The Mariota Project Begins

There is plenty to like about Marcus Mariota. There is also plenty that should make the Tennessee Titans nervous. The track record of run-oriented college quarterbacks in the NFL is not good. Beginning this summer, the Titans will try to build Mariota into a passer who can buck that trend
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Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP

Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP

Drafting Marcus Mariota No. 2 overall represents a crapshoot by the Tennessee Titans. Sure, the former Oregon quarterback is a tremendous athlete with size and lauded intangibles. That’s important. But it’s also irrelevant if he can’t meet basic NFL quarterbacking requirements. Like dropping back and making multiple reads from the pocket. Mariota is an unknown in this realm. The system at Oregon almost never asked him to do this. And the system’s rapid tempo often left him facing static, simplified defenses—not the multifaceted disguises, blitzes and coverage rotations he’ll see in the pros.

What we do know is that no run-oriented college quarterback has successfully built a strong foundation of pocket passing tools after reaching the NFL. Since 2000, players cut from the Mariota cloth who were drafted with expectations of becoming long-term starters have been:

• Johnny Manziel, Browns, 2014 – Jury’s still out, but not for long; evidence against him is overwhelming.

• Robert Griffin, Washington, 2012 – High achievements as a rookie; has been prone to injuries and benchings since. Defenses are now familiar with his flaws.

• Russell Wilson, Seahawks, 2012 – A unique case; more on that in a moment.

• Jake Locker, Titans, 2011 – Just retired after four disappointing, injury-riddled years.

• Colin Kaepernick, 49ers, 2011 – Trending further and further down; expect to soon hear serious speculation about his long-term job security in San Francisco.

• Cam Newton, Panthers, 2011 – Not a perfect fit for this list because he doesn’t have a strict “run-first” mentality. But can be labeled as “inconsistent” by former No. 1 overall pick standards.

• Tim Tebow, Broncos, 2010 – Please.

• Vince Young, Titans, 2006 – Was out of the league by 2011. Professional demise was entertaining in a made-for-TV sort of way. (His unsuccessful tryouts in following years went straight to DVD.)

• Michael Vick, Falcons, 2001 – A career defined by dramatic highs and lows. No coincidence that five times his team has had a coaching change the year after he started for them at QB.

• Quincy Carter, Cowboys, 2001 – Forgot about him, didn’t you? That’s because he only lasted until 2004.

None of these guys honed genuine pocket poise and mechanics because, prior to turning pro, they never had to. When you grow up being faster than everyone you face, your mentality becomes predicated on moving. That works fine until you encounter the athleticism and intelligence of NFL defenders.

The one exception from the list of mobile QBs would be Wilson, but he’s an exception only to a certain extent. Wilson still hasn’t developed a true NFL-caliber dropback pocket game. Because of his height, he probably never will. He compensates with a rare ability to play out of structure.

But Wilson also has profited from overwhelmingly favorable settings. His coaches have done a fantastic job working around his natural limitations. They’ve built a strong play-action game, which defines a QB’s reads and makes life in the pocket markedly more comfortable. They’ve also used a lot of moving pockets through zone action. Wilson, obviously, is great on the move. But even here, he’s aided playing with one of the game’s best runners, Marshawn Lynch. And he’s aided by playing with what’s probably the best defense since the 2000 Ravens, if not the ’85 Bears.

You can bet that at some point in the 2015 draft process, someone in Tennessee’s front office optimistically referred to Mariota as a bigger Russell Wilson. If he is, the gamble on him will pay off.

It’s hard to see that happening right away, though. Mariota inherits very different circumstances than Wilson. The Titans running game, operating behind an underachieving line, showed almost no sustainability last season, ranking 26th in total yardage. The defense was even worse, ranking 29th in both scoring and turnovers. Changes in the secondary, plus the arrivals of pass rusher Brian Orakpo and legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau, should push things in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go.

And then there’s the issue of how much Ken Whisenhunt can and will amend his traditional dropback passing offense to fit Mariota. Whisenhunt was creative doing this for Jake Locker early last season. Mariota figures to be a much more accurate passer than Locker. Still, Whisenhunt has much to adjust in order to reach the type of spread system Mariota will need.

