The Trade That Was Never Going to Happen
CHICAGO — In the end, we all got too excited about a trade that didn’t make a lot of sense. Or, maybe, about trades that didn’t make a lot of sense, for the traders and the tradees.
The nuts and bolts, first, about The Trades That Were Never Really Very Close, in the wake of the Titans—not Chip Kelly, not anyone else—selecting Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota with the second pick in the 2015 NFL draft on Thursday night:
- Philip Rivers was never in serious play for the Titans. The Chargers made it clear they were not trading him, and though the noise made the prospective trade interesting pre-draft fodder, San Diego GM Tom Telesco never even hinted that Rivers would be put on the market.
- The Eagles, as Kelly said Thursday night in Philadelphia, never offered players as part of a package to obtain Mariota. In fact, The MMQB learned Thursday night that Kelly never offered the widely rumored packages of either three first-round picks or two first-round picks and Sam Bradford, in an attempt to obtain the second pick of the draft. I can tell you this much is true: The Titans basically scared off suitors because they continually told teams they wanted to take Mariota, and it would take a stupid offer to obtain the pick. In the end, Tennessee GM Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt stuck to their guns.
- Yes, Chicago expressed some interest—but wasn’t banging the Titans’ door down—in moving up from seven to two to pick Mariota. However, the Titans had zero interest in Jay Cutler, so that never got off the ground.
- The most misleading storyline of the Mariota/Titans marriage: that Whisenhunt wanted a big, strong pocket passer, and the mobile Mariota wasn’t Whisenhunt’s cup of tea. “People got too locked into that, and it wasn’t true,” Whisenhunt said from the Titans’ draft bunker north of Nashville Thursday night. “I said it all along—he excited me. I really wanted him. In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision to stay at two and pick Marcus.”
The moral of the story is that if Kelly had gone crazy and offered three ones and a couple of starting defensive players, the Titans brass would have had to sit down and consider it. But from talking to Whisenhunt, it sounds as if even that wouldn’t have been tempting. Why? Think of this. You need a quarterback of the future. The forecast for passers next spring is poor. Even if you had two first-round picks in 2016, one of them in the top 10, to deal for a quarterback, there’s no guarantee one would be there that would be close to Mariota. And if there was a good quarterback atop the 2016 draft, would Tennessee have been in position to throw enough draft capital at some team next spring to get that quarterback?
And would Whisenhunt and Webster be there to shepherd the Titans through that process? Or would they be fired after a 4-12 crash-and-burn season led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger?
“I think they made the right maneuver, staying and picking Marcus,” Chip Kelly said. “If I was in the same position I would have done the same thing.”
Kelly is not the only Eagles coach who thought that. Whisenhunt learned that Thursday morning.
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In 1999, Mike Ditka went crazy. You don’t have to be a fan of a certain age to remember that Ditka, running the Saints and in his coaching twilight, offered his entire draft to move up from 12 into the top five in order to pick Texas running back Ricky Williams. The Saints called every team in the top five. Cleveland stayed and picked quarterback Tim Couch. Philly did the same with quarterback Donovan McNabb, and Cincinnati with quarterback Akili Smith. And the Colts, stunningly, turned down the offer and selected running back Edgerrin James. It wasn’t until Washington, with the fifth overall pick, that the Saints were able to move up by trading all six of their picks in the ’99 draft, plus their 2000 first- and third-rounders.
That was Andy Reid’s first draft as the coach of the Eagles. He could have dealt one pick for six. But Reid knew his franchise was listless, without a solid quarterback of the future. Reid knew he liked Donovan McNabb. Reid knew there was no guarantee he’d be picking high enough in the draft to take a quarterback he thought he could win with. So it wouldn’t have mattered how many picks Ditka offered him; unless Da Coach guaranteed one of them would provide a quarterback as good as or better than McNabb, it would be a senseless trade.
“I was talking to Andy today,’’ Whisenhunt said late Thursday night. “He told me the story about Ditka offering a whole draft for his [Reid’s] pick. I understood what Andy was saying. It certainly helped solidify what I was thinking—that’s for sure.”
