With a shrinking window, the Tennessee Titans' faith in Ryan Tannehill weakens | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
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Having been shown the door, the Tennessee Titans exited slowly Saturday night.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill wasn’t even the last player to arrive in the interview room, and he took awhile to get there. He tends to be a brisk mover after most games. Not this game.

Once at the podium, Tannehill looked as if there was anywhere else he’d rather be than having to bleakly rehash a 19-16 AFC divisional-round loss to Cincinnati Bengals that had more to do with his three interceptions than anything else the Titans did or didn't do.

This was largely his fault, and he was still processing it.

“Didn’t think we’d be having this conversation right now,” Tannehill said. “Not what I envisioned for the game – at all. We had an opportunity at the end.

“No doubt in my mind we were going to go down and get points.”

In three seasons and 46 previous starts as the Titans’ quarterback, Tannehill had directed 13 game-winning drives. So when the Titans got the football back Saturday at their own 16-yard line with 2:43 remaining and the score tied, and Tannehill says he had no doubt, you believe him.

How much, however, did the Titans believe in Tannehill at that moment? Given that they slammed on the brakes, called two run plays and worked the clock for the last shot, so to speak – an approach that failed spectacularly.

Now a better question that we'll discuss for months:

How much are the Titans going to believe in Tannehill moving forward?

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What a brutal way to end this season. What a wasted opportunity. It cost the Titans a chance to host their first AFC title game, and they clearly didn’t expect to lose to the Bengals with a week’s rest, Derrick Henry back and Nissan Stadium louder than players said they’d heard it before. They knew they'd let those fans down.

This loss will fester and stink. It'll take the Titans somewhere they haven’t been since Marcus Mariota was benched in Denver in 2019. There should be legitimate questions asked about this offense – and more specifically, whether they have the right quarterback to take them where they want to go.

I’m no longer so sure they do.

How could anyone be sure after Saturday? How could the Titans? That's how damaging this performance was for Tannehill.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) talks with his team during the second quarter of an AFC divisional playoff game at Nissan Stadium Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

The 2021 season had been a step back for him, but that could be explained by injuries and a depleted supporting cast. Tannehill, too, had built some equity here. He has been so good so often in Nashville that I’ve written often about his being underrated on a national scale, wondering why that was the case.

I’m no longer wondering so much.

Because I just watched him flop on the biggest stage, and it was a painful experience, Kind of like Tannehill's less-than-stellar outing against the Ravens in last season’s playoffs, but this was exponentially worse.

All three interceptions Saturday were wicked gut punches, knocking the wind out a delirious crowd.

The atmosphere is electric as Henry jogs out to start the game. Interception.

D’Onta Foreman’s brilliant 45-yard run is the Titans’ longest gain of the game. Interception.

After the two picks, it seemed that coaches stopped trusting Tannehill for that final possession. The Titans were in no hurry. They ran Henry on the first play and then once more. They didn’t try to stop the clock.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) throws a touchdown pass during the third quarter of an AFC divisional playoff game at Nissan Stadium Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

Side note: Remember last season’s regular-season finale in Houston? The same franchise that needed only 18 seconds left in a tie game to heave a 52-yard bomb to A.J. Brown and kick a game-winning field goal to win the AFC South – overtime? what overtime? – kind of settled into playing for overtime against the Bengals.


It was the worst that could happen. Tannehill forced the third-down throw. Nearly anything else – an incompletion, a sack, taking a knee – would have meant overtime and a chance for the Titans to advance.

“Not a whole lot you can say to make things better,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “There's no more games. It's over. You just wish we'd found a way to win that game. We had it, and we just didn't (take) care of the ball the way we should've.”

Lewan didn’t mention Tannehill by name when he said that. None of the Titans called out their quarterback publicly, and that wasn’t surprising. Not that kind of team.

“I don't think Ryan or myself or anybody did enough to win the game,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “That's how it goes. It's never going to be about one person, not as long as I'm the head coach.”

Had Vrabel looked up while he spoke at the podium, he might have noticed a television showing replays from the game – the three interceptions, one after another.

It’s going to be a long offseason watching those on repeat. Even longer than last year, when the Titans at least knew the problem that had to be fixed was their defense. And you know what? They fixed it. The defense improved all season – and especially a pass rush that was dominant Saturday.

Difficult to believe that the Titans – who couldn’t get a sack on Joe Burrow last season – would get nine in this playoff game and still find a way to lose.

Difficult to believe that the defense is now the Titans’ strength.

And their weakness? The growing concern entering the 2022 season will be Tannehill. He isn’t going anywhere, thanks to a restructured contract that binds him to the Titans for the immediate future. His job is obviously safe.

What he must restore, however, is faith and confidence among his own team that he can take them to a championship. As much as Tannehill has reliably stepped up in big moments during the regular season, his successes have become overshadowed by his struggles in the postseason.

One bad playoff game to end the 2020 season has become an even more troubling trend to end the following one. His next opportunity to correct that isn't guaranteed. 

With one more misfire, the window for these Titans and the Super Bowl just got smaller.

And doubts about Tannehill’s ability to take them there just got a lot larger.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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