Offense Upheaval Abounds in AFC South, Except with Titans, Tannehill

It is possible that three of the division's four teams will have new starting quarterbacks and all four will have a different offensive coordinator in 2021.
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Ryan Tannehill entered the offseason with a degree of comfort he has not known for the last several years.

In 2020, he was scheduled to become a free agent following a 13-game stint (playoffs included) as the Tennessee Titans’ starting quarterback that changed the discussion about his value. A year earlier, the Miami Dolphins looked to be done with their 2012 first-round draft pick, an attitude that was verified when they ultimately traded him to the Titans.

Neither of those situations was resolved until mid-March, which meant Tannehill endured roughly two months of uncertainty before he achieved a sense of clarity.

Not so, this time. One season into the four-year, $118 million extension he signed with Tennessee, Tannehill looks every bit like the quarterback franchise officials paid for and one with who they undoubtedly want and plan to continue.

“Definitely some uncertainty has been removed and not waiting on other people or decisions to be made,” Tannehill said following the season. “I look forward to spending some time with my family and coming back ready to go next year.”

It is a set of circumstances that not only provides peace of mind for the player, it should present a sense of comfort for the Titans as well, given the current state of quarterbacks across the NFL – particularly in the AFC South. It is possible that half the starters (or more) for the majority or all of their teams’ games in 2020 will be in different uniforms or out of the game in 2021.

The unfolding drama with Deshaun Watson in Houston, which seems destined to end with him being traded, makes it likely that Tannehill will be the only one of the division’s starting quarterbacks to be under center for his club again this fall. Jacksonville almost certainly will use the No. 1 pick in the draft to select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and immediately will put him in charge of its offense after having tried with Gardner Minshew. Indianapolis will have a different quarterback for the fourth straight year following Philip Rivers’ retirement.

On top of that, all four teams might have new offensive coordinators next season. Currently, the only one still on the job is Houston’s Tim Kelly, but the Texans have yet to hire a head coach and there is no guarantee he will be in that role when the season starts. Two others, Tennessee’s Arthur Smith (Atlanta) and Indianapolis’ Nick Sirianni (Philadelphia), have become head coaches in the last couple weeks. Jacksonville’s Jay Gruden, is not expected to be a part of new coach Urban Meyer’s staff there.

Continuity on offense was considered paramount for the Titans in 2020, when the traditional offseason work was upset by the COVID-19 pandemic. They returned Tannehill along with running back Derrick Henry, its top four pass receivers led by A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, and four of its five starting offensive linemen.

Tennessee became the first team since a 16-game schedule was implemented in 1978 to have at least 3,500 passing yards, at least 2,500 rushing yards and to allow 25 or fewer sacks in the same season. Tannehill, Henry, Brown and Davis all produced career years. The Titans tied for second in the NFL in total offense, were second in red zone efficiency, had the league’s second fewest turnovers and set franchise records for first downs and yards in a season. Their 491 points scored were 56 more (3.5 per game) than any other season of the Titans era (1999-present).

This offseason will have its share of upheaval, almost certainly more than the last. Smith already is gone. Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith are among the Titans set to become free agents.

But they are set at the most important position. And given what is happening across the league and the division, that gives them an edge.

“With the guys that we have, the core that we have coming back, and the foundation that we've laid, the pillars of the program that we believe in, and how we like to play the game, and the way that leadership on this team, and the way that guys have bought in, I feel strongly that no matter who (is offensive coordinator), that we can build on what we did this year,” Tannehill said. “… I'm not going into pending free agency or anything like last year. A little different situation than I was in last year. My approach as far as getting ready to play won't be a whole lot different. I'm still going to do everything I can to come back ready to go and lead this team to wins.”