The Titans went 3-13 in 2015, but under the command of rookie Marcus Mariota, are in good hands.
Entering his sophomore year, the quarterback from Oregon endured many ups and downs before ending the season with a knee injury and an MCL sprain. In 12 games, Mariota finished 2015 with a 64.2 completion percentage for 2,818 yards, 19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and a 91.5 passer rating.
Mariota finished with good numbers for a rookie, especially one that only played 3/4 of a season. But was he to blame for the Titans winning only 3 games?
I’m here to tell you that Mariota was not the problem for Tennessee. Not only did he make his teammates better, but he has already become a quality starting quarterback in the NFL.
Entering the league, it’s not easy for quarterbacks to adjust from college to the pros. It’s more of a challenge to complete passes because defenses are tougher and the pass protection varies. Quarterbacks in their rookie years especially tend to struggle with accuracy, footwork, and decision making.
Incredibly, Mariota succeeded in all three of the aforementioned traits. He is a smart quarterback who understands who to throw receivers open, plays with anticipation, and is willing to take hits and stand tall in the pocket. His accuracy as a rookie was generally very good (though it should be mentioned he struggled downfield a bit).
On this play, Mariota’s first completed pass of his career, he succeeds in accuracy, footwork and decision making. Right as Delanie Walker is about to turn his head, Mariota fires the ball standing tall (which was easy to do considering the protection he had). Mariota knows that the placement on the pass matters, so he fires high enough for Walker to get it so it is away from the two defensive backs. This was a great first completion by the young quarterback.
Here’s another example:
This seems like an easy throw, but the placement to Craig Stevens ensured that the defensive back would not get a hand on it, allowing him to get yards after the catch after hitting the ground. It’s important for a rookie quarterback to offer this type of placement early on in his career.
Similar to Tom Brady, Mariota also likes to get the ball out quickly to receivers. On this play, he throws a quick strike to Kendall Wright for his first career touchdown pass. As you can probably guess, most of the play was based around yards after the catch. Nevertheless, this was still a great play from Mariota. Right as the play action ended, Mariota immediately threw the dart in a matter similar to Brady. This is a comparison I feel doesn’t come about nearly as much as it should. Mariota also likes to release the ball quickly on play action, similar to Cam Newton.
Mariota had a solid debut against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his next game, an away game against the Cleveland Browns, was even better.
The consistency of the Titans’ receivers waned from time to time, but spent a chunk of it running the wrong routes or failing at the catch point. On this play, Mariota fires a pass to Anthony Fasano, moving his feet up a bit to make the pass. Perhaps the throw could have been a bit better so Fasano would not have to dive for it, but it’s catchable enough for him to make the play. Naturally, he drops it.
What intrigues me the most about this play though is Mariota’s pocket presence. Pressure is coming at him on all sides, yet he keeps his feet forward even as he gets hit after releasing the ball. Traits like this may not seem like much at first, but they’re vital when developing a young quarterback.
On this play, Mariota surveys the field, making multiple reads, before firing this dime in a cramped up pocket. Again, he keeps his feet forward and fires a quick touchdown to Dorial Green-Beckham before getting hit from behind. Mariota’s quick release is able to make up for blown pass protection from his right tackle, giving him enough time to fire this perfect strike to DGB.
But this is perhaps my favorite play from Mariota thus far. Quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins and Blake Bortles have limited vision, and on numerous occasions could not see open receivers when the pocket began to crumble, costing the offense on plays, downs, and even games.
On this play, Mariota is under trouble immediately. The Browns blitz from his left side and the Titans OL fails the recognize it. Rolling right, Mariota is somehow able to locate a wide open Fasano on the far left of the first down marker and is able to throw across his body and reach him.
This is the type of play that has me sold on Mariota as a quarterback in the NFL. Where quarterbacks like Cousins and Bortles struggle with their field vision, Mariota, in his 2nd career start, is able to make a play only thought possible by Aaron Rodgers, despite the pressure crumbling.
The Titans lost 28-14, but Mariota played great in spite of this, getting the short end of the stick from his receivers, offensive line, and playcalling.
Mariota did a fine job handling pressure last year. Many quarterbacks, especially the younger ones, often struggle to fire accurately under pressure, either backpedaling awkwardly or by taking bad sacks. On each of these three plays, Mariota is able to avoid beckpedaling and shuffles his feet or climbs the pocket to deliver strikes. The first pass is a bit high, but his footwork ensures that Justin Hunter is able to get it without a defender in his face. On the 2nd pass, he makes multiple reads before surveying and throwing to Kendall Wright (injured on the play) for the accurate pass. On the third play, Mariota climbs the pocket and fires a quick strike to Green-Beckham, who is able to provide yards after the catch.
On plays like these 2, Mariota offers a level of calmness you do not normally see with quarterbacks this early in their careers. On the first play, #8 knows pressure is gaining on him, but escapes it and surveys the field to pick an open receiver. In this situation, he is aware a run will waste more time than not, so he slows himself down and throws his receiver open for a big gain.
In the 2nd play, Mariota sets his feet up to make a strike to his receiver. The placement ensures that his receiver will not take a nasty hit and will gain a couple of yards after the catch.
These are plays that today’s top quarterbacks make on a consistent basis, and to see Mariota do that in his first season is remarkable. Examples are below.
Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, and Aaron Rodgers are 5 of the best quarterbacks in today’s league. They all understand how to handle pressure, when to step up in the pocket, and when to make subtle footwork. Mariota’s is not quite as polished, but that’s because of their experience, and yet, his pocket awareness at the early stage of his career is wonderful, and will help him and the Titans for a while.
If there’s a flaw in the early stage of Mariota’s career, it’s that his downfield accuracy is a bit spotty. It’s not bad, and was not helped by WR miscommunications and drops, but it’s something that has room for improvement. On a few occasions he also took bad sacks as well. Both of these flaws are fixable though. Mariota has excellent field awareness for a quarterback going into his 2nd season, and downfield accuracy is not everything, especially in today’s pass happy league. Former backup Zach Mettenberger shows better arm strength, but his accuracy and decision making are both awful. As such, there was a drastic difference in the quality of play when he stepped in.
What worries me about Mariota has nothing to do with him, but rather the cast and coaching around him. Reports came about early in the offseason that the team would call more running plays with the young quarterback instead of continuing to develop his passing. While Mariota is mobile and a runner, I feel he is at his best as a pocket passer, a great sign as a rookie.
In addition, his receivers need more consistency and reliability. Delanie Walker is one of the league’s top tight ends, and Dorial Green-Beckham is a talented, big receiver who needs to communicate better with the quarterback. Other than that, there’s not a lot of reliability with the receivers, and they encountered many injuries in 2015.
The Titans offensive line isn’t to the bottom of the barrel level of the Vikings, but they need to allow less pressure on Mariota and the runningbacks. Antonio Andrews is a talented young RB, and DeMarco Murray can be a great back when used correctly. All of these flaws will need to improve for Tennessee to have any shot at competing. Even a half-decent cast would be progress.
Still, in short, Mariota did a great job as a rookie behind a flawed supporting cast. He has the advanced tools of the best quarterbacks (good under pressure, forward footwork, great pocket movement), is accurate, and understands how to break down coverage. He is already a good quarterback, and will be a good quarterback for a long time as long as he stays healthy.
Titans fans are in good hands with Mariota, and I cannot wait to see him play in his sophomore season.