With the Tennessee Titans benching quarterback Marcus Mariota, it’s clear his time in Nashville is coming to an end after this season, especially when Ryan Tannehill played well as the starter in a Week 7 win. While Mariota did lead the Titans to two playoff appearances in his first four seasons, his tenure in Tennessee will go down as a disappointment for the second pick in the 2015 draft.
We all have players we personally root for, either because they play for your favorite team, have a story that’s worth celebrating, or they attended your alma mater. For Mariota, the last two were the reasons I was rooting for him success. He was the first Heisman winner in Oregon football history, and he took the program to heights we hadn’t seen before. He was soft-spoken, but a baller on the field. And then also, by every account, he’s just a fantastic kid. Family man, respectful, and an excellent leader off the field.
But why did Mariota not live up to his draft slot? I’ll dive into a few reasons why and also what I think happens next for him.
Mariota hasn’t had much coaching stability
There are so many influences in the development of highly drafted quarterbacks that can make or break their career. Their talent and personal growth is part of that process, but I’d argue, and most would agree with me, that coaching is the No. 1 reason a young quarterback succeeds or not. A great coach can turn an average quarterback into a good quarterback, and a good quarterback into a great quarterback.
Unfortunately, Mariota didn’t have benefit of excellent coaching for most of his career, which isn’t the only reason we’ve gotten to this point, but it’s worth discussing.
Mariota was drafted by Ken Whisenhunt, who was properly fired seven games into Mariota’s rookie season. Enter Mike Mularkey to be the new tutor for Mariota as he finished out an OK rookie season. Mularkey remained head coach through 2017, and then he was replaced by Mike Vrabel.
This past offseason, the team promoted Arthur Smith to be the new offensive coordinator, Mariota’s fourth OC and fifth playcaller in his career.
No quarterback in the NFL is going to succeed with four offensive coordinators in five seasons. First off, that means there’s a new scheme each season. After you’ve spent months working on mastering one system, one language, one voice, now you’re switching to another system, language, and voice.
I’ve mentioned this often and it’s important here: When you install a new offense, it takes nearly half a season to get into the flow of the game. So when you finally feel comfortable after your first season in that system, it’s thrown in the garbage with a new offensive coordinator.
Lastly, when you have an offensive coordinator longer than a season, he can tailor an offense to your skill set more easily entering year two. He’s seen you for a season, knows your strengths and weaknesses, and will work hard to make some adjustments. You can’t have that occur with new coaches every season.
Mariota’s injury history keeps growing
In 12 games his rookie year, Mariota missed four games due to an MCL sprain. Still, he completed 62 percent of passes and improved throughout the season. Although he ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, he was 16th in QBR, which takes into account his top-notch running ability. People in Nashville were excited for the future of Mariota.
In a fabulous development, Mariota improved so much in his second year. He threw 26 touchdowns to nine interceptions in 15 starts, and finished the season ranked 13th in DYAR, 10th in quarterback DVOA, and 12th in QBR. His adjusted yards per pass attempt was the best of his career at 7.9.
Everything was heading in the right direction — and then, disaster struck in Week 16. Mariota broke his leg and his promising season was over. That broken leg feels like the tipping point of his career. He seemed to never be the same guy. He never had the pocket movement or the confidence to stand tall in the pocket again, and he lost the ability to take and compete deep passes. I’ve theorized that Mariota never quite trusted his leg after that injury. He had never suffered a major injury until that time, not in high school and not in college.
For athletes as exceptional as Mariota, they often think they are invincible — maybe not out loud, but subconsciously. And if you’re injured, that invincibility goes away.
Beyond that, not everyone recovers from the same injury in the same manner. In 2014, Cleveland Browns center, and now current Atlanta Falcons center, Alex Mack fractured his ankle about four weeks before I had the same injury. He rehabbed, same as I, and he was fine. No lingering effects. I wasn’t fine. My ankle never bounced back to even close to 100 percent. Same injury, close to the same rehab, but two different results.
It just always felt to me that Mariota lost something when he got injured, and I’m not sure he’d disagree a bit. He returned in 2017 and played in every game but one due to a hamstring strain. He finished the season with only 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, adjusted yards per attempt at 6.2 (yikes), and dropped to 19th in DYAR and 20th in DVOA.
But it was his first season off an injury. Maybe he needed time to work through it.
In 2018, under new coach Vrabel and his third offensive coordinator in four seasons, things didn’t look much better. Mariota started 13 games, with only 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His DYAR and DVOA rankings fell to 27th, with his QBR slightly higher at 22. Mariota stopped taking chances downfield while also not using his legs as much.
He missed one game due to a pinched nerve in his elbow, another with a neck stinger, and reportedly dealt with a few other injuries that year.
Entering 2019, Mariota got his fourth OC and no guaranteed contract after this season. Clearly, it hasn’t gone well, as Tannehill replaced him in Week 6 and started in Week 7.
Mariota’s OL hasn’t always done a great job of protecting him
Besides the injury sapping of his powers and his revolving door of coaches, there is one other factor when discussing his decline: his offensive line. Mariota has been sacked 155 times in his career, including a league-leading 25 times this season so far.
Mariota has taken countless sacks each season that weren’t on him, but it also felt like the Titans never designed an offense to limit sacks. That could be on the play designer, but also on Mariota. He’s never struck me as a quarterback who would succeed with a quick passing game, which would be the logical move to make after getting sacked so much.
So while his protection does deserve blame, Mariota shares some of the fault.
What happens to Mariota now?
I think Mariota can be “fixed” if he goes somewhere with an outstanding coach. Are you telling me he couldn’t be like Teddy Bridgewater in New Orleans? Of course he could, and that might be the route for him, at least for next season.
A high-priced backup, with the chance to play if the starter goes down. I wish Mariota luck, as I’m one of his fans!