INDIANAPOLIS -- Marcus Mariota has been able to overcome and prosper despite every obstacle he’s faced in his highly-decorated football career. Which is all well and good, but this is the NFL draft we’re talking about, and that means he ain’t seen nothing yet. Heisman Trophy or no Heisman Trophy, Mariota’s label of being just another prolific spread-offense quarterback isn’t going to be easy to shake.
If he doesn’t yet realize that, he soon will.
To give you a sense of the stigma Mariota must deal with, here's what Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians had to say on Thursday morning, when asked about the difficulty that talent evaluators face when scouting quarterback prospects who are products of a spread offensive system:
"So many times you’re evaluating a quarterback who’s never called a play in a huddle and never used a snap count," Arians said. "They hold up a card on the sideline and he kicks his foot and throws the ball. That ain’t playing quarterback. There’s no leadership involved there. Now there might be leadership on the bench. But when you get them now, and you give them verbiage and they have to spit the verbiage out, use the snap count, change the snap count, they’re light years behind. Light years behind."
Mariota knows the offense he starred in at the University of Oregon is viewed with a skeptical eye in almost every corner of the NFL, other than in Chip Kelly’s kingdom in Philadelphia. While Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Mariota’s likely competition for going first overall in the draft, has his myriad of off-field questions to answer at the NFL Scouting Combine, the issues Mariota must deal with concern his on-field readiness and aptitude for playing from the pocket.
Nobody seems to be doubting his arm or his ability to deliver the football to his intended receiver. But the logistics of executing a pro-style offense includes far more than just the act of throwing, and the challenge Mariota faces is to convince the NFL that his collegiate no-huddle experience doesn’t mean he can’t huddle in the pros. Calling plays in a huddle sounds like basic quarterbacking skills, but until he’s done it, the burden of proof remains on Mariota.
"For us, [the challenge of transitioning to the NFL game] is going to be huddling," Mariota said, in meeting the media throngs Thursday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium. "I haven’t huddled in a while. That will be one thing. It seems like a little detail, but that is kind of a big thing. There’s other things as well. Three-, five-, seven-step drops under center. That’s all stuff I’ve been able to work on the last month."
Mariota has been schooling in San Diego under ex-NFL backup-turned-new-Browns quarterback coach Kevin O’Connell for the past month, with Chargers starting quarterback Philip Rivers offering some insights and input as well. But even though he plans to throw and turn in a full workout here on Saturday when the quarterbacks go through their drills, Mariota won’t be able to put NFL-style throws on tape in a live game situation until after someone drafts him. And that means some team, perhaps even the No. 1-pick Tampa Bay Bucs, is going to have to take a leap of faith that Mariota can make a seamless transition into the more drop-back oriented pro game.
"It’ll be an adjustment I’ll be able to handle," Mariota said. "It’s something I’m going to continue to work on with Philip and different other quarterback coaches right now because Kevin’s with the Browns. Learning as much as I can, learning how my drops time up with the route concepts and how my feet are going to help me go through my progressions. All this stuff are little things that I can continue to work on that will help my adjustment."
Sounds good, but there was a rather telling admission in the middle of Mariota’s media session, when he was asked what he considered his best throw and favorite play call at Oregon. He talked about the challenge of facing three-deep zones, with seam passes that had enough touch to get over a linebacker’s head while still being in front of the safety. Mariota won’t be seeing a ton of three-deep zones in the NFL, and the windows he’ll be asked to throw into will likely be far tighter than the gaping ones he routinely took advantage of as the QB of the Ducks. He’ll have much more complex reads to make, with most throws being contested by quality defensive backs, and his pre-snap responsibilities will be far greater than they were in college, where they were almost non-existent. Much as Arians noted above.
"It’s going to be tough," Mariota said, of convincing the NFL he can handle making NFL-style reads in a setting like the combine. "For the most part, [it’s about] learning it as much as you can from people like Philip and Kevin, and finding ways continue to make good decisions with the football."
But in reality, Mariota can’t do much to sway the doubters at this point, with only football in shorts on display in Indianapolis, and he seems to grasp that his draft stock will be in the eye of the beholder for the next two-plus months. There were media reports Thursday that he was "killing it" in his one-on-one meetings with teams, and that part of it is no surprise given his sterling reputation for being the ultimate team player and leader.
"Other people’s opinions, that’s something I can’t control," he said. "All it takes is one team to believe in me and to give me an opportunity. I’ll do my best to make the most of it."
Deciding to throw at the combine was probably a solid, proactive first step by Mariota in changing some minds among NFL personnel evaluators. Putting his new footwork on display will help if it’s sharp, as will showing he can operate under center to some degree. For a league that has seen recent spread-offense quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick fail to sustain their early-career level of success, Mariota must combat the perception that the NFL has caught up to such passers.
"It starts with the interviews," Mariota said. "It’s not just blurting out all the football information that you know. It’s kind of processing and showing how you think and how you progress in your reads. Just telling them whatever you were asked to do at whatever school you’re at, and hopefully they’ll believe in what you’re saying and give you an opportunity."
The Bucs, according to the available tea leaf reading, are presumed to be leaning toward Winston’s undeniably more pro-ready style of game, with his size, big arm, on-field toughness and resiliency and an uncanny ability to rescue his team from difficult spots. But it’s still early in the evaluation process, and Mariota’s draft stock might still have a comeback or two in store as well. If the Bucs aren’t high enough on him now, Mariota said, it changes nothing about his approach to the highly anticipated night of April 30 in Chicago.
"It doesn’t really affect me at all," he said, of the rumors about the Bucs’ leanings. "That’s going to be their opinion, that’s going to be their decision. All I can really control is how I prepare and get ready for whatever team picks me.
"Any player would stand in front of you and tell you they’re confident in their abilities and I’m no different. What I’ve been able to do at the University of Oregon and what I’ve learned has prepared me for this."
That preparation, Mariota predicted, will have him ready to make an early splash in the NFL, despite how nervous some are about him wearing the label of spread-offense quarterback.
"My goal is to make an impact from day one," he said. "I’m going to continue to have that mentality and find ways to improve myself in order to be ready from day one."
It’s only day two of the scouting combine, and Mariota’s game is still very much a topic of debate. He best get used to it, because the draft-season dissection has just begun.