NASHVILLE — There’s only one letter of difference between hype and hope, but a visit to the Tennessee Titans training camp this year makes clear the distinction.
The change in atmospheric conditions within the Titans’ team complex takes all of about five minutes to notice. There’s a quiet but unmistakable sense of growing confidence in the building, and though it’s still in its nascent stages, you get the feeling the Titans think they already know something that the rest of us haven’t quite caught on to just yet.
No one wants to really say it out loud, but with a week of training camp in the books and new franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota looking like everything the Titans dreamed he’d be and more, the dismal days of 2014 and that 2–14 bottoming out in Tennessee seem further away all the time. That’s the difference between knowing you have the long-term answer at quarterback on the roster, and not. Last year, the Titans were searching. This year, they have every reason to believe they’ve found their guy, and the early returns have done nothing but pump up the anticipation for this new chapter in Nashville. If anything, there’s a palpable effort underway here to contain the level of excitement, at least until the preseason games start.
“You know what there is, there’s hope,” Titans general manager Ruston Webster said Thursday, squeezing in a quick lunch over an interview in his office. “And I think there’s hope not only in the building but in the city. And him [Mariota] being who he is and the way he handles himself makes it even better. It affects everything. There’s better energy in our practices, and there’s a feeling that we’re headed in the right direction. Now, how fast we get there, I don’t know.”
It may be faster than anyone expected, and keep in mind the Titans could triple their win total from a year ago and still finish only 6–10. But watching Mariota go through his paces in a pair of Titans camp practices, you don’t get a lot of reminders that you’re witnessing a rookie quarterback in what should be the feeling-out stage of his first season. For the record, he still has yet to throw an interception in either 7-on-7 or team drills, and that little statistic has taken on a life of its own around Titans camp, as a smiling head coach Ken Whisenhunt pointed out Thursday: “I know he’s going to throw a pick at some point.”
But Mariota’s fast start doesn’t feel like summertime hype. It feels like the start of something good. Maybe really good, notwithstanding the critics who claim that quarterbacks who played in the spread offense in college face a steep and often overwhelming learning curve in the NFL. It’s apparent that Mariota’s strong early showing has won him a host of believers in his own locker room and quickly changed the dynamic for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 or made the playoffs since 2008.
“Is he more than I expected?” Whisenhunt says. “I don’t know what I expected. Is he further along than where I thought he’d be at this point? Yes, he is, and that’s a credit to him and the way he’s working. The best way to say it is the things he’s comfortable with he executes well and he plays fast.
“And there is excitement because people have seen on the field what he and these guys can do. You can see it from the fans and even in the media. They want to be excited about something, and in little small areas, we’ve given them something to be excited about.”
But the best news may be that Mariota is not the lone reason for optimism in Titans camp. Drafting what the Titans considered the safer of the two top-rated quarterbacks after the Buccaneers took Jameis Winston allowed Tennessee to make something of a riskier pick in second-round receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, an undeniable talent coming off a turbulent collegiate career in which he was dismissed from Missouri and was ruled ineligible last season after transferring to Oklahoma.
DGB, as he is known, hasn’t looked anything like the polished product that Mariota has been in the Titans’ first week of camp, with matching highlights and lowlights that are much more in keeping with the typical rookie experience. But the 6'5", 240-pound rookie has flashed some of the playmaking ability that could turn him into a size-and-speed nightmare for opposing defensive backs. He has exhibited his ability to get deep and come down with the contested ball early on, but he has also suffered lapses in concentration and dropped some catchable balls. When he makes a big play in practice, he reminds the Titans brass why they invested in him. And when he drops a ball, it reminds everyone that patience will have to be shown with a player who has not competed in a game in roughly 19 months.
“Everybody can visualize when a calf or baby deer is born, and you see them right away trying to walk,” says Whisenhunt of Green-Beckham. “Their legs are wobbly. Well, he’s just starting to get his legs under him, but once he does, he’s going to be pretty darn good. But that’s where he is, and that’s a function of not having played in a game, in a real competitive situation for so long. We’ve seen a lot of good things out of him, and he’s big, fast and explosive, and can get in and out of breaks. But he’s got to figure some things out and get back in the flow. He’s going against a little bit different athlete now than he’s used to.”
