Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill set the record straight, which was a significant event for many people, most of all himself.
Titans headlines coming out of last month’s NFL draft focused on some comments Tannehill made in the wake of Tennessee’s decision to draft Liberty quarterback Malik Willis. Tannehill essentially said he wasn’t planning on mentoring Willis. This week, he clarified that he’ll be more supportive than he initially indicated.
This story is important today for one key reason: Tannehill is exactly the kind of quarterback who should be showing the ropes to somebody like Willis.
Quarterback is the ultimate position of leadership, the job most tasked with selling the idea that being a role model is a good thing. The minute Tannehill suggested that Willis would need to fend for himself, he gave weight to the belief that far too many star quarterbacks in this league are threatened by the idea of having real competition on the roster. The fact is that Tannehill has been through enough ups and downs that he could offer Willis infinite wisdom on how to navigate this league.
When asked about Willis after the draft, Tannehill said they were competing against each other, adding, “I don’t think it’s my job to mentor him, but if he learns from me along the way, then that’s a great thing.” Tannehill’s tone was far different during a meeting with local reporters on Tuesday.
“We’re happy to have him in the room,” Tannehill said of Willis. “Really just kind of disappointed in how things got spun and twisted a little bit. I pride myself on being a great teammate. I have my whole career. 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 is being a great teammate.”
It’s entirely plausible that the 33-year-old Tannehill could’ve come to his senses only after seeing how poorly his original comments played to much of the public. Given his solid reputation, though, it’s more reasonable to believe he couldn’t spend an entire year dismissing the needs of a rookie trying to learn the business. Tannehill has seen plenty over his 10 NFL seasons, beginning his pro career as a top-10 pick, then falling out of favor in Miami, before eventually becoming a Pro Bowl quarterback in Tennessee after arriving as a backup. It would be a shame if he didn’t see the value in sharing those lessons with a young man who someday might have his job.
Let’s remember that Willis came into the draft widely projected as a first-round pick before slipping all the way to Tennessee midway through Round 3. He brought his family to Las Vegas for the event, then spent the first day watching other highly touted prospects celebrate the realization of their own dreams. It’s that type of disappointment that should fuel Willis — the third quarterback selected at No. 86 overall — on the next level. Tannehill could show him all sorts of ways to channel that heartbreak into positive results.
By the way, there are other young signal-callers who could use the same support from veterans who’ve been knocked around in this league. Marcus Mariota, the man who preceded Tannehill in Nashville, will be in a similar situation with rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder in Atlanta. Mitch Trubisky, a former No. 2 overall pick of the Bears, will have to figure out how to co-exist with Kenny Pickett, a player the Steelers selected with the 20th overall pick in last month’s draft. Sam Darnold, a first-round bust with the Jets, will be looking over his shoulder to see rookie Matt Corral coming after him in Carolina.
Like Tannehill, all those veteran quarterbacks have been through enough turmoil that compassion should be second nature to them by now. It’s no different than when Kansas City decided to select Patrick Mahomes in the first round of the 2017 draft. The Chiefs had a solid starting quarterback in Alex Smith, a dependable leader who’d once lost his job to Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. Instead of fretting about something he couldn’t control — the Chiefs’ decision to seek out a franchise quarterback of the future — Smith settled into a role he could manage, that of both leading the team and grooming his replacement.
Mahomes has repeatedly praised Smith for the guidance he provided during his rookie season. Even after Mahomes became an MVP and Super Bowl champion, the people around him referred to Smith as a key component in the development of a superstar. This isn’t to suggest that Willis, or any other first-year quarterback in this class, is going to ascend to those heights. It’s only to say most veteran starters in this league need to see the value in that approach.
We all understand the competitive nature of the sport. There are plenty of people who can tell you about the testiness that erupted between aging quarterbacks and potential successors back in the day. Joe Montana wasn’t the kindest soul to Steve Young when the 49ers were figuring out who could best lead that team in the early 1990s. Green Bay also turned into a battleground when Brett Favre realized the Packers were prepared to give Aaron Rodgers his job in 2008. Hell, Rodgers just spent last offseason feuding with management over a litany of issues, one of which included being blindsided by the team’s decision to use a first-round pick in the 2020 draft on quarterback Jordan Love.
Replacing a legend is an entirely different beast when it comes to this position. Being in a situation like Tannehill faces with Willis should be more about paying it forward.
“The incumbent is always going to be upset,” Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian told me last winter. “There is no way to do it and not have that happen. But as a general manager, you have a responsibility to the franchise. If a guy is moving towards the end of his career, you always have to look at other options. But you also have to realize that in some cases, it’s going to be unpopular.”
It’s highly unlikely that the drafting of Willis created a rift in the Titans fan base. As much as Tannehill has succeeded with that franchise — Tennessee has won the last two AFC South championships — he admitted that the pain of January’s Divisional Round loss to Cincinnati haunted him for weeks. Tannehill threw three interceptions, including one on his first attempt and one on his last, the latter of which set up the Bengals’ game-winning field goal. Given that Tennessee entered the postseason as the top seed in the AFC, Tannehill has never come up shorter for the franchise.
Maybe that heartbreak had something to do with Tannehill’s initial reaction to Willis being drafted. Maybe the veteran quarterback is simply hungrier than ever — that, as he said earlier this week, “We’re going to continue to push each other, to learn from each other in the QB room, encourage each other as this thing goes forward. We’re all here for one goal.“
Whatever the motivation, Tannehill can still help Willis grow while also winning games in the process. After all, he rebuilt himself in Tennessee by recognizing a simple truth: How you finish in this league means a hell of a lot more than how you start.
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