The Truth About Marcus Mariota

Wednesday March 4th, 2015

 

INDIANAPOLIS — With all due respect to pockmarked Jameis Winston, off-field landmine Dorial Green-Beckham and small-school (Hobart!) marvel Ali Marpet, Marcus Mariota has more coaches and scouts staying up nights watching video than any other player in the 2015 draft. Coaches and scouts of teams selecting high in the first round, in particular.

“I want to love him,” said one coach of a quarterback-needy team at the combine. “There’s so much about the player and the person to love. And I think I might end up loving him. But right now I like him a lot. I’m not positive what kind of NFL player he’s going to be.’’

I think NFL teams might be overthinking Mariota because he took just five snaps under center in 2014 (he was in shotgun 99.4 percent of the time), because he has not huddled since high school, because he has not stared into the eyes of his linemen and made a pre-snap play call since high school, because he is such a nice and polite guy that many NFL people wonder if he has the nasty streak to bark at a teammate who messes up, and because the Oregon offense is so fast-paced (the Ducks ran 12 plays per game more in 2014 than Green Bay, the highest-scoring NFL offense) that it’s tough to get a handle on how he’ll transition to the NFL game.

Overthinking Mariota is easy to do with a franchise’s future on the line, especially with 17 scouting weeks between the end of the regular season and the first night of the draft. That’s what I think: Teams are thinking too much. But I’m not drafting a quarterback on April 30, am I?

* * *

Last season, Mariota accounted for 57 touchdowns in 15 games: 42 passing, 15 rushing. With six turnovers all season. Four touchdowns a game. Who does that?

Tom Brady’s yards-per-pass-attempt last year: 7.1. Mariota’s: 10.0.

Oregon scored more than 40 points in a game 12 times in 2014. But points in an Oregon game are like money in a Monopoly game. There’s something a little phony about it. This is a big decision. We will hold a general manager’s feet to the fire over the choice of a first-round quarterback. That’s why we have to talk flaws.

1. Niceness. He’s too nice. Everybody in the NFL thinks that. Take this exchange I had with him at the combine. At Oregon, a combination of hand signals and those silly rectangular boards with weird photos and symbols on them relayed plays from the sidelines to the quarterback. We all saw it. I asked Mariota to talk about the transition from the way plays were called in college to the way they will be called in the NFL. “I mean this with great respect, but I’m going to keep that within the Oregon program,” he said. “Our coaches have done a great job handling how we get our plays and stuff like that. But that is still something they want to keep within. O.K.?”

The reality: He probably is too nice too often, but … “I have seen Marcus get mad and punt a football at practice, which got everyone’s attention,” said Oregon quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Scott Frost. “And last year, the week of the Wyoming game, we had a few really competitive practices, and at one point we had to stop practice and break up a huge fight, and guess who was in the middle of it? Marcus. I yelled at him for putting our whole season in jeopardy. But deep down, I got it. The leader of the team should be in the middle of a moment like that. People think he’s too nice—I would just say this: There is not one player on our team who wouldn't walk through traffic for him.”

2. Unless the Eagles and former Ducks coach Chip Kelly draft him, he’ll be playing in an offense that’s completely different from the one he ran in college. In the three Oregon games I watched, one notable thing is how fast the ball came out. The quarterback is John Stockton, dishing out gifts. And it’s true: Very often, Mariota gets the shotgun snap and fires it to the first open receiver he sees, often the first man in the progression, regardless where he is on the field. He will have to adjust to making multiple reads and adjustments at the line of scrimmage, to be sure.

The reality: It will be different, but not all new. At Oregon, he had the freedom to change plays at the line—and did so three or four times a game, on average, according to Frost. He changed the protections on the Oregon front maybe one out of every seven plays. So it’s clear he has a huge adjustment to make. “I haven’t huddled since high school,’’ he said. But think of it: Is that something significant enough to hold you back from being a good NFL player, the fact that you haven’t lorded over a huddle in four years? Did Joe Montana play a West Coast offense at Notre Dame—and did the fact that he didn’t play it make so tough for him to do it in the NFL? Not really.

