Tennessee Titans strengths and weaknesses: Quarterbacks

Ryan Tannehill (17) USA TODAY Sports image pool
Ryan Tannehill (17) USA TODAY Sports image pool /

Whether you win the Super Bowl or get the first overall pick in the draft, every NFL team has strengths and weaknesses, and the Tennessee Titans are no exception even if you are a fan.

General Managers are judged in the court of public opinion on how well they address their team’s needs. Coaches are raked over the coals and face the unemployment line if they don’t maximize their team’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

This series of articles will address each position group and analyze it against this criteria to determine if the group helps or hurts the team’s championship goals heading into 2022. Today, we’ll discuss the quarterback position.

The quarterback room begins with Ryan Tannehill.

Since taking over as the starter from Marcus Mariota in 2019, Tannehill has posted a 30-13 regular-season record. His postseason record started with a bang, steering the Tennessee Titans to a 2-1 playoff run in 2019 that had the team on the cusp of the Super Bowl.

They fell to the eventual Lombardi Trophy-winning Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. Since then, Tannehill has bombed badly in the postseason, posting a 0-2 record. The last two losses weren’t “Josh Allen not getting another crack at the Chiefs” type of losses, either. No, these were ugly affairs in which Tannehill was, to put it nicely, ineffective and, at times, looked lost.

In the 2020 wildcard loss to Baltimore, in which the Titans fell 20-13, Tannehill went a respectable 18 for 26 but managed a meager 165 yards passing. He tossed a touchdown and an interception in that game.

Last year, armed with the AFC’s top seed and a full complement of his playmakers for the first time in months, he looked even worse in the divisional round against the eventual AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals. (Did I really just type that?)

The Titans lost that one 19-16, and Tannehill tossed three ugly interceptions. This loss was even worse than the score indicates, given that the Tennessee Titans defense dominated the Bengals from start to finish, sacking Joe Burrow 157 times. Okay, it was only 9, but the Titans’ defense harassed him like relentless hecklers in a seedy comedy club and still lost.

During his tenure in Tennessee, Tannehill has run the gamut from awful to exceptional. There are times he looks poised to leap into the league’s upper echelon of signal-callers. This is the Tannehill that tossed 33 TDs to just 7 INT in 2020.

But he’s also the same quarterback who has thrown for less than 200 yards in one-third of his games since taking over as the starter, including one game where he failed to hit triple-digit passing yards. Holy Jekyll and Hyde, Batman!

In Tannehill’s favor, he is a slippery runner. When discussing mobile NFL quarterbacks, he’s not the first name on people’s lips, but he is sneakily effective when he takes off, tallying 721 yards on 141 attempts in a Tennessee Titans uniform.

He’s especially effective around the goal line, totaling 18 TDs over that span. Tannehill sometimes holds onto the ball too long and takes a sack when he should run, something that I think derives from a false sense of security in his athleticism.

He believes he can escape a collapsing pocket, so he hangs in there too long. Older quarterbacks sometimes encounter this issue when the same legs that got them out of trouble earlier in their careers don’t cooperate when they age. The mind analyzes situations and says, “We’re okay a few seconds longer,” but the body betrays them.

It is said the single greatest ability a football player possesses is availability. It’s a corny line, but few mantras in football hold more truth. Tannehill has started all 43 games under center since he took over from Mariota.

Most coaches would agree that a good, tough player who is available every Sunday holds more value than a mega-talent who bounces on and off the injury list.

It all comes down to winning at the end of the day, and Tannehill has done plenty of that in a Titans uniform. He’ll remain under center as long as the team wins with him and he isn’t too expensive.

The key phrase here is “isn’t too expensive.” After restructuring his contract to make room for Julio Jones, Tannehill’s guaranteed money for 2022 is $29 million. Cut him now, and the team is on the hook for his guaranteed money, plus another $28.4 million in prorated signing bonus, leaving them with a nearly $19 million cap hit. The NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” sports league. Fair or not, Tannehill’s future will be written in the upcoming season.