Now, let me make it clear: Reid did not ruin the Eagles’ chances of trading for Mariota. That would be overly simplistic and, honestly, false. But it’s quite a coincidence that the coach Kelly replaced, in the hours before the draft, gave Whisenhunt one more reason to say yes to Mariota and no to Kelly.
The reason Whisenhunt and the Titans found Mariota an attractive option has something to do with how the game is played today, and something to do with not buying into the prevailing wisdom about Mariota’s game. At the scouting combine, the Titans used their 15-minute window with Mariota to see how conversant he would be with the pro terminology. He’d spent much of his time at Oregon in a coach-dominated play-calling system, the majority of calls and decision dictated from the sidelines. The Titans needed to see more, which they did after his pro day in March.
When the Titans had a chance to spend hours with Mariota, Whisenhunt saw that he had the ability—and the propensity—to change plays at the line and to change protections (which is a big part of NFL quarterbacking with defenses shifting after the quarterback prepares to take the snap). Before he came to Tennessee on a visit, Whisenhunt gave Mariota “a mini-install,” a series of plays with Tennessee terminology, to get a sense of how comfortable Mariota would be in their offense. When Mariota got to Nashville for his visit, he aced Whisenhunt’s test about progression of receivers, which receiver or back would be hot, or the chosen receiver on a blitz, and how Mariota would sight-adjust if the defense gave him a different look than what was expected after the play was called.
“He may not talk our language at first,’’ said Whisenhunt, “But in three or four days he learned much of our terminology. I felt really good talking to him and hearing what he knew about what we did, after such a short time to learn it.’’
That’s part of what it will come down to for Mariota. No one knows how he’ll adjust to the pressures of the NFL, but Whisenhunt isn’t concerned with how much he’s going to struggle learning how to call plays in the huddle (which he didn’t have to do at Oregon) or with the concepts of the pro offense. As Whisenhunt watched Mariota on tape, he got to learn that the perception of him just being a running quarterback was false. Seventy percent of his throws were from the pocket in the national semifinal win over Florida State—those are the kinds of things that burst the bubble of the perception that Mariota can’t run a pro-style offense. Mariota, Whisenhunt learned, wasn’t just a runner with the occasional ability to mover around and make throws outside the pocket. The majority of his throws were actually from the pocket.
This can’t be why you love a quarterback, but there’s something else Tennessee came to like about Mariota. Nine visits by the scouting staff—director of college scouting Blake Beddingfield, regional scout Phil Neri and West Coast scout Marv Sutherland—led to the Titans being the team that was keenest on Mariota, according to an Oregon source. What helped even more came on a connecting flight from Salt Lake City to Eugene last fall.
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“On one of my trips this year,” Beddingfield said Thursday night, “I was connecting through Salt Lake City for Eugene, and the lady sitting next to me saw my Titans cap on. She says, ‘Are you going out to see Marcus?’ I said I was. She was a big Oregon fan, and she talked about how once she met Marcus, and how she and her family follow him closely. She said to me: ‘We all follow Oregon football because of Marcus.’ ” There’s something about that I think is important. All the time we spent on Marcus showed us the athletic traits, the sufficient arm strength, the poise in the pocket, the air of confidence. But Marcus the person is such a good person.”
Nashville could be the perfect place for Mariota the person. It’s pretty low-key, as is the quarterback. Naturally, that won’t matter if he can’t play. Mariota is a nice man who will have to get used to several things in the pros: more defensive pressure than he faced in college, calling lots of plays at the line of scrimmage, losing games. Dealing with all of those factors will determine his success or failure.
But Whisenhunt has bought into Mariota, and the fact that they favor him over Cutler and Bradford says something about how deeply they believe in him.
I asked Whisenhunt Thursday if there was any chance he would consider trading Mariota now. Maybe as a way of getting Kelly re-invigorated, maybe just because you’re really not sure of him.
It didn’t take long for Whisenhunt to reply: “Nooo!”
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