3. He runs all the time. You can’t run all the time in the NFL. You’ve got to be a pocket quarterback to succeed, and to last. There is certainly something to this. The mobile guys come and go. Among recent Hall of Famers, only Steve Young has gone on to immortality after running around a lot as a quarterback.

The reality: Russell Wilson ran the ball 7.4 times per game last year. Mariota ran 9.1 times per game last season at Oregon. In the biggest win of his Oregon career, the national championship semifinal trouncing of Florida State, Mariota stayed in the pocket on 23 of his 36 passes. When he left the pocket, at least five times that day he had his head up looking for receivers and intending to throw. If you want to fault Mariota for not making many anticipation throws—throwing to a spot and trusting his receiver will be where he’s supposed to be at a precise moment—or looking to his third or fourth option on a play enough, that’s fine. But if he’s supposed to play fast and throw to the first open man in his progression, and he does that most of the time, and he completes 68 percent of his throws, what exactly is the problem?

4. If you’ve never called plays in a huddle, or been a commanding presence at the line, that’s certainly going to hamper you in the NFL. It’s true. You combine the Nice Factor with the fact that he’s never had to stare into the eyes of a 10-year-veteran tackle and convince him the play he’s calling is the right one, and you’ve got some issues.

The reality: It’s a problem, to be sure. Mariota worked with Kevin O’Connell, who since has been hired by the Browns as their quarterbacks coach, for five weeks this winter in San Diego. O’Connell, you may recall, is a former Patriots third-round pick who also had cups of coffee with five other NFL teams. O’Connell taught Mariota about voice inflection, about staring linemen in the eye, about urgency, about convincing his teammates that what he was calling was the best option. More than that, each night O’Connell gave Mariota a play sheet with eight to 10 NFL play calls on it, and he told Mariota to go to his room and practice each play call multiple times—so that when they reconvened the next day at 7 a.m., Mariota would be able to rattle off the 15- to 18-word plays with conviction, with the formation, any motion involved, any shifts involved. Mariota practiced as though he was looking at Jason Peters or Maurkice Pouncey in the huddle, and he barked out the calls with conviction. No one knows if that will be enough.

Frost has watched all the conjecture about his pupil from Eugene for the last couple of months. He is seething. He understands there will be questions about an athletic quarterback from a fast-paced offense, but what he doesn’t understand is how NFL scouts and coaches—and the omnipresent media and draftniks—can’t see what he sees. Namely, that Mariota has the arm and instincts and pocket presence and to be a very good NFL quarterback.

“To say Marcus can’t play in a pro style offense is like saying Dwyane Wade can’t play in the triangle offense,” Frost said. “To say he can’t do the things an NFL quarterback can do—I laugh when I hear people say that, and I am keeping track of all the experts who’ve said it. He changes protections, he slides protections, he shifts protections, he makes reads, he changes calls at the line. Watch our games. We have every protection at Oregon that they have in the NFL. He changed protections at the line seven or eight times a game. He completely changed the play two or three times a game.”

Frost was on a roll. “Scouts ask me what offense he’d be best at running in the NFL. I tell them, ‘Whatever offense you want him to run.’ ”

* * *

If only it were that simple.

I watched two of Mariota’s games in their entirety last season. NFL Films tape-meister Greg Cosell has watched four, so far. The difference between Cosell as an analyst and other non-NFL team employees is that if you’re not an NFL employee, you don’t have access to the coaches’ video—the sideline and end zone views of each play. I have seen the TV copy. Cosell has seen the real thing.

“What Mariota is used to,” said Cosell, “is making precise throws on time to schemed receivers. Defined reads, to open receivers. I love the Oregon offense. There’s an open receiver so often. And he executes the concepts of that offense exceedingly well. But what you don’t see is a lot of throws from a muddied pocket; what I mean is throwing in the middle of a lot of traffic. You don’t see a lot of anticipation throws. You don’t see a lot of tight window throws, simply because he doesn’t have to make them. Having said all that, there is an awful lot about him to like. I just have some questions about his game.”

