Titans' Ryan Tannehill, coordinator Todd Downing making progress toward synergy

"[Todd Downing] is a great mind," QB Ryan Tannehill said of his offensive coordinator. "I think we think about the game similarly." Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans' road to success starts with the relationship between quarterback Ryan Tannehill and new offensive coordinator Todd Downing.

Downing inherits an offense that scored 30.7 points per game in 2020 (fourth best) and averaged 396.4 yards (tied for second most) with Tannehill under center.

Tannehill experienced a career resurgence with Arthur Smith, Downing's predecessor, calling the plays. Tannehill's QBR jumped more than 24 points from 2018 to 2019 with Smith calling plays, while his touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 1.6 to 4.2. Additionally, Tannehill's yards per attempt increased from 7.0 to 8.6 yards.

Tannehill credited Smith for being open to what plays they had on the call sheet from week to week. Although Downing hasn't had to formulate any game-day call sheets that Tannehill will execute yet, the two are getting off to a good start.

"[Downing] is a great mind," Tannehill said. "I think we think about the game similarly and we get along personally. He has a good process of creating plays and drives and what we want to accomplish throughout the day."

"It's not just a fresh start," Downing added. "We aren't getting to know each other personality-wise. We've been around one another. I really enjoy that aspect of my job. Talking through the scheme with the quarterbacks, making sure we're on the same page and he sees it like I see it. Ultimately, that's what is most important. If we see it the same, we've got a chance. That process has been great, and I really enjoy my time with Ryan. I think we're heading in the right direction."

Downing had been the tight ends coach, which gave him an up-close look as Smith, and Tannehill worked to install game plans from week to week. Downing and Smith have different character traits, but Downing can pull from his experience watching Smith and Tannehill work together to help carry over the success on offense.

"Arthur and I worked hand in hand on a lot of things," Downing said. "I was fortunate enough that he included me on a lot of the process. I got to see how his mind worked and how he stayed patient and things like that."

The list of quarterbacks Downing has worked with includes Matthew Stafford, E.J. Manuel, Kyle Orton and Derek Carr. Downing's time in Oakland included one season as the offensive coordinator before he was let go when Jon Gruden took over as coach in 2018.

Although the Raiders' offense averaged only 18.8 points per game that season, Carr felt a special bond with Downing.

"We’ve had discussions where we finish each other’s sentences," Carr said of Downing back in 2017. "Like, ‘Hey, if you see this, I am going to go to this.’ He’s like, ‘Exactly.’"

Downing recognizes that each quarterback has a different personality, so he works to be as consistent as possible, so he can relate to them and have a "servant's heart." He aims to figure out the best way possible to help each guy with whom he works become successful.

Building relationships with his quarterbacks is a skill Downing said he picked up from watching Scott Linehan when they were together with the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. Linehan played an integral role in Daunte Culpepper's rise to becoming an All-Pro quarterback with the Vikings. He also helped groom Stafford from a first-round pick to a 5,000-yard passer.

"That was very beneficial for me, just watching that growth by Matthew [Stafford] and how Scott [Linehan] handled that, took input from the quarterback," Downing said.

Downing's second stint with the Vikings gave him an opportunity to work with former coordinators John DeFilippo and Kevin Stefanski while coach Mike Zimmer focused on the defense.

The Vikings struggled to run the ball efficiently under DeFilippo, who was replaced by Stefanski, leading to rushing success and Stefanski being hired by the Cleveland Browns. Downing saw firsthand how critical it is to have a successful rushing attack, especially for a defensive-minded coach.

The Titans averaged 168.1 rushing yards per game last season and Derrick Henry finished with 2,025 yards, making him the back-to-back rushing champion. Downing says he won't deviate from the Titans' previous focus on running the football.

"It's certainly an easier job having Derrick Henry back there," Downing said. "It's no secret that it's a big part of this offense."

If defenses focus on stopping Henry, the passing game will open up -- especially with play-action, which is where Tannehill has been able to make big plays. Tannehill's yards per attempt jumped from 7.1 to 9.6 when utilizing play-action last season.

The Titans wanted continuity on offense, which is what they'll get by promoting from within. But Downing will have leeway to add his own wrinkles to the offense.

"I have enjoyed the way he thinks about our offense, and our concepts, and creating matchups we like," coach Mike Vrabel said. "He has spent a lot of time with quarterbacks in the QB room. He has been a coordinator before and has some new thoughts that we hadn’t done in the past, so we are trying to work those things in. Some of them I really like, so it is exciting, and it will be fun as we move forward."