In 2022, Ryan Tannehill wanted nothing to do with the new guy in town, Malik Willis – he’s Black. In 2023, Tannehill went out of his way to make sure people knew he was supporting the newer guy in town, Will Levis – he’s white.
This stuff writes itself.
“I don’t think it’s my job to mentor [Willis]” Tannehill said last year. “But if he learns from me along the way, that’s a great thing.” Tannehill was 33 at the time, and the 22-year-old Willis was taken in the third round by the Tennessee Titans with the 86th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. As you can see, Tannehill didn’t like it. It was like the plot of the 1999 cult classic “Any Given Sunday” taking place in real time.
“Kind’s breathing down my neck,” says Cap Rooney – played by Dennis Quaid – as he is the old white quarterback who is about to be replaced by the young athletic Black one, Willie Beamen – played by Jamie Foxx.
“He’s been very good throughout this whole process of keeping the relationship professional while at the same time helping me in any way he can,” the now 35-year-old Tannehill said of Levis last week.
“I want to handle the situation with the class, okay?” Tannehill also added last week. “It’s not a fun situation to be in, but I want to be a pro and handle it with class and still be a guy he can look up to. So, not an ideal situation, but you know, I want to try to handle it well.”
The veteran is taking it hard, which is odd considering he once played in college and knows what it’s like to take a quarterback’s job. But what’s clearer is how he handled things with Levis better than he did with Willis, and his language is proof of that.
But beyond who Tannehill publicly supported, and why, the situation looks even worse after Levis’ performance in the Titans’ 20-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Levis was 19-for-39 for 199 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception in a game in which he threw more incompletions than completed passes.
Nor is it to say that Willis looked like the future of the franchise. He played in 11 career games and went 35-for-66 for 350 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions. His lone score came on the ground, but he also has four career fumbles. In Levi’s three career gamesHe went 60-for-107 for 699 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
It’s easy to see what’s happening here and why the writing is on the wall for Tannehill as Levis sets himself up to be the long-term answer at quarterback for the Titans.
But in the end, we watched the front office in Nashville draft young quarterbacks in back-to-back drafts. One is clearly doing better than the other. But in a season in which I previously wrote about how the league’s current state of the Black quarterbacks is built on a house of cards – in spite of 14 of them start in Week One – what’s happening in Tennessee is the latest example of what I’ve been trying to get people to understand. Ryan Tannehill knew what he was doing when he threw his support behind Will Levis and not Malik Willis. And while Levis may be the better option, what does it say if black quarterbacks can’t even be supported in their own “QB rooms”? That said, a veteran like Tannehill is making progress in more ways than one.