Year 3: The Turning Point
The Tennessee Titans, at least on offense, had almost the same team from 2020 heading into 2021. Their only big losses were Corey Davis to free agency, and Dennis Kelly was cut just one day after major signings started to occur.
Both of their voids had to be filled, and Kelly would be replaced internally by David Quessenberry. It took a while for them to find a replacement for Davis, but on June 6, 2021, it would happen by virtue of one of the most blockbuster trades in Titans history.
They would acquire future Hall of Fame wide receiver Julio Jones from the Atlanta Falcons along with a sixth-round pick while giving up second and fourth-round picks. And this was the move that was going to officially put the Tennessee Titans' offense over the top.
Derrick Henry was already a big enough threat in the backfield, but with Jones and another legit top receiver in AJ Brown, the Titans were going to have way too much star power for opposing defenses to handle. All Tannehill was going to have to do was just what he needed to do, and that was not a worry at all given how well he had played in 2020.
Unfortunately, it was not such smooth sailing for Tannehill and the offense this time around.
He was noticeably worse in 2021, and while his yards and completion percentage were not that different, everything else was. He threw only 21 touchdowns, and doubled his interception total to 14, and his efficiency, maybe his biggest strength, significantly declined, with his passer rating being 89.6
It was not just Tannehill's performance that hurt the Titans' offense in 2021, as injuries and ineffectiveness all over the offense contributed. The decision to replace Kelly internally was a mistake, as Quessenberry was bad, Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold were injured and just not the same, and Nate Davis started slow and battled COVID-19 during the season.
The prized acquisition of Julio Jones had been brought in with the concern that he was becoming injury-prone, and it did not get better in Tennessee. He dressed in only 10 games but in some did not play much, and only recorded 434 yards and one touchdown.
Even Brown was injured for a decent bit of the season and had a stint on IR during a late but very critical stretch of the season. But the true blow came in the form of losing Henry, as the reliably healthy stud running back suffered a Jones fracture that sidelined him for the final nine games of the regular season.
With the key injuries and Tannehill just not playing as he did the year before, the Titans offense often took a nosedive during the 2021 season. But Brown would return for the final three weeks of the season, and it was during that time when Tannehill started to regain his form from the 2021 season.
Despite all the troubles, the Tennessee Titans earned a 12-5 record and the top seed in the AFC, which was also a first since the 2008 season. And guess what, Henry was ready to return from his injury for their playoff game in the Divisional round, so there was a real belief that this team had a chance to go all the way.
And they did, but unfortunately would bow out at home to the Cincinnati Bengals 19-16 in that game on January 22, 2022.
For the momentum that Tannehill and the rest of the offense had going in the weeks beforehand, none of it would show in that game. And even his most avid defenders could not deny the truth of what happened -- he nearly singlehandedly cost the Titans the game and a chance to win a Super Bowl.
It was truly an abhorrent performance from the veteran quarterback, and the only statistic that mattered was his three interceptions. It was not even just that he threw them, one happened on the literal first play from scrimmage, and another happened on the Titans' last offensive play of the game.
You never want to put a team loss all on one guy, but if there was ever a time to do that, it was in this game. He crumbled in the most important moment of the season, and between that and his subpar regular season, there was no longer belief that he was capable of taking the Titans to the promised land.
They did seem like they were one elite quarterback away from going all the way, and the question immediately became how the Titans could get rid of and subsequently replace Tannehill. Well, due to contract restructures, if they were to cut him they would actually lose $18.8M of cap space, so that option was clearly off the table.
Maybe they could have tried to trade him, but they would have to attach draft picks to the trade, as well as taking on a new quarterback's salary, plus taking on $28.4M of Tannehill's cap hit while only saving $10.2M from his contract. There just would not have been enough assets to go around to make the Titans a contender even with an elite quarterback, so that option was off the table as well.
The only way they would have actually gained cap space was if they had traded him after June 1, but the cap space would not have actually been available until then. All of the top-tier free agents would be gone by then, and all of the quarterbacks on the move would have been on new teams by then, so going that route was useless and never even considered.
Whether or not Titans fans or even the team themselves liked it, Tannehill was here to stay, and the offseason would have to be planned around him being under center in 2022. It was known by then that if they wanted any chance to go far, they needed all of the help in the world around their quarterback, and it would not be made any easier for him.