One win doesn’t define a season or make a career, but it can buoy a franchise in desperate need of hope. Marcus Mariota surpassed all expectations on Sunday, but we should have seen it coming all along

By Jenny Vrentas
September 15, 2015

TAMPA — Hindsight might be 20/20. But in the case of Marcus Mariota’s historic NFL debut, so was foresight. Most didn’t know what to expect on Sunday, but the Titans sure did.

Forty-eight hours before kickoff, quarterbacks coach John McNulty was trying to put into words what he had seen during the four months since the Titans had drafted Mariota with the second overall pick. The young quarterback’s football intelligence, and his ability to quickly process schemes at the line of scrimmage, McNulty explained, was on par with any veteran he’s seen in his 13 years of coaching in the NFL.

 

“It’s just uncanny,” McNulty said Friday afternoon, speaking on the phone from the Titans’ headquarters in Nashville, before making the trip to Florida’s gulf coast. “The guy is … I don’t know. We’re not going to go 19-0. He’s not going to complete every pass. I get the whole thing. But he is … [long pause] … as smart a football player as I’ve been around.”

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Sunday afternoon’s game between Mariota’s Titans and Jameis Winston’s Buccaneers was going to be historic no matter the outcome: It was the first time the top two picks of the draft were to start at quarterback against each other in Week 1 of their rookie seasons. Then Mariota went out and made it even more memorable. In the Titans’ 42-14 blowout victory, he threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions, finishing with a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

 

He became the only rookie in NFL history to post a perfect passer rating on kickoff weekend, and he’s only the second rookie to have thrown four touchdown passes in his NFL debut. Unlike Fran Tarkenton, in 1961, Mariota needed only the first half to do it.

 

The reality, of course, is that Week 1 isn’t a predictor of a season or a career. (To wit: Mariota’s passer rating was the highest for a rookie QB’s first start since Robert Griffin III posted a 139.9 in 2012—and he’s now reportedly playing scout-team safety in Washington.) It’s a virtual certainty that Mariota won’t always look as good as he did on Sunday, when he casually picked apart the vulnerabilities of a commonly used NFL defensive scheme, while also running some of his favorite concepts from his old Oregon playbook, with nary a fist pump or chest-thumping to celebrate. Afterward, head coach Ken Whisenhunt told him simply, “Good start.”

But after spending more than a decade searching for someone who could fill the void left by the late Steve McNair, through swings and misses on Vince Young and Jake Locker, the Titans are quietly optimistic they’ve found their quarterback for the long-term future. The team is resolute on not creating more pressure, but as McNulty says, “It better work. It has to work. There’s no other option.”

 

* * *

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at the 2015 NFL combine. (Todd Rosenberg/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

 

On any other NFL opening weekend, one free from the lingering specter of Deflategate, this might have been the marquee game of the week: the No. 1 overall pick and 2013 Heisman winner versus the No. 2 overall pick and 2014 Heisman winner, 255 days after they last met in the Rose Bowl of the college football playoffs.

 

The Buccaneers rolled out their “Siege the Day” campaign this summer, with digital billboards and a website counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to kickoff. Radio ads promised a “new era of Buccaneers football,” tapping into the optimism that came with drafting Winston, who won college football’s national championship just a few hours north at Florida State. Winston’s No. 3 jersey sales have already broken franchise records for a Bucs rookie.

 

The morning of the game, the lead headline on the front of The Tampa Tribune read, “Upbeat Bucs expect a sold-out opener.” That hadn’t happened since 2009. In the past six seasons, the team has won four games or fewer four times, and has had three different head coaches. On Sunday, the Bucs ended up just a couple hundred tickets short of a sellout, and yet the home crowd of 63,945 turned just as quickly as the game.

“The Titans were a running joke last year,” says one fan. “Then we got Mariota.”

The Titans got the ball first, and Mariota’s fourth NFL pass went for a 52-yard touchdown to Kendall Wright. In less than two seconds, Mariota executed a play-action fake, read the middle linebacker and quickly fired the ball into a void in the zone defense. It stood in stark contrast to Jameis Winston’s first NFL pass—a pick-six that was all but placed in the hands of cornerback Coty Sensabaugh. (But remember, Week 1 makes neither a season nor a career: the last quarterback to have his first pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown was none other than the ol’ gunslinger, Brett Favre.)

 

Sensabaugh, a fourth-year pro who has played mostly as a nickel corner, had never made an NFL interception. Covering his former Clemson teammate, Adam Humphries, he took advantage of safety help over the top to undercut the out-breaking route in the flat. Winston, on third-and-3, was clearly fixated on throwing to his left, and he didn’t arc the ball high enough to avoid the undercutting defender.