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In the national semifinal win over Florida State, playing mostly from the pocket, Cosell was right: There was a lot to like. Mariota made two awful throws—a dropped interception over the middle, and a throw way off the mark to an open wideout over the middle. But the rest was a combination of smart choices and good execution of a mostly safe game plan. The best combination call came in the second half, with Oregon trying to break the game open. On consecutive snaps, the Ducks ran identical plays. The tight end, Evan Baylis, floated right on a short out route, and wideout Darren Carrington ran up the right seam. Mariota threw to the tight end for a seven-yard gain on the first play. When Oregon quick-snapped on the next play and ran the same routes, an extra defender ran to blanket Baylis. Carrington had space up the right seam. Mariota looked at Baylis but quickly shifted to Carrington and hit him in stride. The receiver made one move and was gone for a 56-yard touchdown.

As a passer, the angular Mariota doesn’t have an exaggerated motion. It is compact and fast. He has an above-average fastball; not Cutler or Stafford, but every bit the velocity of Rivers or Romo. Frost has been on him about gaining weight because he doesn’t want him to be subject to early-career injuries. He will run, often, but as with Russell Wilson, he most often leaves the pocket to give receivers time to shake free. Frost said Mariota is a sub-4.5 runner, and that a slight hamstring strain at the scouting combine led to him running a 4.53. As for the traffic around him the pocket, there wasn’t a lot of that. But I watched Oregon’s loss to Arizona, when Mariota battled gamely against a heavy rush. He handled the pressure well overall, but did have some negative plays against it. And in the NFL, he’s likely to be drafted by a team with holes on both sides of the ball—including the offensive line. He’ll have to be improvisational, to both succeed and survive.

Mariota credited one of his occasional tutors this winter, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (an acquaintance of O’Connell’s) for helping him improve the biggest weakness in his passing game. Throwing to his left has always been a flaw, and Rivers taught him proper foot placement on those throws. Now he’s throwing more quickly and farther downfield when moving to his left.

But for Mariota, it’s the little things that he wants to perfect before he steps into his first minicamp huddle. Just before he left the combine 10 days ago, he said he was focused mostly on the things he hadn’t done in college. O’Connell, before leaving for the Browns job, told him that perception would become reality with him if he didn’t work to change that perception. Namely, that he wasn’t a commanding presence, and he needed to work on it each night in his room. So there was Mariota each night, with a play sheet from O’Connell, rattling off play calls.

“It’s been four, five years not having to stand in a huddle and look guys in the eyes and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ve got,’ ” Mariota said. “It’s really important to me because I don’t want to be the rookie that stands in the huddle and stutters while he’s over there trying to make the play. You’re going to step into the huddle with veterans who expect you to know what you’re doing. Again, it’s little things that people overlook, but that’s going to help with a lot of things in terms of leadership and in terms of gaining confidence and respect of your teammates and being able to make that impact that you want to as a rookie.”

Mariota is painfully humble, as you’ve heard. Sit with him for 20 minutes, and there won’t be any Quotes of the Week. If he can’t answer a question truthfully, he’ll apologize and just not answer. But though he won’t say he’s confident, and though he’ll say the safe things a soon-to-be-drafted quarterback must say, Mariota is brutally confident. He reminds me of a quieter Russell Wilson—sure of himself, but not motivated to tell anyone. Sort of like the way Derek Jeter used to lead by example. Jeter once told Cowboys coach Jason Garrett that he never tried to get his message across by being loud. Being good, and working hard, was good enough. That’s the kind of manner Wilson adopted. I can see it in Mariota.

“For me,” Mariota said, “and I’m not speaking for Russell, but sometimes guys just—there’s no reason to say anything. So I don’t sometimes. As long as you and people around the organization understand how much the game means to you and how much you want to be successful, that’s all that really matters. I just want to do my job.”


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