The 2022 Tennessee Titans will go as far as Ryan Tannehill is able to take them | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

He’ll be the story, even when he’s not. He’ll be the reason the 2022 Tennessee Titans are great or terrible or — once again — simply not good enough when it matters most.

He’ll be measured against the NFL's best quarterbacks, even though hardly anyone seems to think he belongs among them. He’ll have to be better and do more, even though he’s already accomplished more here than would have been reasonably expected a few years back.

Doesn’t matter. Not in 2022.

These Titans, end of the day, are going as far as Ryan Tannehill can take them.

Whether that truth should be worrisome or welcome or whatever else, I don't know. Weighing the value of this Titans quarterback is never so clear-cut, often making for a worthy and passionate debate. A convincing case could be made either way.

Why wouldn’t you trust someone who won 23 games over the past two seasons? You don't luck into that in the NFL.

But I mean, how could you trust Tannehill? You saw the playoff loss, right? Those three interceptions against the Cincinnati Bengals last season cost the Titans a priceless opportunity as the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

If you wrote off Tannehill right there, I couldn’t blame you.

But I also wouldn’t agree.

And neither did the Titans. They only tiptoed in the direction of seismic change at the game’s most important position, keeping Logan Woodside, only drafting Malik Willis – a talent, but a project who'd need time – when he fell to them in the third round.

Willis’ presence breathed life into a dull preseason, but he’s nowhere close to being a threat to Tannehill’s job. 

This season is clearly Tannehill’s to do with what he can, and then you reevaluate later, more enlightened as to what — and perhaps who — it’ll take for the Titans to cross that good-to-great line.

Tannehill, 34, isn’t just tasked with leading the Titans back to the playoffs. He’ll need to win once there.

A new quarterback?

On the first game week of a season that is looking a lot like a referendum on his future, Tannehill was basically asked about that: Does this season set a course for the rest of his career? His answer was elusive and believable at the same time. “I attack each and every season like it could be your last."

This contrasted with moments before, when Tannehill — once that playoff defeat came up — made headlines by mentioning “a burning fire inside of me.” A good line, but an empty sentiment, lest anyone think Tannehill didn’t have “a burning fire” prior to that Bengals game.

It did, however, neatly fit into a popular offseason narrative of Tannehill being prodded by the playoff game into becoming a better version of himself, a better quarterback and leader. Tannehill bolstered such a view by saying he was pushing teammates harder during training camp. 

And Tannehill personally — from all accounts — had a strong training camp, with fewer mistakes and more explosive pass plays during practices.

“He's been accurate. He's been decisive. He's had command of what we're trying to do,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “His leadership has been really good.”

OK, but Tannehill has been all those things previously for the Titans, right?

What exactly has changed?

Vrabel didn’t want to touch that one. Neither did Tannehill, for that matter. When I asked the quarterback what he wanted to correct from last season, he picked up the blitz from a mile away: “Yeah, I'm sorry. I'm going to sidestep your question here."

As for the idea of there being more kindling on that “fire”? Well …

“I think Ryan is a pretty high-competitive-spirit guy to begin with,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said.

And his being a better leader and teammate? Well …

“He's always done a great job of leading the offense and being prepared and ready to go,” Woodside said. “… He’s looked the same to me. He's always tried to be the same guy each and every day he's coming into the building.”

What's next?

None of this, of course, will matter once the real season begins Sunday against the New York Giants (3:25 p.m. CT, Fox).

And anyway, the narrative that Tannehill needed fixing this offseason rested on first believing that his statistical regression in 2021 meant something was broken.

His interceptions doubled, from seven to 14. His passing TDs dipped from 33 to 21 — despite playing one more game. And the QB rating (89.6) was his lowest since 2015 with the Miami Dolphins.

That’s one side. There's another, of course. One that'd delve into how his top receivers couldn’t stay healthy, how he lacked a true No. 1 tight end, how Derrick Henry missed half the season, how the Titans’ pass protection became shaky.

In 2021, Tannehill was sacked 47 times — more than any of his 10 NFL seasons except one. In 2020, he had only been sacked only 24 times. 

And yet, the Titans still won more games (12) in 2021 and finished higher in the AFC than in 2020. 

Vrabel won NFL Coach of the Year for that. His stock couldn't be much higher, and deservedly so.

Not the quarterback, though. His stock has plummeted league-wide. Tannehill is being viewed as a hindrance, the primary reason why the Matt Ryan-led Indianapolis Colts should be favored in the AFC South.

After that playoff loss to Cincy, Tannehill became the “Yeah, but” in seemingly every national conversation about the Titans. As in, “Yeah, the defense is better and Henry is healthy, but how far can they really go with Tannehill as the quarterback?”

Is that unfair, though? I can’t say that it is. 

Not unless Tannehill proves otherwise in 2022.

"The past is the past," he said, "and I'm ready for this year."

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.