NFL players are tough. They play through injuries that would sideline a normal human being for weeks. They brutally push, grab, and hit each other to gain every yard of real estate. And you don’t even want to know what happens at the bottom of a pile of bodies when there’s a fumble.

Nothing scares these gladiators. Well, almost nothing. The fear of being replaced looms over every single one. It’s the sport’s biggest motivator. Not money, not the lifestyle, not fame. In a league where the average career lifespan is 3.3 years, that’s terrifying. Professional athletes have spent their entire lives mastering their craft. It’s not just their livelihood. It’s their identity. But it all can disappear in one play.

Someone bigger, faster, and stronger is always coming for your job. That cruel reality frightens the hell out of veterans like Ryan Tannehill. The Tennessee Titans’ quarterback recently walked back comments about Malik Willis whom the team drafted in the third round last month.

Tannehill, 33, originally said he didn’t “think it’s my job to mentor” the rookie quarterback. However, earlier this week, Tannehill said he meant no disrespect to Willis, adding, “We’re happy to have him in the room. Really just disappointed in how things got spun and twisted a little bit.”

This seems like a combination of blaming the media coupled with “I’m sorry if you were offended.”

Tannehill was looking to defuse a combustible situation. No athlete wants to be perceived as a bad teammate, especially in the ultimate team sport. His response might not have been well-received, but it was honest and understandable. Imagine if someone asked you to mentor your potential replacement. You might be ungracious too.

Quarterbacks can quickly become prickly when they see someone as a threat. Even the greatest turn hostile. Bill Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round to be Tom Brady’s successor in 2014. According to an ESPN story by Seth Wickersham, Brady played a role in the 2017 trade that sent Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers. Brady later denied involvement. Remember how passive-aggressive Aaron Rodgers was when the Green Bay Packers used a first-round pick to take Jordan Love in the 2020 NFL Draft?

If future Hall of Famers can have bruised egos, it’s only natural for Tannehill to feel uncomfortable.

Tannehill knows what it’s like to be unloved. After being drafted in the first round (eighth overall) in 2012 by the Miami Dolphins, he spent six mediocre seasons as the starter. Miami gave up on him in March 2019, trading him to the Titans where he was initially a backup. But later that fall, Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota and thrived under then-offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

He reached the Pro Bowl for the first time, guiding Tennessee to the AFC Championship game. Tannehill has played his best football with the Titans. But last season had to give the organization pause. Tannehill looked more like the average quarterback that he was with the Dolphins. Part of that may have been due to the absence of top-rusher Derrick Henry, who missed nine games with a foot injury.

The questions around Tannehill’s future continued when the top-seeded Titans imploded with a 19-16 home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round. Tannehill threw three interceptions.

Has Tennessee soured on him? The pick of Willis is telling. In a salary cap sport, NFL teams are always looking for cheaper, younger options. According to Spotrac, Tannehill is scheduled to make $29 million in base salary with a $38.6-million cap hit. That’s a big number for a guy who ranked 20th in passer rating last season.  

For now, Tannehill remains the starter. Coaches are reluctant to bench a quarterback who’s winning, and Tannehill is 30-13 with the Titans. But he knows from previous experience how quickly things can change. He’s near the end of a four-year contract and his salary for 2023 is not guaranteed

Asking Tannehill to mentor the guy who might replace him in a year? That’s what Tannehill is afraid of.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.