 

Photo: Gary Bogdon for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

On the sideline, after exchanging a few daps with his defensive teammates, Sensabaugh sought out Mariota. “We both got our first one today,” he told the quarterback, meaning touchdowns. Before the end of the first half, Mariota would have three more. And Winston would have another interception, this one on a screen pass intended for running back Charles Sims. Winston didn’t account for the fact that linebacker Deiontrez Mount, who was stumbling after being cut by a blocker, would be able to leap up and snare the ball.

 

The second turnover set up the Titans’ fifth touchdown of the first half. As the players filed to the locker room at halftime, with the Bucs trailing the Titans, 35-7, the home crowd began to boo. The 11 o’clock newscast of the Tampa NBC affiliate caught the exodus of fans streaming out of the stadium well before the game ended, in various states of mourning: some yelled “15-1! We still believe!” and others shouted, “We drafted the wrong guy!” #BlameJameis trended on social media.

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It was inevitable, in a Week 1 matchup between two franchises that went 2-14 a year ago, that one team’s optimism for the dawn of a new era would be dashed. But the lopsided game did so in polarizing fashion. In the fourth quarter, while Mariota relaxed on the sideline and backup Zach Mettenberger took on mop-up duty, Winston was trying to salvage some sense of hope. His last drive did exactly the opposite—a 16-play possession that ended without a score after three offensive penalties and nine fruitless plays inside the red zone.

 


PHOTO SPECIAL: The MMQB partnered with Buccaneers.com to get a behind-the-scenes a look at how rookie quarterback Jameis Winston spent the week leading up to his first NFL game.

 

Bucs head coach Lovie Smith flatly admitted that “Jameis didn’t play well,” having completed less than 50% of this throws. (His passer rating: 64.0.) But Tampa Bay’s defense, led by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, was also to blame. The Titans exploited Smith’s Cover 2 scheme, running slant routes into open spaces, such as Harry Douglas’s 4-yard touchdown catch and Wright’s 52-yard score.

 

“I don’t think the guys that were guarding me could guard me on that play,” Wright said. “Really, not being arrogant or anything, but I really wouldn’t even say ‘guard me’ … there were a lot of holes in the defense ... all I had to do was just get in the right spot, and I knew Marcus would get the ball to me.”

 

There were plenty of other factors that ultimately besieged the Bucs: Winston’s potentially lingering preseason ankle injury; the absence of receiver Mike Evans; and a struggling offensive line that featured two rookie starters and forced Winston, the less mobile of the two QBs, to take off running more often than Mariota.

 

In the locker room after the game, two veteran Bucs players lamented how the outcome meant they probably shouldn’t go out after the game. Veteran receiver Vincent Jackson shoved in earbuds and brushed off reporters. At a nearby locker, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins—whose 110-yard, two-touchdown connection with Winston was a lone bright spot—blasted a Drake song, “Charged Up.” The lyrics were oddly fitting:

 

Man, this s--- is a doozy /
This s--- is a twist in the movie /
But don’t jump to conclusions

 

* * *

Beyond draft intrigue, Sunday’s matchup highlighted one of the biggest debates in football: Can college quarterbacks from spread offenses succeed in the NFL?

 

Winston, who played in a pro-style offense at Florida State, was deemed more pro-ready by draftniks during the rigmarole of pre-draft analysis. But Mariota looked the more polished of the two, the one who was more able to read and dissect defenses. He ably threw out of the shotgun (10-for-10, 176 yards, two TDs, two sacks) and under center (3-for-6, 33 yards, two TDs, no sacks).

 

“I don’t think I would discount how hard it is for a guy from a spread system to adapt to the NFL, but I just think he’s a special guy who was able to do it,” McNulty says. “I don’t know if it would have been as easy with anyone else.”

 

The system Mariota orchestrated at Oregon was more sophisticated than most collegiate spread offenses, McNulty said. And as early as the NFL combine, when he carefully watched Mariota take drops from under center, McNulty knew that wouldn’t be an issue. “I watched some of the other guys kind of struggle taking the drops; they didn’t look natural at all,” he says. “He just looked like he had done it all his life. If you didn’t know that this was supposed to be an issue, you wouldn’t even bring it up.”

“Marcus keeps his eyes up,” Walker says. “He’s not looking to scramble first, he’s looking to make plays down the field.”

 

But the biggest reason the Titans believed Mariota could be their guy was that “uncanny” ability to pick up information, process it and react on the field.

