Adam Gase had a winning record with Ryan Tannehill as his starting quarterback in Miami. Let that sink in for a second.
The New York Jets’ front office watched Adam Gase go 23-25 in Miami (13-11 with Tannehill starting) including one trip to the playoffs, and thought: “Adam Gase would be great for our new quarterback we just selected third overall.” He was not.
Gase was the product of an incredibly large and long domino effect that started with Peyton Manning and ended with Tannehill. I’m not saying that Tannehill is as good as Peyton Manning. Not at all, but in the same vein, both quarterbacks were able to win a lot of games in spite of having Gase on their sidelines.
Yet despite having Gase call plays for him, Tannehill was viewed in a mostly negative light until he left South Beach. There were some Dolphins fans who saw his potential and worried that Tannehill could wind up becoming a franchise guy for a different team, but most people outside of Miami figured Tannehill could never and would never be a star player on one of the league’s top offenses. Tannehill is exactly that now. He is a star. He is a leader. And he is a pivotal part of Tennessee’s offense — perhaps even more pivotal than Derrick Henry. I’ll get to that in a second.
Yet, as was the case for Tannehill in Miami, a lot of people outside Tennessee don’t value Tannehill enough.
The arguments these fans always present against Tannehill are:
- He gets carried by Derrick Henry, and
- He’s a checkdown Charlie.
Neither of these are true. Would you consider Patrick Mahomes a checkdown guy? What about Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert, and Dak Prescott? None of them? Why not? Patrick Mahomes averaged 8.4 intended air yards per pass attempt last season. That’s the same mark as Tannehill. Every other quarterback I just mentioned actually had a lower AIAY in 2020.
That’s not just a one-year fluke for Tannehill either. In 2019, Tannehill finished third among quarterbacks with at least eight games started with an average intended air yards of 9.5 — only trailing Matthew Stafford (10.6) and Jameis Winston (10.4).
It’s not just his ability to sling the ball that’s impressive though. Tannehill’s accuracy on deep passes was pretty stellar as well. In 2020, Tannehill ranked fifth in accuracy percentage on throws 26-30 yards down the field. In terms of total accuracy on throws more than 20 yards downfield, Tannehill ranked ahead of quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, and Matt Ryan. So, yeah, when Julio Jones said he wanted a “big-armed QB”, Tannehill would, at the very least, be an upgrade in that department from what Jones had last year.
Lastly, if Tannehill checks down so often. Why was Derrick Henry (the most targeted back in Tennessee’s offense) the 58th most-targeted back in the NFL last season. The next closest Tennessee back, Jeremy McNichols, was 80th in halfback targets in 2020. Together, Henry and McNichols combined for 48 targets throughout all of last season — the fewest of any running back duo in the NFL.
To say Tannehill relies on Derrick Henry to succeed is a disservice to the former Texas A&M wide receiver. If anything, Henry has relied on Tannehill for his success. In the six weeks prior to Tannehill taking over the starting QB job in 2019, Derrick Henry was averaging just 3.68 yards per attempt. This wasn’t against super elite rush defenses either. In fact, only one team the Titans faced in those first six weeks — the Indianapolis Colts — finished top-10 in opposing rush yards per attempt. Two of the teams Tennessee faced — Jacksonville and Cleveland — allowed the second and third most rush yards per attempt. After Tannehill took over, Henry averaged 5.92 yards per attempt. Then, and only then, did Henry become the King.
I’m not trying to take away from Henry’s greatness. He’s certainly the most talented player on that Tennessee offense — even with Julio Jones in the fold now. However, to attribute all of Tannehill’s success to Derrick Henry diminishes what Tannehill has been able to do in his year and a half as the starter. He’s made two playoff appearances, has more playoff wins in that span than Lamar Jackson, has more touchdown passes than Patrick Mahomes, leads the league in passer rating, and is near the top of the league in both fourth-quarter comebacks, and game-winning drives. That can’t all be attributed to Derrick Henry. Does having an All-Pro RB the size of Rhode Island help? Absolutely, but don’t get it twisted. The NFL is a quarterback league. You need a good quarterback to compete. Luckily, the Titans have a great one.