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‘He always had talent’: Ryan Tannehill, cast aside in Miami, is thriving with Tennessee

Ryan Tannehill (left) has been reborn since taking over for Marcus Mariota.
Ryan Tannehill (left) has been reborn since taking over for Marcus Mariota.ben margot/Associated Press

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FOXBOROUGH — The Titans’ starting quarterback finished the regular season with a 117.5 passer rating, the fourth-highest in the history of the NFL, behind Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and (believe it or not) Nick Foles.

His 9.6 yards per attempt were the fourth-most in the NFL since 1960. He joined Joe Montana and Sammy Baugh as the only quarterbacks in history to complete at least 70 percent of their passes and average at least 9.0 yards per attempt. And on Thursday, he was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for December, having thrown 12 touchdown passes with two interceptions and compiling a 124.6 passer rating.

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Who are you, and what have you done with Ryan Tannehill?

“It doesn’t surprise me — he always had talent,” said Mike Sherman, who coached Tannehill for four years at Texas A&M, then was his offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins for Tannehill’s first two seasons. “That’s the great thing about football — it takes 11 [players], and the 11 he’s playing with now are probably better than the 11 he was playing with in the past.”

Saturday’s wild-card game at New England will be Tannehill’s first career playoff start, as he didn’t accomplish much in his seven seasons in Miami.

Film study: Ryan Tannehill has ignited the Titans’ offense

Drafted No. 8 overall in 2012, Tannehill went 49-49 as a starter for the Dolphins, compiling modest numbers: 232.2 passing yards per game, 7.0 yards per attempt, an 87.0 passer rating, and two 4,000-yard seasons. The Dolphins made the playoffs once in his seven seasons (2016), but Tannehill didn’t play; he partially tore his ACL that December and missed the final four games. He then fully tore his ACL the next August and missed the 2017 season.

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Tannehill’s best accomplishment with the Dolphins may have been going 4-7 against the Patriots, though all four of those wins were in Miami. Tannehill went 0-6 in New England, with the average score being 34-11.

The Dolphins, starved to find a franchise quarterback ever since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season, finally gave up on Tannehill after 2018. They traded him to the Titans last March, agreeing to pay a $5 million signing bonus and take an $18.4 million cap hit to facilitate the trade.

The Dolphins may want a mulligan now. They are still searching for a quarterback, while Tannehill was the NFL’s biggest surprise this year, compiling career numbers across the board and leading the Titans to the top of almost every offensive statistic.

Ryan Tannehill's revival At 31, Ryan Tannehill is having the best season of his career in his first year with the Titans. Here's how his numbers compare.
Statistic Career average in Miami Best number in Miami 2019 in Tennessee
Completion Percentage 62.8 67.1 70.3
Touchdown Percentage 4.2 6.2 7.7
Interception Percentage 2.6 2.0 2.1
Yards Per Attempt 7.0 7.7 9.6
Passer Rating 87.0 93.5 117.5
SOURCE: Sources

“He’s always had a very, very good arm throwing the ball down the field, pretty accurate at throwing throws, deep balls, intermediate routes,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “We’ve seen him for years, we’ve been a part of some of his best games in Miami, so we know what he’s capable of and we’ve watched how he’s leading that team.”

Accuracy has been a cornerstone of Tannehill’s success.
Accuracy has been a cornerstone of Tannehill’s success.thearon w. henderson/getty/Getty Images

In Tennessee, Tannehill sat patiently behind Marcus Mariota for the first six games of this season, as the Titans went 2-4 and were ranked 28th in points. Under Tannehill, the Titans are 7-3 and ranked No. 3 in points.

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“It’s a unique situation,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “I think that there were things that he probably wanted to say or do as the backup that he had normally done as a starter. He respected the situation.”

Tannehill, 31, has become the perfect example of how scheme and surroundings are just as important, if not more so, than a player’s individual talent. In Miami, Tannehill had four offensive coordinators in seven seasons. But in Tennessee, he and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith instantly clicked.

“If we go back and check the league and check the quarterbacks that had those type of consistent changes, they’ve usually struggled,” Sherman said. “Tom Brady has been in the same scheme since Day 1. You can’t overburden a quarterback with different systems.”

Tannehill has always been a great athlete. He was actually a wide receiver for most of his college career before transitioning to quarterback over his final 1½ seasons.

“He’s a great route runner, hell of an athlete, and he was teaching players how to run routes so quarterbacks wouldn’t wonder what they’re doing,” said Sherman, a Hyde Park native. “He was extremely smart — he was a pre-med major — a great competitor, he could run the whole route tree, and did a good job teaching players. He had a lot of the intangibles you look for in a quarterback.

“So he’s playing with great confidence now, and I think the fact that he sat down and watched Mariota for a while and it wasn’t all on him, I think that helped him, too.”

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The Titans have been doing their best to minimize the hype around Tannehill’s outstanding season. Vrabel steers most questions about him back to the team’s performance, and the Titans wouldn’t make Tannehill available for an interview this week. But Vrabel did say that he has been impressed by Tannehill’s work ethic.

“His preparation has been outstanding,” Vrabel said. “For a player that came in in April and started out in a secondary role, [he] has really ascended in his leadership, and his command of the offense has been impressive.”

Sherman said he sees Tannehill throwing with better anticipation than he did in the past. He also believes Tannehill is benefiting from having better pieces around him — a better line, an elite running game with Derrick Henry, and a dynamic playmaker in rookie receiver A.J. Brown.

Tannehill didn’t have any of that in Miami, where he started as a rookie in 2012 despite having just 19 college starts.

“He was thrown to the wolves right away and never had a chance to grow as a quarterback,” Sherman said. “It always felt like, ‘We need an offensive line here, we need to be able to protect this kid.’

“He took a lot of shots, and to his credit he always got up. Never pointed fingers, got up and went on to the next play.”

And now in his eighth NFL season, Tannehill is finally achieving his potential.

“He’s got great speed and athletic ability,” Sherman said. “I think what he’s done is develop his skill level where his talent is more appreciated. He’s still a young guy, from a quarterback standpoint, and he’s just coming into his own.”

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin