NFL MVP: Ryan Tannehill Emerges as Dark Horse

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Honolulu transplant from Nashville, Tennessee. Teaching high school English during the day, coaching Track & Field in the afternoon, then drinking enough to do it all over again.

Too competitive for an amateur, too amateur to be competitive.

The Tennessee Titans are 5-0 through 6 weeks of NFL action, and one candidate has emerged as a dark horse for the coveted NFL MVP award: Ryan Tannehill. 

The Tennessee defense is a weakness this season, getting exposed by teams with losing records. The reason the Titans can overcome their poor defense is because of their extremely talented offense. For a franchise historically known for defense, these Titans are showing us a new generation of stars. This time last year, Tennessee was 2-3 and Marcus Mariota was just benched for Ryan Tannehill. 

The team quickly realized that Tannehill was the solution moving forward, and the Titans rewarded him with a new contract. This season, it’s pretty clear they made the right decision. Tannehill is 3rd in the NFL in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) according to Football Outsiders. He is also in the top 5 of QB play according to expected points added (EPA) per play and completion percentage over expected (CPOE).

The only player to currently outrank Tannehill in EPA/play is Aaron Rodgers, a front-runner for the NFL MVP award. The EPA metric combines rushing and passing efficiency of the player compared to the average QB in the same situation. Using historical data to identify predictive measures of success, analysts are able to get an idea of who is performing well given their situation.

Don’t worry about numbers replacing the act of watching games. How do the originators get these numbers in the first place? But the numbers help viewers and analysts quantify what we’re seeing, especially when there is so much information to comb through. Being human, it’s easy for us to become entranced by the outliers, both good and bad. The numbers simply help to ground our viewing experience and compare what we’re watching to the rest of the NFL.

And Titans fans are watching greatness. NflfastR’s model of CPOE does not account for yards of separation by the receiver, which could inflate the numbers for guys who are playing with elite weapons or in creatively schemed offenses. Nonetheless, the model is still able to help us identify good quarterback play. In fact, Next Gen Stats’ model does account for receiver separation, and Tannehill still ranks near the top in CPOE.

The numbers and charts look good, but nothing beats watching a perfectly placed ball for a clutch win. It’s a thing of beauty. Tannehill has a knack for making plays happen, whether it’s threading the needle for a touchdown or using his feet to escape pressure.

An MVP Makes Offenses Great Again

The offense is 3rd in total offensive DVOA, improving from last year’s 6th offensive DVOA ranking. Tannehill took the reins in Week 7, and significantly improved from 23rd in 2018 when Mariota was the starter. Those numbers definitely correlate with the winning percentage he’s accumulated since his time as a starter in Tennessee, as Tannehill is 11-3 in 14 starts with the team.

It’s certainly no surprise that better offenses result in better records, but it’s staggering to see the difference between an offense that ranked so poorly two years ago and the offense we see today. It’s an overnight change that can only really happen with elite quarterback play.

When looking at important QB metrics, many argue that Tannehill’s success primarily comes off of play action. They cite the 91 yard touchdown pass to then-rookie AJ Brown as a prime example of his success off play action. And it’s a good point. Tannehill feasts on defenses preparing for a Derrick Henry rush on the early downs. That’s partially why his early down passing efficiency is so high. In fact, it leads the NFL as of Week 6.

Plenty of teams have great running backs, though, and do not have the success on 1st and 2nd down that the Titans do. Seattle is historically a rushing team but have decided to #LetRussCook this season. It’s paid off for them, but their efficiency is still not to the scale of Tennessee.

“But Daniel! That’s because there’s more opportunities! Of course the efficiency goes down with a larger sample size!” Yes. That’s generally true and it’s important to see if this is affecting the efficiency too much. 

Then look at the rush EPA/play. Seattle ranks significantly higher, most likely due to the same reason; Derrick Henry and the Titans rush more often on 1st and 2nd down. The total EPA/play averages out to a similar number for both teams (Green Bay, in that regard, stands out).

While those numbers account for PA, Tannehill’s numbers without play action are even more impressive. Against Houston in Week 6, Tannehill went 22/25, 222 yards, and 3 TDs without play action. Those aren’t the kind of numbers a game manager puts up. In total, he has the 4th highest passer rating without play action and the the number 1 passer rating under pressure, which you can see as he keeps his composure here in the big time TD throw to AJ Brown in 2019 against the Raiders.

Or this pass to AJ Brown against the Bills this year in Week 5. 

Here’s Tannehill getting hit as he throws, still threading the needle to TE Anthony Firkser in Week 6 against Houston:

In the same game, he steps up in the pocket to avoid pressure, feeling the edge crashing on him, then makes a perfect throw for the first down to Adam Humphries: 

Images and Video copyright of NFL and CBS

Even when the defender is barreling down unimpeded from the right side, Ryan Tannehill still delivers a perfect ball in the endzone where only Jonnu Smith can make the catch:

Images and Video copyright of NFL and CBS

MVP vs Game Manager

Game managers go 9/24 for 188 yards and 2 TDs. Oh wait. That’s Kyler Murray. Game managers complete 64% of their passes with only 1 300+ yard game and 1 TD over a 3-game span. Oops. That’s Matt Ryan, league MVP in 2017. In all seriousness, game managers go 16/29 for 216 and 2 INTs – Teddy Bridgewater. Nobody is calling Kyler Murray or Matt Ryan a “game manager” so it’s past time to ditch the moniker for Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill is playing like an NFL MVP and to say otherwise is to ignore the facts. His yardage is only good for 19th in the NFL but has two 300+ yard games, 3 games with more than 3 passing TDs, and 3 games with more than 73% completion. Even the traditional stats make him look good. The guy simply makes plays and keeps out of turnover trouble.

Though the Titans have played relatively low ranked defenses to this point, the upcoming games against the Steelers, Bears, and Ravens will provide a real test for how capable this team is of winning a Super Bowl. Our own writers are expecting a shootout or even a Tennessee victory against the spread. If Tannehill can continue strong and efficient play against elite defenses, no one will be calling him a game manager much longer.

There is evidence to suggest that Tennessee is certainly capable of dominating opponents with a strong defense. The playoff wins against New England and Baltimore prove as much. The hangup on Tannehill has been that Derrick Henry is viewed as the best player on the team, and while the King might be the best running back in the NFL, the MVP goes to the most valuable player. Nobody is more valuable to their team’s success than Ryan Tannehill.

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Episode 47