Derrick Henry has been the most dominant player in these NFL playoffs. But Henry might not be still running over, through and past defenders if not for a major change the Titans made less than halfway through their season.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel decided Marcus Mariota was out as the starting quarterback and Ryan Tannehill was in. Tennessee was 2-4 at the time. The Titans finished 9-7, earned the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot on the last day of the season, and on Sunday they will be playing Kansas City for a chance to get to the Super Bowl.
"On October 14, we were 2-4. I was a bad coach, and this was a bad team,” Vrabel said Wednesday. “We tried to believe in each other, we tried to improve, tried to prepare, trust each other, execute and that's what's gotten us here.”
Tannehill, 31, has been a big part of that. The former Dolphins quarterback never will be mistaken for Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes. But he has a chance to knock out all three of those elite quarterbacks this postseason.
The Titans’ game plan for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game won’t stray much from what has gotten them to this point. They used a heavy dose of Henry to upset Brady and the Patriots and Jackson and the top-seeded Ravens. Henry rushed for 377 yards in the AFC wild card and divisional rounds.
Henry will get the ball and the Titans will try to run and eat up clock to keep the ball out of Mahomes’ hands as much as possible. But Tannehill has made some big plays this postseason, following his unexpected regular season that were filled with them.
Tannehill spent three injury-plagued seasons in Miami, playing for now-Jets coach Adam Gase. In that time, Tannehill was never as productive or successful as he has been this season with the Titans. It’s led to more criticism for Gase and questions about his effectiveness in developing quarterbacks.
Tannehill completed 70.3 of his passes this season, threw for 22 touchdowns, six interceptions and led the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating. Under Gase, Tannehill totaled 36 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 24 games. He never played a full season, and missed all of 2017 after tearing his ACL.
The personnel and schemes are different, naturally. But Tannehill, who was taken eighth overall by Miami in 2012, made his presence felt quickly after taking over the Titans’ offense. In his first game as a starter, he threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Chargers. Tannehill and the Titans have been rolling ever since.
“I was excited for the opportunity,” Tannehill said. “It feels like forever ago now. But when you’re standing on the sideline you just want to be prepared and be ready for your opportunity. When I got the chance to go in, I wanted to take advantage of it and try to find a way to lead this team to wins.”
The Titans scored seven points or fewer in three of the first six games. After Tannehill became the starter, they never scored under 20. Tennessee maxed out at 365 yards of total offense through the first six weeks. They surpassed that total eight times with Tannehill running the offense.
“He’s athletic, he’s accurate, he’s prepared,” Vrabel said. “He’s a really good leader. He’s been able to hold players accountable in his own way.”
Tannehill hasn’t had to throw the ball much in the playoffs. He’s attempted only 29 passes and thrown for 160 yards. But he has
three touchdown passes and he’s rushed for one more. Tannehill accounted for three of the Titans’ four touchdowns in last Saturday’s win at Baltimore.
He’s ready to execute whatever the game calls for on Sunday.
“Being a quarterback, obviously, I love throwing the ball. But I just want to win,” Tannehill said. “We go out there each and every week to find a way to win and doing whatever it takes. If that’s throwing it 15 times and trying to execute those plays that’s what I’ll do. If it’s 35, then that’s what it is.”