Did the Titans Make a Mistake With Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry?

Tennessee signed Henry and Tannehill to lucrative deals after career years in 2019

September 8, 2020 9:34 am
Did the Titans Make a Mistake with Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry?
Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry in in the AFC Wild Card game against the Patriots.
Getty Images

Over the next six weeks, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of their 2019 finish, from worst to first. Today’s team: the Titans.

No. 3: Tennessee Titans
2019 Record: 9-7

Points For: 402 – Points Against: 331
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 8.5

Winners of five of their last seven regular-season games in 2019, the sixth-seed Tennessee Titans were hot coming into a first-round playoff matchup with the favored New England Patriots this past January. The main source of that heat? Bruising running back Derrick Henry, who ran for 211 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries against the Texans in Tennessee’s Week 17 finale.

Henry’s dominance continued in the playoffs as he rumbled for 182 yards and a TD on 34 carries in a win over the Patriots in the Wild-Card round, and then followed that up with 195 yards on 30 carries in a victory over the Ravens in the Divisional round in a game that also saw the 26-year-old toss a touchdown pass.

While Henry’s magical run came to an end in the AFC Championship game against the Chiefs (19 carries for just 69 yards and a score), his three-week hot streak made NFL history.

During the offseason, Henry — who had 303 carries for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns to win the rushing title last year — was franchise tagged by the team before signing a four-year, $50 million contract extension in July, making him one of the top five highest-paid running backs in the NFL.

The other star of Tennessee’s Cinderella run to the AFC title game, 32-year-old quarterback Ryan Tannehill, also got a four-year extension worth $118 million, including $62 million in fully guaranteed money, to stay with the Titans.

The former Dolphin, who ended up leading the NFL in passer rating in 2019 after supplanting Marcus Mariota as the Titans’ quarterback of the future, completed 70.3 percent of his passes for 2,742 yards and a 22-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the regular season and posted a 5-1 TD-INT ratio and 98.5 passer rating in the playoffs while attempting just 60 passes combined over three games.

Thanks to those moves, Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel has the NFL’s reigning lead rusher and top passer (by at least one metric) heading into the 2020 season. That’s a good thing, right?

Well, maybe.

Though he’s only 26, Henry has touched the football more than 3,000 times during game action throughout high school, college and his time in the NFL. That is a lot of wear-and-tear for a guy who is approaching 27, the age when most NFL running backs peak.

A 2014 ESPN Stats & Information analysis of every running back who had played at least four NFL seasons and had a minimum average of 75 carries per year since 2001 found that a rusher’s average yardage total dropped by 15 percent at 28, 25 percent at 29 and by almost 40 percent at age 30.

That’s not a good sign that Henry, who had only five career 100-yard games in the regular season before last November (he now has 10), can make good on the money he’s being paid past this season.

As for Tannehill, who had a 42-46 record in six seasons in Miami and boasts a career completion percentage of 63.5, he’s fine — a competent, middle-of-the-road play-caller who can thrive in a run-first system that doesn’t ask too much of him. But that’s all he’s every going to be, and he’s probably due to take a step back after going from a bottom-three 42.4 passing grade with the Dolphins in 2018 to a league-best 91.0 (a plus-48.6 difference) in 2019 with the Titans, according to Pro Football Focus.

Regression seems inevitable for Tannehill,” PFF’s Anthony Treash wrote in March after Tannehill got his massive extension. “His positively graded play rate with the Titans was nearly double what it was with Miami the year prior. Tannehill has always been a relatively accurate quarterback, but his play on the field has shown to be dependent on those around him and the play-caller/scheme. It worked for Tennessee in 2019, and we thought it would be a great idea to bring Tannehill back for another season — but on the franchise tag to prove he can produce the same once more, not necessarily on a deal like this one.”

Others, like NBC’s Peter King, are much more bullish about Tannehill, Henry and the future of the Titans. “Tennessee’s not going to be a one-year wonder,” he concluded at the end of a lengthy August piece. If he’s right, it’ll likely be because Tannehill and Henry aren’t one-season wonders, either.

Especially in the case of Tannehill, who is just a .500 career quarterback who had never played in a postseason game prior to last season, a regression seems likely. The again, Tennessee made a habit of overcoming odds and making commentators look foolish in their run to the AFC Championship game last year.

Betting on Tannehill and Henry to bring the Titans back there is a gamble — we’ll start to see if it is going to pay off this Sunday.

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