America loves a comeback story.
Long forgotten movie stars are resurrected after years in the wilderness cast in the role of a lifetime propelling them to Oscar glory as if they'd never left.
Musical artists out of vogue for years, are picked out for a collaboration by some bright young thing and discovered by a whole new generation; and sporting stars who looked washed up, somehow navigate an improbable return to prime time, restoring their careers, their reputation, and their legacy.
Ryan Tannehill may not have ever been an elite player -- he may never be -- but he was, in the grand scheme of things, a top-tier NFL talent who for various reasons had started this season in the has-been column after a move to the Tennessee Titans to be backup quarterback. It was less a chance for a new beginning, more a gig to grab with both hands.
Injury, coupled with a Dolphins team in decline and a fractious environment presided over by a somewhat volatile head coach, had meant the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, who had taken Miami to their first playoff game for almost 10 years, had fallen to the Titans. A team that no longer wanted him and a distinct lack of options forced his hand to sign a one-year, $2 million deal to be the No. 2 in a so-so franchise. Nice work if you can get it, but $30 million less than the annual salary of the highest-paid in his position (in 2019: Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Jared Goff).
Just over four months after Tannehill was thrown into the mix during a dismal 16-0 loss to struggling Denver, sending the Titans to a 2-4 start, his transformation, and that of his team has been remarkable. This Sunday, he will start for Tennessee once again having retained the role since that relief stint against the Broncos, just one win away from the Super Bowl.
While Derrick Henry is understandably the focal point of the Titans, and will remain its most potent talent and the best chance of Tennessee upsetting the odds once again this season and beating Kansas City to book their spot in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, it's Tannehill who is perhaps the most representative of this resurgent franchise.
Underrated, dismissed as also-rans, (through much of the season including the start of the playoffs) Tennessee has built up some serious self-belief over the past five weeks, surging into the postseason in some style. Their offense averaged more than 30 points per game in December and is driven by Henry's immense productivity, but marshalled by Tannehill with his dependability and football smarts and his undoubted ability to land a big play.
Tannehill is not a dynamic QB in the same vein as his opposite number on Sunday, Patrick Mahomes, but his all-round game is undervalued by some. During the regular season, he posted 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions, reinforcing his strongest asset: composure.
Whichever way the player is cut, if you ask all 32 NFL coaches about the importance of ball protection in a quarterback's makeup, they'll all fire back in perfect harmony. It's vital. Jameis Winston may be thrilling to watch, but Tampa Bay isn't getting anywhere near a Super Bowl until he curbs those interceptions.
But Tannehill is far more than a game manager. ESPN had the former Texas A&M quarterback in the top 10 for QBR based on the regular season. His completion percentage of over 70% placed him in the top three and he was ranked No. 1 in yards per completion. He may not freewheel himself out of multiple tackles and then sidearm a no-look 30-yarder, but he can fire in ruthlessly accurate passes on a dime, reading coverage and making the right calls again and again.
Sure, he benefits from the presence of Henry, which establishes both the play-action pass effectively and typically forces the opposition to load the box, giving him more flexibility to carve up the defensive backfield.
Not that he's had to in the Titans two sensational road wins in the playoffs against the defending champions New England Patriots and the No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens. Tannehill threw for less than 100 yards in each game. But particularly with his 45-yard touchdown throw to Kalif Raymond against the Ravens, he showed that when he needs to turn it on, he can. Check out his clutch third-down completion against the Patriots in the final few minutes - it was less showy but critically important play.
"I think if Tannehill tries to pass on us, I don't think that'll go in their favor," the great Earl Thomas said prior to the Ravens' defeat to Tennessee. And while it did, to some degree, come back to haunt him, Thomas was making a valid point by emphasising the Titans' focus on the run -- deployed to an even stronger degree in their two postseason wins. Tannehill has only attempted 25 passes combined in these victories and over two thirds of their offensive snaps have been runs in their last three games.
Some experts feel that the Titans will adapt their plan against Kansas City -- partly out of choice and partly necessity if they end up in a shoot-out, which is probable. They certainly aired it out more in their 35-32 win over the Chiefs back in November -- relatively speaking anyway, with Tannehill finding seven different receivers, going 13/19, for 181 yards and two touchdowns. As with that game, Mahomes will almost certainly put down bigger numbers than his counterpart, but Tannehill may well have the last laugh again.
ESPN's Dan Orlovsky called his move to the Titans "the most impactful trade to have happened in the NFL this year" and it's hard to argue against such a statement.
When the ride ends, whether that's on Sunday in Missouri or in a fortnight in Miami, it's been a sensational return to the higher levels of the NFL for this fading star. What happens next may be equally compelling.