NFL Countdown #8: Expectations were not very high for Justin Herbert and Ryan Tannehill going into the 2020 season, but both ended up as top-10 quarterbacks in most metrics. With Herbert bailing out on collapsed pockets and Tannehill rolling out on perfectly executed plays, both QBs tied for the league lead in 50+ yard passes.
Ryan Tannehill Still Smells Like Adam Gase
The football watching community owes Ryan Tannehill a lot more than we give him. Tannehill has been among the best quarterbacks in the league since taking over in Tennessee, and NFL fans everywhere have been holding their breath, waiting for the floor to come out from under him. The stench of Adam Gase has lingered way past its expiration date, and no one outside of Tennessee is willing to admit that Ryan Tannehill is just really good at football.
Tannehill won 46 games out of 88 as a starter in Miami, going 13-11 under head coach Adam Gase. He never eclipsed 27 touchdowns as a Dolphin, but was always just good enough to keep trotting out there and battling for the second spot in the AFC East. In his first year with Gase, Tannehill’s season ended early with a knee sprain, and then he was sidelined for all of 2017 with a torn ACL. The Dolphins won their first three games of 2018, and somehow Ryan Tannehill was sitting at 10 wins out of his previous 11 starts. I still vividly remember seeing that graphic while watching a Dolphins game and questioning whether Ryan Tannehill was actually good, but those thoughts were put to rest when he lost six of the remaining eight games he started in 2018.
The Dolphins burned everything to the ground after giving Adam Gase the shaft, cutting bait on Tannehill and trading him and a 6th round pick to the Titans for a 4th and a 7th. Tennessee had been in a similar situation to the Dolphins with their very average starting QB, and ended up benching Marcus Mariota for Tannehill in Week 6 of the 2019 season. Tannehill provided the spark his team needed, going 7-3 as a starter and dragging the Titans to an AFC Championship loss against the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Ryan Tannehill was similarly electrifying in 2020, winning eleven games and providing the perfect break from the Derrick Henry show with deep play action shots to AJ Brown and Corey Davis. It's now been 689 days since Tannehill took over in Tennessee, and at least 975 since he was in the same room as Adam Gase. Can we all just forget the past and admit that Ryan Tannehill is an elite quarterback?
A Breath of Fresh Air in LA
In a draft where the first quarterback had just come off the greatest college season ever, and the second quarterback had been the light at the end of the tunnel of the Dolphins’ tank for over a year, the third quarterback ended up with arguably the greatest rookie QB performance we’ve ever seen. Justin Herbert was chosen 6th overall, and was widely regarded as not being ready for the NFL. Standing at 6'6" and flashing with incredible arm strength at times in college, Herbert had all the tools to be a great quarterback, but we never everything line up for him in the boring Oregon Ducks offense. The Chargers had planned to ease their new QB into the NFL slowly, but the rookie was thrust into the starting job like a needle entering a lung for their Week 2 matchup. Shortly after the coin toss, Justin Herbert was told he would be the starter against Patrick Mahomes.
"I think he thought I was joking. I had to tell him a couple times, 'No, seriously, you're the starting quarterback.' Once he realized he was the guy, he was fine." – Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn
Herbert completed 67% of his passes on his way to 311 yards and a touchdown in his unexpected duel with Patrick Mahomes, and threw 16 touchdowns and no fewer than 264 yards over his next six starts. Justin Herbert passed first-overall draft pick Joe Burrow in touchdowns in Week 5 and never looked back, eventually securing the NFL record with 31 passing touchdowns as a rookie. He was named the NFL’s 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year, throwing for the second-most passing yards ever for a rookie despite being the second most pressured quarterback throughout the season. He was under pressure on 47% of his dropbacks, but utilized his solid athleticism to escape the pocket and launch balls downfield. Over the course of the 2020 season, only Aaron Rodgers notched a higher EPA/attempt on deep balls than the rookie Justin Herbert. All of our lowly expectations for Justin Herbert burst like a lung with a needle in it, and I can't wait to see where the kid goes from here.