This time a year ago, Ryan Tannehill was supplanting Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback of the Tennessee Titans after being cast away by the Miami Dolphins. Pittsburgh Steelers veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was less than a month into his rehab after season-ending elbow surgery to his throwing arm. Both of their futures were clouded with uncertainty.
Both quarterbacks came into the 2020 season with something to prove. For Tannehill, it was showing the Titans and their fans he was worthy of the four-year, $118 million extension he signed in March. And in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger was intent on proving that he still had quality years left at 38 with elbow surgery behind him.
Through five games, Tannehill and Roethlisberger have their teams on top of their division and in contention for the best record in the AFC. Entering Sunday’s matchup of the 5-0 teams (1 p.m. ET, CBS), each quarterback and their squads are light years away from where they were in October 2019. The game will be the sixth matchup in the Super Bowl era between unbeaten teams, 5-0 or better. Of the previous five, the winner made the Super Bowl every time.
Tannehill: A return on investment
Tannehill produced an historically efficient season with the Titans last season. He led the NFL with a 9.6 yard average per attempt and finished third with a 70.3 completion percentage. Only two other quarterbacks (Joe Montana in 1989 and Sammy Baugh in 1945) in NFL history posted a 70% completion percentage while averaging at least nine yards per attempt over a full season. The Titans’ offense scored 25 or more points in eight of their 10 games with Tannehill as the starting quarterback.
Despite the success Tennessee had in 2019, many wanted the Titans to try to sign Tom Brady instead of bringing Tannehill back. There were concerns in the NFL world that Tannehill might regress to some form of the quarterback who couldn’t get it done in Miami.
But general manager Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel knew Tannehill was their quarterback and he has shown why this season.
“He has the ability to coach players and leads them,” Vrabel said. “He explains to them the concepts that we are trying to accomplish and where he wants them. That’s the most critical part of the relationship between the QB and receiver. I think Ryan prepares the same and has kept a level head since the start of the season.”
Tannehill’s 13 touchdown passes place him in a tie for the fifth-most in the NFL, even though he has played only five games. Of his 13 touchdown passes, 12 have come in the red zone. In fact, the Titans are scoring touchdowns on 78% of their visits inside the 20-yard line. Since Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7 last season, Tennessee has converted 83% of its red-zone trips into touchdowns. No team has scored at a higher rate inside the red zone over that span.
All of the players get involved in the offense. Everyone knows there is a good chance they’ll get the ball if they manage to get open. Tannehill has connected with five different pass-catchers on touchdown passes.
“Ryan has a good understanding of who those guys are as players,” receivers coach Rob Moore said. “He’s a QB that can go from read one to four in a heartbeat. They know they have to be where they are supposed to be and that he’ll get them the ball. He throws it to the open guy. As a receiver, you love playing for a guy like that.”
Tannehill has also proved to be a clutch QB for the Titans this season, having already orchestrated four game-winning drives. Per Elias Sports Bureau, Tannehill is the first quarterback to lead his team to four game-winning drives in the first five games of the season since the St. Louis Cardinals’ Charley Johnson in 1966.
When Tannehill steps to the huddle with the game on the line, his teammates have confidence he’ll lead them to victory.
“I am proud of our guys and the adversity we have faced being down in the fourth quarter now four times,” Tannehill said. “Every time we found a way.”
It’s safe to say things are pointing in the right direction for the Titans with Tannehill. The 32-year-old knows he’s a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s scheme.
“Coming in, I expected to build off of last year. We had a lot of continuity,” Tannehill said. “For me, I am finding ways to win a game. Whatever the coaching staff and my team asks me to do, it’s my job to go out there and do it to the best of my ability.” — Turron Davenport
Roethlisberger: ‘Don’t feel like I’m done’
With two Super Bowl titles, six Pro Bowl selections and two seasons leading the league in passing yards, there’s not much Roethlisberger has left to prove.
But last year’s elbow injury in Week 2 and subsequent season-ending surgery gave him something to add to the list.
Shortly after three tendons ripped off the bone in Roethlisberger’s elbow, his wife, Ashley, told her husband she would support him if he wanted to retire, according to a docuseries produced by Roethlisberger’s agent.
But that was a nonstarter.
“I just didn’t feel like I was done playing football,” Roethlisberger said in August. “I really felt that I wanted to come back. I was excited about this team, and I just didn’t feel like I was, and I don’t feel like I’m done playing football yet. If it was a thought, it wasn’t a long one.”
Through five games, Roethlisberger is proving he can be an effective quarterback at 38 years old with a surgically repaired elbow — and that he can win.
The way he’s doing it, though, is a departure from his first 16 seasons.
His 7.04 air yards per attempt are Roethlisberger’s lowest through five games since ESPN began tracking the statistic in 2006. He’s also getting the ball out of his hands quicker, leading the league at 2.33 seconds to throw — his fastest mark since ESPN Stats & Info started charting it in 2016.
“You have to get the ball out quick,” he said Wednesday. “Sometimes we do what [offensive coordinator] Randy [Fichtner] says is get the ball in the hands of our playmakers — quick-throw short, run long.”
That Roethlisberger isn’t following the script that worked earlier in his career isn’t surprising. In the offseason, the Steelers added quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, known for using misdirection and RPOs, and Roethlisberger even said he was open to adjusting his style of play.
“I truly mean it when I say we have to do whatever we have to do to win football games,” Roethlisberger said in August. “Obviously as a quarterback, you know, you want to throw the ball. It’s just natural. But at this point in my career, especially with the group we have, it really can’t be about anything other than winning football games and doing that however we have to.”
Since coming back this season, Roethlisberger has been critical of himself week to week. After each game, he has pointed out something he needs to fix. And then he’s done that.
After one game, it was footwork. The next week, he used his day off to run through footwork drills with Canada. After another, he blamed himself for not having a strong enough connection with his receivers, and then emphasized that in practice during the week. Following the win against the Eagles, Roethlisberger said he wasn’t hitting on his deep balls as often. So before facing the Browns, he practiced throwing deep tosses with stacked trash cans in the end zone, a drill usually reserved for the younger backups and practice squad quarterbacks.
“What better time than at practice to drill some things — footwork, deep ball things,” he said. “I’ll just continue to try and get better. I don’t ever want to get worse, obviously. I want to try and find little ways and things I can do to keep improving my game.”
And it’s working.
Roethlisberger is nearly the most accurate he’s been in his career, completing 69.1% of his attempts for his third-highest rate through the first five games of a season. His QBR of 60.3 is his eighth-highest through five games since 2006.
“I’m not trying to prove anything to the outside world,” Roethlisberger said. “I just wanted to keep playing the game that I love with the teammates that I love for the fans that I love. That’s what’s most important in my mind.”