NASHVILLE – A week into training camp last season, observers wondered just what to make of Ryan Tannehill’s interceptions.
The Tennessee Titans quarterback had thrown five through the team’s first five practices.
The prevailing theory? Probably no big deal. His receivers were streaming in and out of the lineup due to injury. He was adapting to new offensive coordinator Todd Downing. Derrick Henry wasn’t taking part in team drills, which meant one less thing to focus on for the defense. Bottom line? It was training camp. Stop worrying.
Whether there was any direct correlation or not, however, Tannehill’s interceptions were also the primary storyline when the Titans’ 2021 season came to a disappointing end.
He threw three picks in the playoff loss to Cincinnati. That followed a regular season in which Tannehill was picked off 14 times in 17 games – one more than the 13 combined picks he’d thrown in 28 games in 2019 and 2020. His 2.6 percent interception rate last year ranked 22nd among 33 qualifying NFL quarterbacks.
All of which sets the table for a question to be asked presently: How much should be made of Tannehill’s turnover-free start to this year’s training camp?
Through the first six practices, Tannehill hasn’t thrown a single interception, 50-of-66 passes during team and seven-on-seven drills, per Jim Wyatt of TennesseeTitans.com.
Asked whether the one-week, training-camp comparison held any significance, Tannehill’s first response was a chuckle.
“I don’t know – I’m not going to get into last year or anything like that,” Tannehill said. “Just trying to be smart with the ball.
“Sometimes in practice, you’re pushing the limits, right? That’s the point of practice, especially early on in training camp and the spring … seeing where you can put the ball, and if you can fit it in there, what catch radius guys have and things like that.
“But it’s balance. You want to be smart. … We just know as quarterbacks that it’s our jobs to try to take care of the football and put it in a good spot. We want to train those good habits as we go.”
The Tannehill turnover talk won’t go vanish until he shows – in the regular season and postseason – that 2021 was an outlier, not a sign of things to come.
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But the significance of Tannehill’s good start to this training camp should not be ignored either, especially when adding these factors into the mix:
• New pass-catchers: Had Tannehill returned all – or nearly all – of his receivers from last season, familiarity might have played a role in the good training-camp numbers so far. That, however, hardly has been the case.
Gone are AJ Brown, Julio Jones, Anthony Firkser and Chester Rogers among others. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Geoff Swaim are the only significant returns from 2021. Meanwhile, there are a wealth of new targets for Tannehill – Robert Woods, Treylon Burks and Kyle Philips at wide receiver, and Austin Hooper and Chig Okonkwo at tight end.
One might guess that a missed connection – a case of quarterback and receiver not yet on the same page – might have caused an interception or two in the early going, but Tannehill’s turnover goose egg still stands.
“It’s always critical to make sure that everyone’s dialed in and understands what’s required of him in a certain route concept or blocking scheme,” Downing said. “But it’s been fun to watch so far.”
• Downfield throws: It might also be easy to explain away Tannehill’s pick-free production in camp by saying he’s thrown one check-down after another.
That hasn’t been the case, though.
An illustration surfaced during a team drill on Tuesday, when – in the span of seven plays – Tannehill connected on a long pass with Westbrook-Ikhine to the left sideline, hit Racey McMath deep for a touchdown after cornerback Kristian Fulton fell, hit McMath for another long gain at the right sideline; and connected on a long post pattern to McMath for a touchdown.
Those are at least encouraging signs for an offense that needs explosive uses and for a quarterback whose yards per attempt has slipped from an NFL-best 9.6 in 2019, to 7.9 in 2020, and to just 7.0 last year.
Even more encouragement? None of those lengthy Tannehill tosses wound up in the hands of defensive backs. None even came close.
Big deal or small deal? We’ll see.
“I think it’s always significant when you show your commitment to taking care of the football,” Downing said. “Certainly ball security is something that we as an offense, starting with me, has put an emphasis on this offseason.
“We had a blip on the radar last year in terms of an uptick in (interceptions) … Certainly Ryan has made a commitment to ball security, but I think everyone (around him has also), and I hope that continues.”