NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Quarterback Ryan Tannehill's resurgence over the past six weeks could inspire the Tennessee Titans with the same optimism the Miami Dolphins had when they made him the No. 8 pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
The Titans are 5-1 since Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota. Experiencing the fall from franchise quarterback to backup can be humbling, but Tannehill seems to have used it as a rebirth.
"I know being on the sidelines for the first few weeks of the season, I cherish the opportunity of being out there," Tannehill said. "You never know what's going to happen in this league, so I enjoy it every step of the way."
Tennessee is in the AFC South title hunt and wild-card race, in part, because of Tannehill.
"He came in here and has done everything you can expect a pro quarterback to do," offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said. "He accepted a new role and still was competitive. When he got his opportunity, he did a really good job. I appreciate the professionalism from him."
How good has Tannehill been?
Tannehill's 72.7 completion percentage is second only to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and it's not the result of dink-and-dunk passes. He owns an NFL-high 9.1 yards per pass attempt. The only two quarterbacks to finish a season with a completion percentage of at least 70 and at least 9 yards per attempt are Joe Montana (1989) and Sammy Baugh (1945).
The Titans are the No. 1 red zone scoring offense since Tannehill took over. They're scoring touchdowns on 71.8% of their red zone visits. While a lot of that has to do with running back Derrick Henry's scoring ability, Tannehill's 67% red zone completion percentage is the fourth in the NFL, and his 90.4 Total QBR in the red zone is the fifth, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel credited Tannehill for keeping the offense "on schedule" in third-and-manageable distances. Vrabel likes the aggressiveness Tannehill has displayed, which shows up in his 9.04-yard average per attempt on third downs.
Tannehill is also taking advantage of the playmaking ability that once made him a starting wide receiver at Texas A&M. As a runner, he has picked up some big gains in crucial moments. Tannehill’s 18-yard scramble kick-started Tennessee’s winning drive against the Chiefs. He also had a 21-yard touchdown scramble against the Jaguars. His three rushing touchdowns this season is a career high.
The Titans are averaging just under 30 points per game with Tannehill as the starter. In the six games before he took over, the Titans averaged 16.3.
How has Tannehill improved since Miami?
The Titans acquired Tannehill in March from the Dolphins, who decided to move on from the quarterback after seven years. But to some, Tannehill seems different in Tennessee.
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone is familiar with Tannehill from his days as Bills coach. Marrone noted how Tannehill had changed when he studied film before facing the Titans last month.
"Watching him now, I really think he’s playing the best I’ve seen him play," Marrone said. "He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s putting the ball into tight windows; he's able to run. I would say just overall, just a lot better. You get experience as you get older, you’re more comfortable, your command is great, the players are reacting to it."
Tannehill completed 14 of 18 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for two scores in a 42-20 victory over the Jaguars.
Former Dolphins vice president Mike Tannenbaum wouldn't say Tannehill is elite, but said a team can win a lot of games with him.
"I just know when he's healthy, I saw firsthand that he led us to the playoffs," Tannenbaum said. "If you want someone who's smart, competitive and has a lot of ability, Tannehill checks all of those boxes. I think now he is a little more confident."
Tannehill says he might have watched too much film early in his career, wanting to see every snap an opposing defense had played. Now his preparation has changed -- he's more aware of the "overanalysis causes paralysis" concept. He still does plenty of film study, but the process is more efficient and Tannehill is having more fun.
"I feel like we have really hit a stride this year with how we do things and how the plan goes in along with how we talk about it," Tannehill said. "I enjoy how this team prepares."
Another factor is the better supporting cast in Tennessee (7-5). There are weapons on the outside in wide receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries is an effective slot receiver. Henry is likely the most talented running back Tannehill has played with in his career.
"I believe in the guys around me, and I just have that faith that they're going to make a play," Tannehill said. "If they get the opportunity, I'll put the ball in the right spot and they're going to make the play."
What can he improve on?
Tannehill has held onto the ball too long at times, resulting in 24 sacks. According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Tannehill is taking an average of 2.81 seconds before throwing the ball, a little longer than the league average of 2.76 seconds.
The responsibility for every sack doesn't fall on the quarterback or offensive line. However, when the pass rush gets home, the quarterback has to make sure the ball is secure. Defenses have been able to make Tannehill fumble six times, resulting in three Titans turnovers. Tannehill will need to get better when it comes to feeling the pass rush and protecting the football.
His fumble against the Colts last weekend is a good example. Tannehill is an athletic quarterback who can extend plays and avoid pressure by escaping the pocket. He tried to do that against Indianapolis, but linebacker Bobby Okereke punched out the unsecured football, causing the fumble.
“We have to get rid of the football when it’s not there," Vrabel said. "We are all included. We certainly have to protect the quarterback and run great routes to get open. When it’s not there we have to understand the journey is over and get rid of it, make sure we aren’t fumbling the football."
What could it cost to sign him?
General manager Jon Robinson has to decide if the Titans want to commit to Tannehill, who will be a free agent after this season. The quarterback has proved in six games he can provide a piece of the complementary football puzzle Vrabel desires. Vrabel pointed to Tannehill as a player who helps deliver his message to the locker room.
"I didn't know the type of leader that he is," Vrabel said. "He has done a nice job trying to tie everybody together. A coach's message can only go so far. A coach's tips can only go so far. It's something that he's taken seriously, trying to get guys on the same page."
Two recent contracts could serve as examples of what to expect for Tannehill, who will turn 32 before next season.
Alex Smith: 34 years old, four-year deal worth $94 million with $71 million guaranteed (possible out after third year with $10.8 million cap hit)
Nick Foles: 30 years old, four years worth $88 million with $50 million guaranteed (possible out after third year with $12.5 million cap hit)
Tannehill is likely to be Tennessee's starter next season. The Titans aren't in a position to draft an instant starter at quarterback. He can be the bridge to the next franchise quarterback or, if his first six starts with the Titans are any indication, become that player.