Welcome to my nightmare. Of all the potential scenarios for the 2019 season, the one that is playing out before our eyes is of the worst-case variety. Even if you were out on Marcus Mariota prior to this season, as a Tennessee Titans’ fan, this is not what you wanted. At least, I hope it’s not. But, for those of us who believed Mariota was the answer at quarterback, this season has been hard to deal with.
One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands is “Through Smoke” by NEEDTOBREATHE. Musically, it just works for me – with its pounding drums and creative use of dynamics. Yet, it’s the lyrics that really make that song stick. It’s all about holding on to the truth even when the “answers” seem to contradict it. One line in particular stands out, “…when the answers and the Truth take different sides”. That is what I am dealing with right now when it comes to the Tennessee Titans and Marcus Mariota.
I am still convinced that Marcus Mariota can be a very good quarterback in the NFL. I have seen too much from him to believe otherwise. This probably puts me in the minority position. Most people, both Titans’ fans and outside experts, have decided exactly what Mariota is, and to them, he is not a good QB. I concede his play at times this season has certainly strengthened their position. To me, his biggest weakness is his inconsistency. So, I understand why the team has decided to bench him and give Ryan Tannehill a chance. If Marcus had been more consistent, even with his other limitations, I truly believe he would still be the starter and would possibly be signed to a long-term contract at the end of the season.
I understand if this position makes you think I am crazy. I am fully aware that going against popular opinion is a difficult thing. Marcus Mariota is limited in the things he can do on the field. Let me put that another way: Mariota is unable to do certain things at a very high level. That does not mean he cannot be a good NFL QB. Mariota has always struggled with pocket awareness. That was evident from his rookie season. It has not improved. Some of that is on him. Mariota is one of the best in the league throwing the ball in the middle of the field against zone defenses. He is an assassin in that context. Outside the hash marks is not his strong suit. Man-to-man defense is not his strong suit, though he has had success against it at times.
Marcus Mariota: A History Lesson
Starting from his rookie season (the year he should have been groomed, taught, and mentored into learning how to handle pressure, how to better diagnose defenses, and how to make throws to the sideline more consistently) he was thrust into the starting role with few weapons, a terrible O-line, and a coach who was fired mid-way through the season. Even with all of those things working against him, his natural athleticism allowed him to shine when given the opportunity. The first setback was forcing Mariota to transition to a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, and a new play caller in the middle of his rookie season.
Mariota’s second season, and the first with Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie designing the offense, was a complete success. Everything Titans’ fans wanted to see from their young QB was on display. He was accurate, poised, mobile, and in-charge of the offense. He put up his career best numbers that season and the future looked incredibly bright. A big factor in the success of that season and one I believe has been mostly overlooked by most people who are evaluating Mariota and the Titans’ offense was Demarco Murray’s contribution. It has become increasingly obvious to anyone who is paying attention that Mariota needs a running back who can be a threat both on the ground and in the air. Murray was all of that plus an incredibly gifted QB protector in passing situations.
Marcus broke his leg at the end of his second season. Whether we want to admit it or not, that injury has clearly had lasting ramifications on his play and I believe his confidence. The second setback was the leg injury.
Mariota’s third season was as up and down as you can get. He started slow after spending an offseason rehabbing his leg, dealt with little injuries throughout the season, and really didn’t start to look comfortable until the very end of the season when he led the team to the playoffs and their first playoff win in over a decade. Another element to his struggles that season were due to Demarco Murray’s decline. The way the team has been constructed since the 2016 season with Murray, before injuries and age caught up with him in 2017, defenses can accurately predict what the Titans will do depending on which running back is in the game. Without Murray providing the offense that one running back who could do everything, it forced Mariota into more obvious plays, which gave defenses an advantage.
The third setback was the decline and eventual loss of Demarco Murray. The fact the team did not replace him with a similar running back is rarely mentioned but has had lasting consequences to the offense and to Mariota’s continued development.
