Tennessee Titans' Ryan Tannehill and the 'firestorm' he never meant to create | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
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Ryan Tannehill’s first news conference of this offseason made coast-to-coast headlines.

His second one, accordingly, was sure to draw plenty of interest.

That, as it turned out, included a small bird perched above the roofed patio outside Tennessee Titans headquarters Tuesday, taking it in and so loudly bellowing at one point that Tannehill stopped mid-sentence – he'd been giving his own definition of the word “mentor” – and turned to look at who was the latest to squawk in his direction.

“He agrees with me,” said the quarterback with a smile.

He got laughs. It was funny. A tension-breaker and light moment during what continues to be the heaviest period of Tannehill’s tenure as the Titans’ starting quarterback.

Tannehill has been on his heels for months, it seems, playing defense against all types of criticism. All that chirping after his three interceptions in the Titans’ playoff loss. Even more when he didn’t show up immediately to the team’s offseason workouts and tweeted an older picture of himself on a boat.

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Then, once back in Nashville, he held an enlightening, heartfelt news conference in which he was his most vulnerable. Instead, he was pilloried for a throwaway line near the end. The uproar was over him saying that it wasn’t his job to “mentor” rookie quarterback Malik Willis. Surely, you heard about it.

I'd call it an “uproar.” Tannehill’s word was “firestorm.” He also called it “madness."

He brought it up. He wanted to talk about it. He showed up at Tuesday’s news conference wanting to set it straight.

“When you get made out to be something you’re not and something you’re intentional about your whole career and it kind of gets thrown the opposite way, it’s not a fun position,” he said.

Since when did Tannehill’s media appearances become so fascinating and scrutinized?

That’s a new phenomenon. Until lately, they've been mostly boring. I don’t say that as an insult. If anything, in Tannehill’s case, that has been a good thing.

Generally, he has played well on the field, and he hasn't been the least bit controversial off it. This, I have argued, is one of Tannehill’s greatest strengths. Say what you want, but there’s no drama to the guy. He’s no diva. He’s widely reputed, in fact, as being unselfish. A good dude. A good leader. A good teammate.

Makes sense why this latest "firestorm" bothered Tannehill so much. It chipped away at his off-field reputation by promoting widespread assumptions about his character that were false.

“I pride myself on being a great teammate. I have my whole career," Tannehill said. "Going back to the time I was a kid, playing youth sports, it’s been something that’s been important to me from the beginning and will always be important to me. It’s something I’ll try to instill in my kids as they start playing youth sports."

I’m not just taking Tannehill’s word for that. In three years, I’ve not heard anyone around the Titans – coach, teammate, whoever – say anything unflattering about Tannehill's locker room leadership or personality.

After the recent dustup over Tannehill’s comments, Titans coach Mike Vrabel backed him immediately. So did Willis.

During Tuesday’s voluntary practice, Tannehill was noticeably vocal and in charge. He was addressing teammates and calling the entire team to huddle up to end a morning in which many big-name, big-salaried Titans – Derrick Henry and Kevin Byard, among others – weren’t in attendance.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) shares a laugh with teammates during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Younger and older players listened to Tannehill. It has meant something, too, to see the way returning teammates have continued to support their quarterback after the painful playoff loss to the Bengals.

“After the playoff game, ‘It’s all Tannehill’s fault. Tannehill did everything wrong,’ ” offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said Tuesday. “We did stuff wrong in that game, too. It wasn’t just Tannehill. People need to remember where we were before and what he’s kind of made this team. …

“It’s really important for people to know how hard he works and where he has taken this franchise.”

Got to say, though, that Tannehill took a step back in performance in 2021. You can blame pass protection, the loss of tight end Jonnu Smith (a favored pass-catcher) and a rash of injuries on offense. All fair points.

But they don’t change the fact that Tannehill has a pivotal season ahead of him. Simply leading the Titans back to the playoffs won’t be enough for Tannehill to silence his growing number of critics. Greater skepticism would be sure to follow him into January, given his past stumbles in the postseason.

That said, Tannehill’s starting job isn’t in question. That said, his long-term status isn’t as secure, as proven by Willis’ presence.

The Titans didn’t draft Willis to step in immediately, but they’re not in the business of wasting third-round picks, either. Many saw Willis as the best quarterback available in this draft. His first month with the Titans has demonstrated why. Willis looks promising. He has a mature demeanor and a live arm.

This isn’t yet a quarterback controversy - or even a true competition. But it’s worth watching. A lot of eyes are on the Titans quarterbacks, and that hadn’t been the case since Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota.

In such a setting, Tannehill shouldn’t have said the “mentor” line as he did. The word choice was regrettable. Worse was his timing. During a slow time, he gave the national media something to chatter about that wouldn’t require any thought.

It perfectly fit one of the NFL’s favorite pre-existing narratives: Millionaire starting quarterback is so angry about his team drafting his potential replacement that he isn’t going to assist him. 

It was silly and a non-story. But predictably in a shallow media climate, it grew legs and started sprinting.

That night, I was in Denver’s Ball Arena to watch the Nashville Predators’ playoff game against the Colorado Avalanche. Seated beside me were two Colorado-based reporters, and I noticed at one point that they were reading an ESPN article about Tannehill’s comment. I heard the discussion. They had the Titans’ quarterback wrong.

So I tossed my two cents in their direction, and they listened. You couldn’t blame them for jumping to a conclusion about Tannehill’s selfishness. They don’t know him.

And that was Tannehill’s point. 

Speaking for myself, the bird wasn’t the only one there who agreed.

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

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