The Mariota-to-DGB connection is a tantalizing one for the Titans and their fans to consider in the years ahead, but I don’t expect Tennessee to rush him up the receiving depth chart. The Titans actually have three former 1,000-yard receivers on their roster in Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks, and if third-year man Justin Hunter emerges as a more consistent threat as expected, Tennessee may have the luxury of easing Green-Beckham into the pass-catching rotation, freakish athletic gifts and all.
“He needs to earn it,” Webster says. “But I think the thing he’s got going for him is the other players see the talent. And so when players see you can help us, they’re good with it. But there is a not-wanting-to-rush-him factor, whether it means designing packages and things for him to do this year. He practiced last year, but he didn’t play, and then when you add in the step up in competition, from that alone I think we have to take our time. But he stands out, and he’s a big man. Not just a tall guy, but a big man, so there are certain situations where a corner just struggles with him.”
The Titans secondary has had its hands full so far in camp. Mariota has an uncanny knack for accuracy and putting the ball where only his receivers can catch it, and guarding Tennessee’s newest and tallest pass-catcher has been a challenge at times.
“Without a doubt, [DGB] has certain things you can’t teach,” Titans cornerback Jason McCourty says. “You can’t teach a guy to be 6'5", 230 pounds and be able to run like he can. I think he does a really good job already of knowing how to use his body, on deep balls and short routes, knowing how to box out a defensive back. And the one thing I really enjoy from him is he comes out there and talks a little bit of trash. He thinks he’s really good, and in order to be a good player in this league, you have to have that type of confidence. For us [players], we look at him and say he has a little bit of dog in him. Those are the type of guys you love to compete against.”
Says Douglas, the former Falcons role player now sharing the field with Green-Beckham: “You don’t find too many people with his skill set. The feet he has for a big guy, it’s unbelievable. I haven’t seen too many guys with feet like that, at his size, other than Julio [Jones]. I have 100% faith in DGB, because I’m seeing the progress with him. He’s learning how to be a pro, and I can’t wait to watch him play.”
Green-Beckham’s long-awaited return to the field when the Titans open their preseason next Friday night in Atlanta will be one anticipated storyline, but it’ll be dwarfed by the buzz surrounding Mariota’s debut, given the superb work he’s turned in so far in camp. Mariota has progressed so quickly that the Titans are hopeful of accelerating his rookie-season learning curve.
“He doesn’t really make a whole lot of mistakes, and really I don’t even see him making mistakes,” Green-Beckham said, of Mariota. “I haven’t seen anything he can’t do so far. We see it every day in practice, so we know when it’s game time, everything is going to come a lot quicker for him. It’s great knowing we have a quarterback who’s going to throw the ball away from the defender where only we can get it. He’s been doing really good and we’re all proud of him.”
The part of the game that some thought Mariota might struggle with—the process of what a quarterback has to handle even before the play begins—has come quickly and smoothly to him, Whisenhunt said.
“You never know for sure what the transition from college to the NFL is going to be on that front,” Whisenhunt says. “Managing the huddle, getting the play, relaying it to the team, breaking the huddle and getting guys lined up. That’s the process of playing the position, and that’s what people don’t really understand that can really bog down a lot of young quarterbacks. Because there’s so much that has to be done before you even take the snap. He’s done a really nice job of that.”
And for those who thought Mariota would be susceptible to taking off and running at the slightest bit of trouble in the pocket, so far in Titans camp that has been anything but the reality. Observers have counted only two plays in which Mariota has pulled the ball down and run in the first week, not counting designed quarterback runs. He has looked calm and cool in the pocket, showed virtually no sign of happy feet and has made quick decisions and precision throws.
It’s still way early in the Mariota era, but in Tennessee, it’s a case of so far, so very good. Hope abounds, and this time, the hype might be right.