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Downing Wants Tannehill Thinking Happy Thoughts

The Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator prefers his quarterback focuses on making plays, not eliminating the mistakes that have plagued him recently.

NASHVILLE – One of the uglier aspects of Marcus Mariota’s final weeks as the Tennessee Titans’ starting quarterback was what some might refer to as “paralysis by analysis.”

Perhaps it was because Mariota was in a contract year and did not play his best in the previous one. Perhaps it was because he felt the presence of Ryan Tannehill, as talented a back-up as there was in the NFL. Perhaps he simply wanted to do too much to help the Titans get back to the postseason after they missed out in 2018.

Whatever the case, Mariota appeared hesitant in his decision making too often in 2019. He seemed so concerned about making mistakes that he didn’t throw quickly to open receivers, didn’t elude the pass rush as well as he had in past seasons. In six starts, Mariota was sacked 25 times and bottomed out in a shutout loss to Denver, when he threw just seven completions and two interceptions.

That’s why the Titans, as much as they need Tannehill to trim his interceptions, don’t want him going down that same path. They don’t want him so worried about doing the wrong thing that it becomes harder to do the right thing.

“Sometimes I relate the quarterback position to golfing,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “If you’re standing over a tee box and you’re thinking, `Don’t slice it, don’t slice it, don’t slice it,’ you’re going to either slice it or duck-hook it.’

“So, you don’t want any negative throw thoughts as you’re breaking the huddle or going through the game plan. So, Ryan’s confidence in himself, which should be high, is going to be absolutely paramount to us having the success we need.”

Statistically speaking, it’s been a bumpy season for Tannehill, especially compared to his first two years in Tennessee when he threw a combined 55 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Through 12 games in 2021, Tannehill – handicapped by a constant parade of injuries to top receivers -- has thrown 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, the latter the second-highest total in the league. Five of Tannehill’s interceptions have come over the past two games, losses to Houston and New England.

Downing, however, doesn’t want Tannehill overcompensating as he tries to correct the problem.

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“I firmly believe in staying true to the read, believing in what your feet are telling you in terms of the concept and the trusting process,” Downing said. “There’s been a lot of different reasons for the turnovers, and we’ve been working hard to eliminate those and iron out those wrinkles. I’ve told you up here before that Ryan is a diligent worker and the game means a lot to him.

“I’ve also told you that his stat lines don’t tell the story of his season. So, we just want Ryan to stay committed to his process. We’ll never jerk the wheel around here. We’ve got a lot of belief in him and trust that we’re going to be able to get on track soon.”

One of the things Titans coaches praised Tannehill for when he became the team’s starting quarterback was his decisiveness, the confidence he had to trust his own eyes.

Downing, who served as a quarterbacks coach for three NFL teams before he joined Mike Vrabel’s staff, says he sees no evidence that Tannehill’s confidence has been shaken this season.

“I think each quarterback is different,” Downing said. “Everyone has their own personality. ... Sometimes, you need to build a guy build up a little bit or you need to let him see a couple of balls completed or whatever the case may be.

“But Ryan’s done a nice job of operating in the context of what we’ve asked him to do. There’s certainly some throws he wants back. I think that’s true for 31 other teams. But we’re excited to have him.”

Tannehill will get some more assistance Sunday, in the form of seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones, who return from injured reserve on Saturday after missing the past three games. Plus, the Titans have a little something in reserve in the person of Golden Tate, who is on the practice squad.

Together, those two would make it even easier for Tannehill to follow Downing’s unspoken advice: Keep grippin’ and rippin’. For now, it is Jones who should help put his quarterback’s mind at ease.

“Ryan’s the leader of this team,” Downing said. “We have a lot of belief in him pulling the trigger at the quarterback position for us.”