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Tannehill on Mentoring Willis: 'Not My Job'

The Tennessee Titans quarterback deftly handled many questions during a Tuesday conference but sent a potentially dangerous message on one particular topic.

NASHVILLE – Ryan Tannehill stepped to the podium on Tuesday afternoon and almost immediately came under some heavy pressure.

The media availability was the first for the Tennessee Titans quarterback since he spoke immediately after the 19-16 playoff loss to Cincinnati in January, a game in which Tannehill threw three interceptions.

So there were plenty of pressing questions:

Why had Tannehill’s play dropped off so much in 2021, culminating in the postseason meltdown? How deeply had Tannehill taken the loss to the Bengals, and how would he improve in 2022? Why hadn’t Tannehill been present when the Titans went through Phase I of their OTAs starting April 18? Was he aware of the optics surrounding a couple of recent social-media posts, especially one that showed Tannehill deep-sea fishing while OTAs were underway? (It turns out that photo had actually been taken in March.)

To his credit, Tannehill stepped up in the pocket and handled the rush well for the most part -- revealing the emotional pain he suffered after the Cincinnati loss, sharing what went into his decision to sit out the start of offseason work, and addressing his sub-par season of 2021.

But just as it appeared Tannehill would emerge without taking any significant hits, he walked right into one.

Asked about the challenge of both competing with and working alongside Malik Willis, the Titans’ third-round pick -- and presumed starting quarterback of the future – Tannehill appeared to drop his shoulder on the rookie.

“That (competition) is part of being in the quarterback room, the same room,” Tannehill said. “We’re competing against each other, we’re watching the same tape, we’re doing the same drills. I don’t think it’s my job to mentor him, but if he learns from me along the way, then that’s a great thing.”

Cringe.

Tannehill is far from the first NFL veteran who’s delivered the non-mentoring line.

One of the Titans’ all-time greats, linebacker Keith Bulluck, regularly explained that he didn’t feel a need to hold any rookie’s hand, especially one vying for his position.

Then there was Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, who famously had this to say about Aaron Rodgers, his eventual successor in Green Bay: “My contract doesn't say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play. Now, hopefully, he watches me and gets something from that."

It certainly doesn’t sound as if Tannehill bears any ill will toward Willis. In fact, he texted the former Liberty University standout just after the Titans drafted Willis, and he welcomed Willis on social media later in the draft, earning a thank you in response. Tannehill also fully understands the team’s need to draft a potential quarterback of the future.

“The team is going to do the best thing they think is in the best interest of the team, and I have no problems with Malik,” Tannehill said. “We’re looking to add talent and guys that can help us. We’ll add him to the room and go from there.”

But here’s the thing: Whether it’s on the field or off, quarterbacks – because they occupy such a central position on the team – are held to higher standards. That’s especially true for someone like Tannehill – a two-time team captain, a 10-year NFL veteran, and a player whose salary-cap hit of $38.6 million for 2022 is the largest in the NFL.

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It shouldn’t be too much to ask for Tannehill to consider the good of the team, as well as his own well-being.

What would happen, for instance, if Tannehill suffered an injury that sidelined him for weeks this season? Presumably, he would still want the Titans to win every game possible, right? What better way to ensure that than to – from time to time – go out of his way in order to help a rookie looking to make the big jump from smaller FBS program to the NFL?

More than that, it’s simply the right thing to do as a leader. Mentoring a younger player – even one who might eventually take Tannehill’s job – is the kind of thing most respected veterans have been doing for decades. It’s about looking out for someone besides No. 1, about looking out for the good of the game.

Willis, of course, must do his part as well. He should be watching everything Tannehill does in the meeting room, on the practice field, and in the games. He should take an active role in helping himself by asking Tannehill question after question, learning from a quarterback who’s thrown for more than 30,000 yards in his career.

In all likelihood, Tannehill will turn out to be a willing helper when called upon.

But in saying he didn’t think he needed to mentor Willis, Tannehill was guilty of – at best – choosing his words poorly. At worst, he delivered a divisive message.

Here are some of the many other topics Tannehill touched upon:

On the loss of wide receiver A.J. Brown, who was traded to Philadelphia: “That one hurt. Obviously professionally it hurt. (He was) a top target, a heck of a football player. Made big plays for us consistently over the last years. Personally it hurt (because) A.J. is a good friend. I have a lot of great times, great memories on and off the field with him. Just not being able to see him on a daily basis is going to be different. It’s going to be hard. Happy to see him get what he wanted, but at the end of the day, it hurts, man, it hurts.”

On his surprise the Brown deal went down: “I was in communication with A.J. kind of throughout the whole offseason. Honestly, I thought they were going to get it done. Everyone (was) trying to play their leverage, it’s part of the game. Everyone is trying to get the best deal. The team is trying to do the best thing for the team and the player is trying to do the best thing for the player, and just in my heart, I thought we were going to have A.J. here for a long time.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. We had to do what had to be done. But it doesn’t take the sting away. I was shocked. When I first found out, I’m like, `This isn’t real, this isn’t happening. It’s a rumor. Then I talked to A.J. and found it was real. Slept terrible that night and kept thinking, `This is just a bad dream,’ but that’s where we’re at.”

On the drafting of Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks in the first round: “I texted Treylon the night of the draft, didn’t hear back from him. Ended up calling him (Sunday) and having a conversation with him. I think he’s big, he’s strong, he’s tough, he’s physical.

“Just talking to him, he’s excited. He wants to work, and that’s kind of what this team, this organization is built upon, is that we’re going to work hard, we’re going to have a specific mindset and take that to the field every time we touch it. I think he initially fits what we’re looking for, and only time will tell if we can get his best out of him, and if he’s going to come in and make the impact we think he can.”

On the addition of veteran wide receiver Robert Woods: “Yeah, I’m really excited for Robert. He’s a good dude, obviously a talented player, a veteran player. He’s played a lot of football, knows the game really well. You talk to him and you can just feel his passion, his energy.

“I’m excited to leave this (media availability) and go watch tape with him. So (he’s) a guy I’m looking forward to getting to know even better, but I think he fits what we’re all about here and a guy who wants to make an impact for us.”

On new passing game coordinator Tim Kelly: “Just met him yesterday, been on the field with him a couple days now. Obviously (he’s) a veteran coach who’s been around, knows the game really well. You see him coaching hard out there. He’s very involved in what we’re doing.

“So I’m excited to have him on board. Anytime you can add a good quality coach, it’s going to help you. So we’ll get to know him better as the year goes on, but excited to have a veteran coach who knows the game and is going to help us.”