With Tannehill, Titans Chart Course on Road Less Traveled

Quarterbacks who win Super Bowls with teams that did not draft them are a minority
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Jim Plunkett. Trent Dilfer.

Those names mean a little bit more to the Tennessee Titans and their fans all of the sudden. Because if all goes well, Ryan Tannehill will put his moniker alongside theirs.

Plunkett and Dilfer were quarterbacks and first-round draft picks who became Super Bowl champions with their second (or third) teams – after having failed to live up to expectations with their original franchises.

The Titans went all in with Tannehill on Sunday when they signed him to a four-year, $118 million contract extension with more than half of the money guaranteed. The decision came several hours after the NFL Players Association approved a new collective bargaining agreement and a little more than a day before teams were free to negotiate with free agents.

At 31 years old – he will be 32 right around the start of training camp – this almost certainly will be the last, best shot for the man the Miami Dolphins chose with the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. And given what Tannehill did after the Dolphins traded him to Tennessee a year ago, this looks like the best chance the Titans have had to win their first Super Bowl in a little over a decade.

Sticking with him does not put Tennessee on the most well-worn path to a title, but it is hardly uncharted territory either.

Super Bowl wins are most commonly associated with guys named Bradshaw, Aikman, Starr, Elway, Favre and Manning – players who were taken early in the draft and delivered long-term success to the clubs that chose them.

In all, 33 different starting quarterbacks have won Super Bowls. Of those, 21 did so exclusively for the team that drafted them while 11 did it for a franchise that did not. Then there was Peyton Manning who won one of each (Indianapolis and Denver). Of the 54 Super Bowls played to date, 41 – including nine of the last 10 – were won by a team with a starting quarterback drafted into that franchise, including the most recent in which Patrick Mahomes led Kansas City to the top.

Which brings us back to Plunkett and Dilfer.

Plunkett was the first overall choice by New England in 1971. After five forgettable seasons with the Patriots (he won 38 percent of his 61 starts and completed 48.5 percent of his passes) he spent two years in San Francisco, where he did not fare much better.

He finally got new life with the Oakland Raiders, a team he joined in 1979 when he was 31 years old. In eight seasons with the Raiders he won twice as many regular season starts (38) as he lost (19) and was the winning quarterback in Super Bowls XV and XVIII. That makes the only quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls with a team that did not draft him.

Dilfer was the sixth overall pick by Tampa Bay in 1994. He spent six seasons, won half his starts (he was 38-38) and made the playoffs just once with the Buccaneers. At 28 years old, he went to Baltimore in 2000, took over as the starter halfway through that season, won seven of eight games and then directed the Ravens to four postseason victories capped by a triumph in Super Bowl XXXV.

Among those who have left their original teams and won championships, those are the ones Tannehill’s career up to this point most resembles. He had a losing record (42-46) and never appeared in a playoff game with Miami but in 2019 he looked like a brand, new man as the Titans went 7-3, qualified for the playoffs and then reached the AFC Championship with him under center.

Rest assured, neither of those two did it alone. Plunkett had the benefit of an offensive line that featured Hall of Fame guard Eugene Upshaw and Hall of Fame tackle Art Shell on the left side. Dilfer benefited from the presence of one of the game’s great defenses, a unit that included Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.

These Titans feature – barring something unexpected – an elite running back in 2019 NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry, high-paid, experienced offensive line and a defense that was undeniably the strength of the team before Tannehill became the starter.

So, no one expects to him to do it all by himself. Or to do something that never has been done.