MythBusters: Why Ryan Tannehill is a scheme-transcendent, top-five NFL quarterback

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In this series, Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar dives down into the NFL’s common myths and examines what the real story is. In this installment, it’s time for a greater appreciation of Ryan Tannehill, who has developed from an iffy guy in some bad Dolphins offenses to one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks — regardless of scheme or personnel — with the Titans.

How many NFL quarterbacks are truly scheme-transcendent? In other words, how many quarterbacks could succeed at or near their current levels of efficiency no matter their offensive structure? It’s a very short list at any given time. Right now, you’d probably bring up Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson (heck, you could argue that Wilson would be even better in other offenses), Deshaun Watson, and unless the system required the quarterback to run 100 times a season, perhaps Tom Brady.

If I bring up Ryan Tannehill’s name, you’d probably respond that without running back Derrick Henry and the specter of play-action, Tannehill is Just Another Guy. It is the purpose of this particular MythBusters piece to disabuse you of that notion. That’s the story, and most people are sticking to it. In truth, Tannehill has proven this season that he can succeed in just about any structure as the facilitator of the league’s top scoring offense.

In 2019, Tannehill’s first season as the Titans’ starting quarterback (an honor he didn’t actually gain until Week 7), he was by far the NFL’s most efficient quarterback when using play-action. Including the postseason, per Pro Football Focus, Tannehill completed 77.1% of his passes for 1,382 yards, 11 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 140.6. Russell Wilson ranked second with a passer rating of 124.6, to show you how large the divide was. Add in Tannehill’s numbers when he wasn’t using play-action — a 64.6% completion rate with 16 touchdowns, four picks, and a passer rating of 101.7 — and it could be said that while he didn’t collapse when not using play-action, it certainly helped, as did Henry’s presence to influence linebackers and safeties and create stacked boxes that Tannehill could exploit.

Through the first 14 games of the 2020 season, Tannehill is once again working defenses to death when using play-action. He’s completed 62.6% of his passes for a league-high 1,580 yards, 12 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 114.4, If those numbers (especially the league-high 10.2 yards per attempt) tell you that the Titans are using play-action to create even more shot plays this season… well, sort of. On play-action throws of 20 or more air yards, per Sports Info Solutions, Tannehill has 10 completions in 19 attempts for 414 yards, 314 air yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Last season, Tannehill completed seven passes on 15 attempts for 313 yards, 240 air yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. If you prorate that over a full season, there isn’t much of a difference in opportunity.

But here’s where the narratives about Tannehill go south. This season when he’s not using play-action, Tannehill’s been absolutely ridiculous: A 68.7% completion rate (much higher than with play-action) for 1,902 yards, 6.9 yards per attempt, a passer rating of 108.2… and 19 touchdown passes to just two interceptions. Only Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, and Russell Wilson have higher passer ratings with no play-action. The increased diversity and effectiveness of the Titans’ passing game in this regard is one reason Tennessee leads the NFL with 436 points (31.1 points per game) after 14 games, and why Tannehill’s overall numbers have been dizzying since he became the team’s full-time starter.

Does it help that the Titans have Derrick Henry loading up against stacked boxes (eight or more defenders) on 29.91% of his runs? Sure, it does. But Henry faced stacked boxes on 35.31% of his runs in 2019, per NFL Next Gen Stats, so it’s not quite the factor it used to be. Defenses are respecting the quarterback in this case at a higher rate than last season, and there are obvious reasons for that.

So, why is Tannehill so effective without his alleged crutches? First, it’s no fun for any defense to have to deal with receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis all the time, especially as Davis has come on in the second half of the season.

Second, they’re great in the passing game with heavy personnel. Per Sharp Football Stats, Tennessee leads the league in “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends) at 33%, and in “12,” Tannehill has a 100.2 passer rating with seven touchdowns and three picks. The Titans have also run “13” personnel on 9% of their plays (only the Browns and Giants have used it at a higher rate), which makes a defense waver between stacked boxes and coverage alignment for more explosive plays. When in “13” personnel, Tannehill has a 124.7 passer rating, with six touchdown passes to no interceptions. Just as sure as you’ll see play-action out of those heavier packages, you’ll also see motion used without it to influence a defense.

On this three-yard touchdown pass to the Lions in Week 15, Tennessee has tight ends Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, and Jonnu Smith on the field, and watch how motioning Smith into the backfield pre-snap forces Detroit’s defense to become even more compressed, leading to an easy shot to Evans on the wheel route. This isn’t play-action, but it is a great example of using motion to make a defense do what you want it to do — and without Derrick Henry.

And here, out of “12” personnel with Pruitt and tight end Geoff Swaim against the Browns in Week 13, Henry gets flexed out of the backfield pre-snap, and Tannehill exploits Cleveland’s lack of a deep safety of note with this 27-yard touchdown pass to Pruitt. No play-action, no threat of a running back, no problem.

So, what about “11” personnel — one tight end, one running back, and three receivers? The Titans have run “11” on just 39% of their offensive plays this season (only the Vikings are lower at 30%), but out of that grouping, Tannehill has a passer rating of 113.0, with 15 touchdowns and just one interception. Are we still saying that he needs this or that or he’ll fall apart? Perhaps we should move beyond that.

The Colts learned to move beyond it on this 69-yard touchdown to A.J. Brown in Week 12. Pruitt is the only tight end on the field, and he’s Tannehill’s first read on the short crosser. Tannehill passes that up to hit Brown on the slant, and helped by the Colts’ front-side blitz and receiver Cameron Batson taking slot cornerback Kenny Moore up the seam on the other side, Brown runs right through Indianapolis’ generally-sound defense for the score. The larger point here, though, is that if Tannehill was ever a simple one-read guy reliant on a running game and play-action to make plays like this happen, he’s not anymore.

One way in which play-action works for the Titans that you may not expect? Working Tannehill in as a productive runner. Remember that since Week 7 of the 2019 season, Tannehill is responsible for more touchdowns than Lamar Jackson, and this isn’t another “deceptively fast” quarterback. Tannehill played receiver his first two seasons at Texas A & M, and he can still get it done. Back to the Lions in Week 15, and if Detroit’s defense is going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe on the fake to Henry, Tannehill will be more than happy to scamper into the end zone for a 29-yard score. This play won’t make you forget Patrick Mahomes, but it is a reminder that Tannehill can also make defenses think about his actual athleticism.

Do you want a quarterback who’s composed and efficient under pressure? Only Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert have more passing touchdowns when pressured than Tannehill, who’s tied with Josh Allen at nine. Tennessee’s offense hasn’t featured an inordinate number of deep throws this season, but Tannehill had completed 17 of 35 passes or 20 or more air yards for 634 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 110.4 passer rating. He ranks fourth in DYAR and third in DVOA among the NFL’s starting quarterbacks this season, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s right where he should be — as a top-five quarterback who can help his team win in any scenario.

That’s who Ryan Tannehill is right now, whether he’s recognized that way or not.