The 2021 Titans won the AFC South for a second straight year, captured more victories than any conference contender except for the Chiefs and enjoyed a first-round bye as the No. 1 seed, only to fall flat in their Saturday night playoff debut, losing 19-16 to the upstart Bengals in Tennessee. And quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the catalyst of the team’s transformation to contender a few years ago, was the chief culprit of the Titans’ postseason disappointment for the second time in as many years.
A year after he and the Titans mustered just 13 points in a wild card loss to the Ravens, Tannehill saved one of his worst games of a mistake-riddled 2021 for the biggest spotlight, throwing three picks — his most since a four-interception outing in November — and struggling to capitalize on Tennessee’s historic defensive showing, including a playoff-record nine sacks. His first pick came on the very first play of the game, helping Cincinnati take an early advantage, and his second marked his fourth red-zone INT of the season, leading all NFL QBs.
Tannehill’s career remains a triumph, going from Dolphins castoff to Comeback Player of the Year. And his total body of work in Tennessee is that of a top 10 QB: Thirty wins in 43 starts, 76 touchdowns to just 27 interceptions, a 102 passer rating. His contract — a four-year, $118 million deal that runs through 2023 — pays him like the NFL’s 11th-best signal-caller, which is about right.
But Tannehill is also 0-3 in his last three playoff starts as the Titans QB. He’s chiefly responsible for their last two defeats, despite owning home-field advantage. In each of Tennessee’s two playoff wins with Tannehill, by the way, the QB didn’t throw more than 15 passes. He shouldn’t necessarily be docked for leaning on Pro Bowl teammates like Derrick Henry, but then there’s the 2021 season as well: even with Henry, D’Onta Foreman or Dontrell Hilliard powering the run game, Tannehill endured steep regression, totaling 18 turnovers — fourth-most among all QBs — compared to just 21 TDs in 17 games.
While Titans fans should be grateful for how the veteran has helped turn the franchise around, they wouldn’t be out of line to wonder if Tennessee would benefit from exploring alternatives at QB this offseason. If the team can’t trust Tannehill to get the club over the hump with home playoff games or No. 1 seeds, after all, isn’t a reevaluation the least they can do? That’s not even accounting for the QB’s massive $38.6M cap hit in 2022, which will make him the fifth-highest-paid QB in the league.
This isn’t quite a Carson Wentz situation, with which the rival Colts are wrestling. Tannehill has proven over several years he can offer top 10 production and deliver playoff berths. But much like Wentz, who was traded by the Eagles after a single bad year overshadowed at least three prior seasons of promise, Tannehill will rightly be judged at least partly on his recent results (or lack thereof). Did injuries to his supporting cast contribute to 2021 struggles? Sure. Has he earned the Titans’ unquestioned commitment going into 2022, considering their championship aspirations? That’s more complicated.
But what, exactly, are the team’s options, if any? Let’s explore:
Could the Titans move on from Tannehill if they wanted to?
Yes, but it wouldn’t be easy. The Titans still owe Tannehill $29M in guaranteed money, and they can’t release him without losing almost $20M off the bat. They could designate him a post-June 1 release, but even that wouldn’t save them any money. The feasible path to a split involves a trade, which would save the Titans an instant $10.2M, not to mention $17.8M in 2023. The catch there is Tennessee would need a partner willing to absorb the final two years of Tannehill’s contract.
Would there even be a trade market for Tannehill?
Oh sure. Again, this isn’t as dire a situation as the Wentz dilemma in Indy. While Tannehill may be quite dependent on the Titans’ run-first setup, he’s got nine years of starting experience, proving himself at least average and, at best, top 10 material. Teams like the Broncos, Panthers, Saints, Seahawks and Washington could easily be interested.
But should the Titans even try to move on from Tannehill?
That’s the real question with every team that employs a QB in his tier of good-but-not-necessarily-great passers. So if the alternative is … Derek Carr? Jimmy Garoppolo? Kirk Cousins? … then the answer is probably no. Working hard to avoid cap charges just to cut Tannehill (or get a couple of picks in a trade) and then add one of those veterans feels like straining yourself for the sake of change. But — and this is a big, conversation-changing but — if an MVP type like Russell Wilson is the target, then why the heck not? Wilson, in particular, hails from a similar-minded old-school contender, and if the Titans are comfortable with the price, assuming he’s available, then you’ve got yourselves a reason to shop Tannehill.
What about getting Tannehill to take a pay cut?
Sure, that’s possible, but there are two problems: 1.) He and his team aren’t going to be overly eager to do that, regardless of the playoff stinkers. For one, he just renegotiated his deal in 2021 to save the Titans money for the Julio Jones deal — which ended up boosting his own stock far less than expected. And then there’s the fact he’s still led the team to three straight playoff appearances. He’s not in danger of being cut outright, so he has the leverage. And then 2.) Getting Tannehill to reduce his own salary may help improve the roster, but it won’t solve the foundational concerns regarding his own presence as the starter.
So … what’s gonna happen?
In all likelihood, Tannehill will return for a fourth season with the Titans, and his third as the Week 1 starter. Tennessee would probably rather reinvest at other positions — like wide receiver, with or without Julio; and cornerback, where Jackrabbit Jenkins figures to be a cap casualty — before it resets the most important position on the roster. But don’t be surprised, in the meantime, if the Titans don’t at least pick up the phone and gauge the asking price for a guy like Russ.