The elephant in the Tennessee Titans QB room

Even with a great season, the Tennessee Titans may part ways with Tannehill to make room for this year’s third-round pick, Malik Willis. The team views Willis as the future at the position, or at the very least they think he has the opportunity to grow into that type of player, or else they wouldn’t have used a third-round pick on him. How soon the future arrives remains to be seen.

Willis is an intriguing prospect. He possesses a cannon for an arm and is a running back when he takes off with the football in his hand. Everything I’ve seen and read about him indicates the young man exists as a dichotomy.

He’s the strong-armed field general who can flick the ball 40 yards on a rope and fit it into an impossibly-small window, but he’s also highly erratic at times. He can carve up a defense with his legs but may hold the ball too long and take an avoidable sack. He’ll throw a beautiful ball one play and a wounded duck the next. He’s “too short” to play NFL quarterback, but his thick, muscular frame is ideal for taking the punishment. He couldn’t start at Auburn but lifted Liberty into national relevance. A freaky athlete, but his mechanics are atrocious and need work. In short, he’s a rookie with an extremely high upside who will need time to develop.

What I like most about Willis so far, though, is his attitude. Former coaches and players rave about his joyful, infectious personality. His leadership style is quiet, but when he speaks, teammates listen. He leads by example, reminding me a lot of Steve McNair.

Most analysts agree Willis requires development. Barring injury, he likely won’t be ready to contribute much under center in 2022. However, the Tennessee Titans could be creative and showcase his athleticism when they can.

There is no reason he can’t line up in the backfield with Henry, either behind center or as an H-back, to throw a real wrinkle at defenses. And by wrinkle, I mean give them a heart attack. If Todd Downing can’t find ways to get him on the field and take advantage of his talents, then the Titans organization needs to look in another direction.

Rounding out the group is Logan Woodside. Perhaps this placement is unfair for now. After all, Woodside has been Tannehill’s backup the last couple of seasons. The former Toledo Rocket hasn’t seen the field much at all. He has yet to throw a pass in a regular-season NFL game since being drafted 249th overall in the 7th round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2018. He’s taken 30 snaps, mostly handing off to close-out games and a handful of kneel-downs. Just what you want from your backup QB.

But the Titans’ coaching staff likes him and obviously trusts him. He’s beaten out Cole McDonald, Trevor Siemian, Deshone Kizer, and Matt Barkley for the backup role. The Titans keep bringing in “upgrades” to replace him, and Woodside sends them packing. If nothing else, the former San Antonio Commanders signal-caller has shown the resilience necessary to be a backup QB in the NFL.

Also, let’s not forget the fantastic preseason Woodside put together last year. Titans fans jumped out of their seats when he hit Cameron Batson with that back-shoulder TD pass against the Falcons in the opening preseason game. Sure, it didn’t count as a regular-season throw, but perhaps it eased fans’ minds about the backup QB situation.

The most intriguing question for this group heading into the season is how many QBs will they keep on the roster? Robinson and Vrabel have carried only two QBs thus far in their tenure. Tannehill is entrenched as the starter, and the financial implications of cutting him would be disastrous.

Willis is a third-round pick, so he isn’t going anywhere. Woodside has held off threats to his roster spot before, but he’s competed against journeymen and camp bodies. He’s never had to battle someone the team invested in with a high draft choice.

But will Malik be ready to take the reins if something happens to Tannehill? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then Woodside’s days may be numbered. If they feel Willis isn’t ready, keeping three QBs is a must. They certainly don’t want to expose an experienced backup QB with two years of experience in your system to the waiver wire. An opponent will snatch him up just to pick his brain.

I don’t foresee either of these quarterbacks going anywhere. Of course, there was that one time I was wrong….

Tannehill may not be Rodgers, Mahomes, or Brady, but he wins games. Even ones the Tennessee Titans aren’t supposed to win. And while he hasn’t solved the playoff puzzle, the Titans could do a lot worse. They have an experienced backup in place and a promising future in Willis. Overall, I feel this group is a net strength and contributes positively to the goal of winning a championship.