The Tennessee Titans win their first playoff game in nearly 15 years so they celebrate by firing their head coach. I am still not sure if it was the correct decision. I do believe Mike Vrabel’s ceiling is higher than Mike Mularkey’s, but it’s going to take him time, and possibly another stop before he gets there. All that change and turmoil meant one thing: more change and adjustment for a young QB who is now, through no fault of his own, on his third NFL head coach and third offensive coordinator. And it’s only his 4th season. There’s your fourth setback.
2018 was a rough season for Marcus. In the first game of the season, he was hit on a running play, which caused nerve damage in his throwing hand. That injury lingered for the entire season, clearly affecting his ability to push the ball down field or throw into tight windows. He added a number of other less “serious” injuries throughout the season, including plantar fasciitis and a cracked vertebra. Mariota also lost his security blanket in the passing game when Delanie Walker went down in the first game of the season. Statistically, it was not a good season for Mariota and it ramped up the criticism and frustration from his loudest detractors.
Fifth setback: New offensive coordinator, nerve damage in throwing hand, and the loss of his favorite offensive weapon, Delanie Walker.
Fifth and Likely Final Season
2019 has been a continuation of 2018. New offensive coordinator…again. Bad offensive line. Inconsistent play calling. Inconsistent play by Marcus. The problem with all of this is that Mariota has had fewer high points this season and more low points. His games against the Colts and Broncos are two of his worst games in his career. Many people had already written him off before the season – they have felt validated. Some had him on a very short leash this season – and have now written him off. A few still had confidence in his ability to win games – they have been faced with disappointment by his play. Now, he is on the bench watching Ryan Tannehill take over as the starting QB for the Tennessee Titans.
The crazy thing is, if Ryan Succop is healthy and doesn’t miss the first half of the season, there is a good chance this team is 4-2 or 3-3 and Marcus is still the starter, even with his erratic play. Also, how much does Taylor Lewan’s four game suspension play into the poor O-line play through six games? Probably more than many want to admit. So there are more setbacks: New offensive coordinator and play caller. An incredibly inconsistent and bad offensive line. A kicker who simply couldn’t make his kicks.
“The Answers and the Truth Take Different Sides”
I’ve just spent nearly 1,400 words building a case for why Marcus Mariota has not become the unquestioned franchise quarterback of the Tennessee Titans. I believe there are very valid reasons why his career has ended up at this spot. Yet, I want to be honest and ask if even with all of those reasons, am I clinging to “answers” when the Truth is Mariota is just not as good as I thought. Have I been wrong about Mariota this entire time? Has Mariota changed over time and digressed as a player? How much of the blame is on him and how much is on the team?
As I stated earlier, there are obvious weaknesses to his game. Mariota gets very sloppy with his footwork at times. He lacks great pocket awareness, which has gotten worse instead of better throughout his career. He feels pressure when there is no pressure there on certain plays. His accuracy, which has never been a big issue with his game, has become a problem this season with him missing very easy passes. He has grown far too conservative and has lost the decisiveness or willingness to throw into tight windows. How much of that is his fault? What percentage falls on him? I have no idea and those are a few of the reasons I am struggling so much with all of this.
Is This the End?
I wrote in my last article that he was broken and I still believe that. The person I see on the field in 2019 and for much of 2018, is not the same player from 2015, 2016, and parts of 2017. I don’t believe he is broken beyond repair, though, as many of his critics seem to believe. I’ve seen too much from him to believe that. I’ve seen glimpses of the player he used to even this season. The biggest problem is that the old Marcus doesn’t show up often enough and right now, the team wants a QB who will not have these dead periods of play.
I would not be surprised if Mariota makes it on the field again this year for the Tennessee Titans. And I would not be at all surprised if he plays really well. He will likely be on a different team next year and that makes me very sad, but I believe this time on the bench where he can refocus and work out some lingering deficiencies in his game will do him a lot of good going forward.
Thank you, Marcus.
I’ll say this to close. Marcus Mariota gave the Tennessee Titans hope. He gave the fans something to cheer about. He never truly reached his potential, and you can decide who gets the blame for that, but he is an integral part of taking the laughingstock of the league and turning it into a winning team. None of that happens without Mariota under center, no matter what the critics and revisionists want to say. I am glad I had the chance to root for him for the last few seasons. As for me and my house, he will be missed.