NASHVILLE – Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner knows all about what a fresh start, and the right opportunity, can do for a career, so in some ways he can relate to Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Tannehill, of course, was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year earlier this month after jumpstarting his career in Tennessee. After spending his first seven seasons with the Dolphins, Tannehill led the NFL in passer rating in 2019 while guiding the Titans to the AFC Championship Game.
Warner's climb was much different. After a quick release from the Packers and stints in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, Warner's NFL career didn't take off until 1999, when he was named the league's MVP while guiding the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl win. It was the start of something special for a guy who went undrafted in 1994.
At Super Bowl LIV, Titans Online asked several former NFL quarterbacks and head coaches about Tannehill, whose contract is scheduled to expire next month. All spoke favorably about the signal-caller who engineered a memorable playoff run.
But Warner also acknowledged the big questions facing the Titans.
"He did a great job, and I am so happy for him," Warner, now an analyst for NFL Network, said of Tannehill. "(But) I don't know what happens next. It's like everything else: When you have a body of work, and you've only shown me this one time, I don't know what to believe you are. Granted, this was the last time, and this was a different scenario and all those things, but I sit here and go: Is this the Ryan Tannehill I am going to get for the rest of his career? Or, is this just one of those seasons that came together, and he is more the guy we saw in Miami? I hope it is the former, this year. I hope that is what we get the rest of his career.
"But I don't know the answer to that, and I think that is what makes it so hard as you try to assess: Where is he? What kind of contract do you try and give him? Do you bring him back? Do you let him go? All of those things, I don't know if anybody is going to have an answer to that. And you are going to have to kind of wade through that and figure out what you think Ryan Tannehill will be the rest of his career and what that means for him if you're a Titans fan or the Titans organization or someone else that may try and grab him if he becomes a free agent."
Tannehill led the NFL with a 117.5 rating in 2019, his first season with the Titans. He guided the Titans to a pair of playoff wins – at New England and Baltimore – and into the AFC Championship Game, where the Titans lost to the Chiefs.
During the regular season, Tannehill threw for 2,742 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. He's guided the Titans to a 9-4 mark, including playoffs, since taking over as the team's starter in Week 7.
Warner said he saw a good comfort level with Tannehill and the Titans, and said he saw great improvement from what he saw during his playing days with the Dolphins, who picked him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Two more Hall of Fame quarterbacks – Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw – said they were very impressed with Tannehill's season in Tennessee.
"I think he is a great talent, and I have known him since he was at (Texas) A&M," Aikman said of Tannehill. "I think a lot of him. He is a solid guy, he is a really talented player, he is very athletic and he showed – a team that was kind of struggling, and needed some leadership and direction, he comes in off the bench and leads them to the AFC Championship Game. I like him a lot and I absolutely think he can continue."
Bradshaw believes Tannehill got into a better situation in Tennessee.
"What happened was he just got around better players," Bradshaw said. "Ryan is a solid player, and he played really good … He had good players around him, a good running game, and he just went out there and did his job. … I've always liked him. Even when they were hammering him down here in Miami, I always liked him. You talk about great athletes in the NFL, this guy can flat run. Like the kid down at LSU, Joe Burrow, that guy can run, man."
During Tannehill's first seven seasons with the Dolphins, his highest passer rating in a season came during the 2016 season, when he posted a 93.5 rating. In 2018, Tannehill threw for 1,979 yards with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions with the Dolphins, with a 92.7 rating, before being traded to the Titans in the offseason.
Dave Wannstedt, a former NFL head coach with the Dolphins and Bears, credited Titans coach Mike Vrabel for switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill in Week 7.
And Wannstedt praised Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith for making adjustments to fit Tannehill's strengths.
"Ryan Tannehill, to me, I defended him when he was with the Dolphins," Wannstedt said. "(The Titans) got the maximum out of him. He always probably had the ability, whether it's a comfort zone or just getting into a new environment, I don't know. But the guy had a fantastic year, and at the end of the day he was probably as big a reason as anybody that they had success. He deserves credit for that.
"I remember when I first watched Ryan Tannehill, I thought that he was almost a better thrower when he was on the move than when he was in the pocket … What he is doing right now, in my mind, is what he does best – the play-action pass, he makes some plays with his legs. I just think he is more comfortable."
Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson offered a smile and a joke when asked about Tannehill. Johnson coached the Cowboys and the Dolphins in the NFL.
"For some reason," Johnson said, "a lot of the players that leave Miami, they do good at other places."
Johnson went on to praise Tannehill, and Vrabel, for making such a big switch in season.
Things will get really serious soon for the Titans. And by the end of next month, there will be a lot more clarity at the quarterback position in Tennessee.
Warner said he's happy for Tannehill's success.
He's among those curious to see what happens next.
"There was a lot of great stuff that I saw from Ryan this year, but there's still things I see and wonder," Warner said. "What if Derrick Henry goes somewhere else? Then, what are the Titans? Do they look different? Does Ryan have to do and play differently? And can he play differently? And those are the questions I have going into (the offseason) and what I believe the Titans are going to have to figure out. And then they are going to have to assess: Is he a better option than somebody else? What else is out there?
"I am excited for (Ryan's) future because he put himself in a position where we now have those questions about him. A year ago, I don't know if people would have said, 'Maybe he is a franchise quarterback.' Now we are at least having that conversation and he probably is going to need a couple of more years to give us the compete answer to that question."
A look back at QB Ryan Tannehill's 2019 Pro Bowl season that saw him complete 201-of-286 passes (70.3%) for 2,742 yards, 22 touchdowns, and an NFL-leading 117.5 passer rating. (Photos: Donald Page).