Ryan Tannehill is free of the Tom Brady specter. Will he prove the Titans right?

It’s easy to forget now, with Tom Brady copyrighting the heavily mocked catchphrase “Tompa Bay” and his buddy Rob Gronkowski joining him, but there was a time when many pegged the G.O.A.T. as a possibility for the Tennessee Titans.

The reasons why weren’t awful. In Tennessee, Brady could hand it to Derrick Henry, a 250-pound tank disguised as a running back. He could throw it to A.J. Brown, a dependable run-after-the-catch specialist who could serve as a rocked-up Julian Edelman. And most important, Brady could do it all behind one of the game’s strongest and nastiest offensive lines, for a team that just reached the AFC championship game and was coached by a former teammate in Mike Vrabel.

So yeah, the fit was solid. It just didn’t add up to the teammates who have the back of the man Brady would have replaced — Ryan Tannehill.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, left, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speak at midfield after an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, left, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speak at midfield after an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“First and foremost, it was entertaining at the time, but I already had a sense Tannehill was going to be our quarterback of the future when our season was over with,” Titans safety and team captain Kevin Byard told reporters Tuesday. “I didn’t really think the Tom Brady stuff was real; I think it was kinda just smoke and mirrors.”

Tannehill wound up signing a massive four-year, $118 million contract with the Titans in mid-March, five days before Brady joined Tampa Bay.

While Byard was confident that Tannehill would return under center in 2020, Tannehill, a QB in the league since 2012, knew not to assume.

“Yeah, I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Tannehill said. “Obviously, I knew we were in negotiations and kinda working on it, but as a player, you don’t know if those things are real, or if they’re trying to play both sides of the coin or what. I knew if they wanted me back, then we were gonna get it worked out. And if they wanted to sign Tom, then they probably would have signed Tom.”

They didn’t, and one thing that Byard made clear Tuesday was his belief that Tannehill deserved to return.

“Just a great leader of men,” Byard said. “We go to bible study all the time, [and] just getting to know him, he’s a great person. … He had a really great year last year but he’s so humble. I can always ride behind a guy like that who doesn’t get too high or too low.”

Some of the highs of Tannehill’s 2019 season: guiding the Titans to a 7-3 record as a starter, completing 70.3 percent of his passes for 2,742 yards, accounting for 26 total touchdowns and six interceptions and earning his first Pro Bowl nod.

“He’s a very even-keeled guy. ... He’s a winner, he works very hard,” Byard said. “I watch him in the meetings; he’s the last guy who leaves the building, first guy in in the morning. Everything that you’ll want out of a franchise quarterback.”

Yet, the challenge for Tannehill will be proving that last season was no fluke when, by any measure, he was outstanding. He was dangerous on play-action as he boasted Pro Football Focus’ top NFL passer rating on such plays. He was first overall in passer rating on all dropbacks, as well. His passer rating under pressure was stellar (second), and so was his deep passer rating (fifth).

Tennessee has a solid roster, one that fits the coaching staff extraordinarily well and is built to win now. Yet, while the Titans have done enough to plug some offseason departures — re-signing Dennis Kelly and drafting Isaiah Wilson in Round 1 to replace stud right tackle Jack Conklin — they haven’t done a ton to get better this offseason.

So for Tennessee to build on last season’s success, they’ll need Tannehill to ward off regression in the aforementioned categories, all of which were far better than his 2018 numbers with Miami.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) scores a touchdown on a 1-yard run against the Houston Texans in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/James Kenney)

And while avoiding regression might look like a daunting task, after handing Tannehill $62 million guaranteed this offseason, it’s certainly not an unreasonable demand.

From here, the equation is simple. If he rises to the occasion, the Titans will beat up teams again and everyone will forget the whole Brady speculation. If he doesn’t — and Brady goes on to kill it in Tampa with Gronk — then the criticism will come hot and heavy.

Not that Tannehill is worried about that, of course. He insists he wasn’t sweating when his contract was in limbo amid the Brady-Vrabel reunion speculation a month ago.

He heard every armchair quarterback’s second-guessing and comparisons to the G.O.A.T., yet showed calm. That isn’t a bad thing for a quarterback the Titans have made a heavy investment in bringing back.

“Obviously I was aware of the situation, I knew it could be happening, but I wasn’t sitting at home stressed, [wondering] what could happen because at that point, it's really kinda out of my hands,” Tannehill said. “I’m thankful for the way it worked out. I was excited to be back, I wanted to be back. I loved the guys on the team, I like the direction this program is headed, what we did last year and how I think we can build on that going into my year two with this team.”

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