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Ryan Tannehill rescued the Titans by playing like one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks

Ryan Tannehill rescued the Titans by playing like one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks
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Ryan Tannehill, acquired by the Tennessee Titans from the Miami Dolphins for draft picks last spring, was initially looked at as an insurance policy for starting quarterback Marcus Mariota, a former first-round pick with injury concerns.

“He understands that he’s coming in as a backup quarterback,” Titans GM Jon Robinson said of Tannehill after making the deal.

Instead, Tennessee got a fringe MVP candidate who has put the Titans in the thick of the playoff race.

The 8-5 Titans can’t clinch a playoff spot this week but they are tied with Houston atop the AFC South and favoured over the Texans on Sunday at home. A win would improve Tennessee’s post-season chances from 50 to 73 per cent, according to The New York Times playoff calculator. If the Titans win both on Sunday and again when they face the Texans in the regular season finale, Tennessee would lock up the division title and host a wild-card game. Even if they don’t win in the division, they’re in the hunt for a wild-card spot, currently tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the final berth, although Pittsburgh owns the tiebreaker.

It’s a far cry from the situation Tennessee faced when Tannehill took over the starting job in Week 7. The Titans were then 2-4, two games back of the Texans and coming off back-to-back losses in which they scored a total of seven points. “A change at quarterback could be on the horizon, but the problems reach beyond that position,” ESPN.com wrote at the time.

With Tannehill starting, the Titans have gone 6-1 since, averaging 31.4 points per game, with the 31-year-old quarterback rediscovering some of the magic that led to him being a first-round pick in 2012. Tannehill was even named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week after the Titans’ 42-21 win over the Oakland Raiders last weekend, his first such honour since 2015. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 391 yards in that contest, throwing three touchdowns and an interception. According to NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, he’s the only quarterback in NFL history other than Seattle’s Russell Wilson to have a stretch of four straight games with at least two passing touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 125 or higher.

Tannehill has resisted calls to take stock of his stellar play, saying “I’ve seen how this thing goes. The waves and the ins and outs of the season, so if you start taking a step back at this point then you’re doing a disservice to your teammates and to yourself.”

Still, it’s hard not to gawk at his numbers. Tannehill leads the league in yards per attempt (9.9) and passer rating (121.7). He ranks in the top five in completion rate (73 per cent), touchdown rate (eight per cent) and first-down rate (45 per cent). He’s been the seventh-best passer of 2019, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus — and that includes all quarterbacks’ performances from the beginning of the season. If we look at production only since Week 7, when Tannehill made his first start, he’s been the league’s fourth-best passer, behind only Lamar Jackson, the MVP front-runner; Russell Wilson, another popular MVP candidate; and Drew Brees.

“He’s been money at crunch time,” Oakland coach Jon Gruden said ahead of the Week 14 matchup. “You saw the Chiefs game. He’s played very, very good football when all the chips are on the table. That’s No. 1. And he’s showcasing his dual threat ability. He can throw it, he can run it, and they run a lot of creative plays with him because of his athleticism ...”

The biggest improvement the Titans have seen after switching from Mariota to Tannehill is in accuracy. Tannehill leads the league in completion percentage above expectation, meaning he is outperforming expectations when considering three factors: how much separation the intended receiver had from the nearest defender, where the receiver is on the field and the separation the passer had from the nearest pass rusher at the time of throw. That’s no small feat considering Tannehill is not afraid to take chances down the field: He is averaging better than nine air yards per attempt, the fifth-highest mark among passers this season.

In addition, 20 per cent of Tannehill’s passes have been thrown into tight coverage, according to the NFL’s Next Gen stats. Only three quarterbacks with at least 200 passing attempts — Matthew Stafford, Daniel Jones and Ryan Fitzpatrick — have thrown more often into tight windows this season, and they’re a combined 8-19-1 when starting.

Mariota, by comparison, completed fewer passes than you would have expected this season (59 per cent, compared to 62 per cent expected) while averaging just seven air yards per attempt in 2019.

A higher completion rate naturally leads to a more efficient offence. From Weeks 1 to 6, with Mariota as the starter, the Titans scored 1.3 points per drive (30th) and converted 53 per cent of their red-zone opportunities (tied for 18th). During Weeks 7 to 14, with Tannehill under centre, that has improved to 2.5 points per drive (fifth) and 86 per cent in the red zone (first).

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There has been a noticeable boost for running back Derrick Henry, too. He produced four rushing touchdowns over 113 carries during the first six weeks of the season, while averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Since Week 7, Henry has nine touchdowns over 137 carries while averaging better than six yards per tote. He now leads the league with 13 rushing touchdowns, taking advantage of defences as they scramble to stop the Titans’ newly potent passing attack.

“We just have to keep it rolling. The offence is firing on all cylinders right now,” Tennessee’s offensive tackle Jack Conklin said. “That’s the goal for us every week: Come in and wear down a team.”
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