point won’t allow me to completely rule it out either. What I do know for certain is that he has revitalized the Titans offense and is the primary reason for fans to carry some hope into the last six games of the 2019 regular season.