 

“It was that and how hard he works,” GM Ruston Webster said underneath the bleachers at Raymond James Stadium, after giving Mariota the same handshake and back pat as all the other 52 players headed to the post-game locker room. “He’s very bright, and processes things really quickly, and he works hard.”

 

Picking second, the Titans weren’t given the decision between Mariota and Winston. But they could have done other things with their pick—traded it for a bounty of draft picks or players, or selected a stud at another position. Neither option was as appealing as taking Mariota. Webster knows better than to celebrate his decision after one game—“I’m just happy with the way he played,” he said, “and the way the team played”—but so far the organization’s plan is proceeding without a hitch.

 

The Titans made Mariota the starter right away, but they were also conscious of not overloading him too quickly. “When you put him in the huddle the first day with the starters, we didn’t want him stumbling over the play call or to go out and throw the ball to the other team three times, and everyone is going, ‘Wait a minute, who is this guy?’ ” McNulty says. They crafted contingency plans for the installation of the offense, depending on the pace at which he picked it up. They quickly realized no such plan was needed—his knack for seeing something on film just once and being able to go out and do it didn’t make him seem like a rookie at all. “After being around him as long as we all have now,” McNulty adds, “it’s more excitement and anticipation than it is, ‘Oh no, what if the bottom falls out?’ I don’t think that’s something that any of us see as the scenario playing out.”

 

By July, when Mariota called up his receivers and tight ends and asked them to join him at Father Ryan High School in Nashville for some players-only throwing sessions before training camp, he was able to call out the plays by himself. That foundation of knowledge is what allows the subtle unspoken adjustments on the field that are the difference between a play working and possibly blowing up.

 

Tight end Delanie Walker pointed to a few examples in Sunday’s game. On the Titans’ first drive, they faced a third-and-10 from their own 26-yard line. On a play called “Ocean,” Walker made the decision to “sit down” his route underneath the zone coverage, an adjustment that Mariota expected to see without needing to communicate the change. Two defenders converged on Walker, but Mariota confidently stood tall in the pocket and placed his throw high, knowing it was the spot where only Walker could go up and get it. The result: A 22-yard gain, setting up the 52-yard touchdown to Wright on the next play.

 

Walker’s second-quarter touchdown catch also depended on split-second recognition by Mariota. The ball was intended to go to the fullback, who was running a diagonal route out of the backfield. But when Mariota saw that the fullback was pulling two defenders with him, he looked off and noticed Walker wide open just across the goal line. The easy score gave the Titans a 35-7 lead. Asked what option he was on that play, Walker laughed and demurred, not wanting to give away too many details because it’s a play they’ll run again. “Let’s just say I was not meant to get the ball, but he kept the play alive, and that’s good,” he said. “Marcus keeps his eyes up. He’s not looking to scramble first, he’s looking to make plays down the field.”

Marcus Mariota scans the field for a receiver in the Titans’ season-opening win over the Buccaneers. (Gary Bogdon for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

 

Indeed, the most impressive part of Mariota’s debut might’ve been that the guy with a 4.48 speed in the 40-yard dash didn’t rely on his legs to win. Yes, Titans coaches smartly incorporated his mobility into the game plan. An 18-yard throw to Anthony Fasano in the red zone was a concept borrowed from Mariota’s playbook at Oregon: he faked the handoff and then looked as if he were keeping it to run, but when defenders converged on him, he threw over their heads. All told, Mariota ran only twice on Sunday for six yards (one run was for a loss of three, when he should have thrown the ball away instead).

 

“I think everyone is aware he’s dangerous running in the open field. It’s just a matter of how we do it,” McNulty said. “We’ve looked at some of the other teams; I think Seattle has been smart with Russell Wilson, and how they use his ability to run, and how he knows how to get out of bounds and get down is part of it, too. I don’t think we want to just not do any of that; I don’t think that would be wise. But you can’t just go out and run the guy 20 times a game and think you are going to make it through the season. It will be week to week in terms of who we are playing and what we need to do to win the game for how much we actually do some of that stuff.”

 

Back in Nashville, Mariota’s impact on the fan base has been unmistakable. In recent seasons, there wasn’t even a market for spare regular-season tickets, but this year fans were able to sell preseason ducats. “It was hard to even give them away last year. We wouldn’t even go,” says 26-year-old Josh Haskins, who traveled with his wife, Callie, from their home outside Nashville to watch Mariota’s debut in Tampa. “The Titans were a running joke last year. Then we got Mariota.”

 

There are still countless games to be played in Mariota’s nascent career. But in a way that’s almost as understated as Mariota himself, the Titans are relevant again.

 

“The perfect passer rating? That’s fun,” Webster said, with a hint of a grin. “This should be good for his confidence, but it’s just one win.”

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