Can Ryan Tannehill actually be having the breakout year we’ve joked about forever in his eighth season? On Sunday, the Titans finally won a big game against the Colts thanks in large part to a blocked field goal that was returned 63 yards for a touchdown to break a 17-17 tie with 5:02 remaining. Tannehill added a touchdown pass for Tennessee’s 31-17 win to improve to 7-5.
It was just three weeks ago when the 4-5 Titans turned their season around after a Tannehill-led comeback held up against the Chiefs. The Titans blocked Harrison Butker’s 52-yard field goal attempt at the end of that one. Tennessee is 5-1 with Tannehill starting and has scored the game-winning points in the fourth quarter in four of those games.
Having tracked every close game of Tannehill’s career, I know success in these moments hasn’t always been there for him. But after this recent spurt he has improved to 19-27 (.413) in game-winning drive opportunities, a winning percentage good for 12th among his peers.
One thing that I’ve always thought stood out in Tannehill’s clutch history is an unusual number of games that were won with a non-offensive score — let’s call that a NOS — such as a safety or return score by the defense or special teams. I’ve been working on organizing such games better in my database and looked into some of the unique wins in the file I maintain for Pro Football Reference, which currently has 4,715 games credited to quarterbacks for close wins.
This is already the seventh time a Tannehill-led team has won a game with an unique score in his career. I charted the games in chronological order below. Four times he was credited with a fourth-quarter comeback, but no game-winning drive because of the NOS that ultimately won the game. Two other times in Miami he got a win with a game-winning kickoff return touchdown, so the offense never even had a GWD opportunity. Then in Sunday’s game, the Titans punted on their only possession in a tied game before the blocked FG return TD ultimately put the Titans ahead for good. So that would go down as a no decision (ND) in his record, which is something I plan to add soon.
This is some fortunate/fluky/wild stuff. Sunday’s return is the only NOS to win a game in 2019 so far, but it gets weirder than that.
Since Tannehill has been in the league (2012), his teams have produced:
- One of the two games won by a blocked FG return TD
- Two of the four games won by a kickoff return TD
- One of the three games won by a punt return TD
- Both of the games won by a safety
If this was Tom Brady, the joke would be that he willed his teammates to do these things, but this is just Ryan Tannehill. The fact that it’s not someone like Brady is surprising just from the sheer number of games won by that team. Even the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre only had three unique wins in their careers.
I found a few other quarterbacks in my database with seven unique entries before I realized they were credited for comebacks in games that ended in ties prior to an overtime system. Roman Gabriel and Charley Johnson each had seven such games. So after weeding that out, I could only find two quarterbacks to come close to Tannehill’s seven unique wins and they combine for eight between them with four a piece.
Phil Simms (4 for NYG) – His unique wins for the Giants included a pair of pick-6 winners, a fumble return TD by Harry Carson, and a blocked punt returned for a TD against the 1988 Redskins. A blocked punt touchdown is one of the few things Tannehill is missing.
Trent Dilfer (1 for BAL, 2 for SEA, 1 for SF) – Does it surprise you that none of Dilfer’s happened in Tampa Bay? The Baltimore one is infamous since it was a 2000 AFC divisional playoff game in Tennessee. With the score tied 10-10, Al Del Greco’s FG was blocked and returned for a TD. In Seattle, Dilfer had a non-offensive game-winning field goal win a game against San Diego (2001) after a 64-yard kick return put the team in great field position late. In 2004 against the Dolphins, Seattle won the game on a pick 6 thrown by A.J. Feeley with just under a minute left. Finally, with the 2007 49ers, Dilfer picked up an overtime win in Arizona after Kurt Warner fumbled in the end zone for a game-ending touchdown. It’s also surprising that Tannehill doesn’t have a win with a simple fumble return TD, but he’s still just 31 years old so we’ll see…
I have no idea why the football gods have chosen such an unremarkable QB to give this many gifts to over the years, but I know it is one of the few things I’ll remember him for. And who knows, if the Titans continue this run and make the playoffs with a potential No. 6 at No. 3 rematch in Kansas City, we might just see another unique score win the game at Cursed Arrowhead.