Can I have a mulligan?
Weeks ago, I trashed Tennessee, writing, “Nine weeks is more than enough time to come to a definitive conclusion: Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Titans aren’t very good.”
Three weeks and two games later, I look foolish. Since a Week 9 loss to the Panthers, Tennessee has won two straight, shocking Kansas City and overwhelming Jacksonville with 28 points in the first nine minutes of the second half.
Not only are the Titans (6-5) good, they have a big advantage over the rest of the AFC teams in the wild-card hunt: quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who became starter in Week 7. He's playing better than every QB in the conference not named Lamar Jackson.
Outside of the Carolina loss, in which he threw two interceptions and posted an 82.3 passer rating, Tannehill has been spectacular. He has nine touchdowns and one interception in his other four starts; his average passer rating in those games is 129.9. (League average passer rating overall is 91.0)
This isn’t a case of skill players playing out of their minds to aid a new starter. Per Pro Football Reference, Tannehill’s on-target throw percentage is 81.3, fourth best in the league. His bad-throw percentage is 11.3, lowest of all qualifying quarterbacks.
Former Titans starter Marcus Mariota, whom head coach Mike Vrabel stayed with way too long, struggled mightily in both of those categories. His 20.9 bad-throw percentage is tied for worst in the league with Mason Rudolph, benched this week by the Steelers; Mariota's on-target throw percentage is 71.6, 27th in the NFL.
Tannehill has transformed the offense since his insertion into the starting lineup. In Mariota’s six starts, Tennessee averaged 16.3 points. With Tannehill under center, that figure is 29.4. The Titans failed to generate 400 yards in any of Mariota’s starts, but have done so three times with Tannehill.
The trickle-down effect is obvious. Corey Davis and rookie A.J. Brown, drafted to be dynamic receiving threats for Mariota, look the part now. Tannehill only attempted 37 passes over the past two games, but the damage was significant (440 yards and four touchdowns).
No one has benefited more from Tannehill’s presence than Tennessee’s best and most consistent offensive force, running back Derrick Henry. In Mariota’s six starts, Henry had 113 carries for 416 yards (3.7 yards per carry). In five Tannehill five starts, Henry has rushed for 575 yards on 93 carries, a 6.2-yard-per-carry average. Clearly, the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder is a wrecking ball again.
Opponents have pressured Tannehill, but he has made them pay. In 55 dropbacks against blitzes this season, he's 36-for-48 for 533 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 145.6 passer rating. That’s the mark of a confident quarterback dictating terms to the defense, not the other way around. His legs have also helped, as he has a career-high three rushing touchdowns -- one an acrobatic dive against the Jaguars.
Tannehill’s sudden surge makes the AFC South race much more interesting. The Texans (7-4), who have yet to play the Titans, looked like the strongest team, but they must deal at home with the Patriots in Week 13. In its next two games, Tennessee plays at Indianapolis and Oakland, but if it wins those, the Titans will have a golden opportunity to take over first from Houston in mid-December.
At the very least, a playoff berth seems within reach. Here’s the quarterback roll call for the rest of the AFC’s wild-card contenders: Devlin Hodges (Steelers), Josh Allen (Bills), Derek Carr (Raiders), Baker Mayfield (Browns) and Jacoby Brissett (Colts). I’d take Tannehill over every one of them.
Tennessee has a top-10 defense, one of the league’s most physical running backs, and wide receivers who are capable of making big plays as so long as someone can reliably get them the ball. Tannehill has done that, and much more. If he keeps it up, the Titans will make the playoffs --- and be a problem for whomever they play there.