Photo by Sanford Myers/AP

Photo by Sanford Myers/AP

The Titans have the right type of personnel for a spread. Running back Bishop Sankey is a pure space-oriented player; wide receiver Kendall Wright is an outstanding short-area receiver who poses a threat on screens and shallow crosses, including off misdirection zone action. Free agent wideout Harry Douglas, from Atlanta, can also fit this mold. 2013’s leading free-agent pickup, tight end Delanie Walker, was great in an H-back role with San Francisco. In his second season with the Titans, Walker was used more as a mismatch creator in the passing game, with most of his team-leading 63 catches and 890 yards coming against safeties and linebackers. This was in Whisenhunt’s dropback scheme, but the same matchups can be created—and often spotted even easier—out of many spread concepts.

But then what do we make of Whisenhunt and GM Ruston Webster drafting vertical wideout Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round? Perhaps they felt the swift 6-5, 237-pounder was simply too talented to pass up. Or maybe they saw him for exactly what he could be: a great piece in a deep-dropping, pocket-based passing attack.

And what do we make of Whisenhunt’s own history? His hallmark season was 2008, when he head coached the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII. Under center for him was Kurt Warner, one of the best pure pocket passers in history. Warner was unparalleled when it came to stepping up in a crowd and delivering a ball with precision. There was no vertical passing concept Whisenhunt could not call.

We learned a lot about Whisenhunt after Warner’s retirement. The Cardinals had an array of QBs from 2010-12, none of them equipped to throw 35 times a game from the pocket. Yet Whisenhunt changed almost nothing in his approach. After seasons of 11, eight and 11 losses he was fired.

Whisenhunt had earned the Cardinals job in the first place because of his work as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator. There he had a QB in Ben Roethlisberger who was physically capable of playing firm in the pocket but, at that point in his career, not yet mentally equipped to do so regularly. The coach and QB reportedly butted heads.

After Arizona, Whisenhunt landed in San Diego, where he worked in Mike McCoy’s quicker-striking offense but also with another elite pocket passer, Philip Rivers, who has always been willing to step up and make deep or intermediate throws with defenders closing.

Pre-draft rumors suggested Whisenhunt could have brought Rivers to Tennessee in a trade involving the No. 2 pick. Ultimately the Titans and Chargers didn’t come to terms, and who knows, maybe they were never close. But rumors like that don’t start out of nowhere.

Also not to be overlooked is Zach Mettenberger’s presence. True, his performance in six starts as a rookie last year was spotty. But that’s to be expected with a sixth-round pick who didn’t get many practice reps leading into the season and who took over an offense that was already floundering. Stylistically, Mettenberger is perfect for Whisenhunt. He’s a big bodied pocket passer—pretty much statuesque, in fact—who has the courage to make tight throws and ignore looming hits.

That the Titans would so quickly relegate Mettenberger to backup duties suggests they’re prepared to adjust their system totally for Mariota. (Or it suggests the Mariota pick was actually made by ownership.) And no matter what the system, the inherent demands of NFL quarterbacking will require Mariota to make adjustments of his own.

It’ll be a painful two-way process. A few years down the road, most likely the coach and quarterback who sacrificed their styles to work together will have been separated by more losing in Nashville.

Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP

Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP

Titans Nickel Package

1. The Titans can’t prosper unless guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack start living up to expectations. Levitre was overpowered way too often last season and Warmack, a mauler type, needs to develop better balance as a run-blocker.

2. The arrival of Dick LeBeau is curious only because Ray Horton, a LeBeau disciple from Pittsburgh, had been one of the league’s premier defensive coordinators over the three years prior to joining the Titans (two years in Arizona, one in Cleveland). Horton’s unit, however, struggled mightily last season, due to an ineffective pass rush and a secondary deprived of any quality corner not named Jason McCourty. Horton is said to have been in favor of LeBeau coming aboard. LeBeau’s greatest challenge will be teaching his complex matchup zone concepts to a secondary that’s still frighteningly thin and a linebacking corps that, led by Avery Williamson, is very young. Williamson, a fifth-rounder last year, shows promise as a run defender but his awareness against the pass is not there yet.

3. A deciding player for this defense will be free agent pickup Da’Norris Searcy. He’s replacing veteran strong safeties Bernard Pollard and George Wilson. Like Pollard and Wilson, Searcy is better in the box than in space. He often was the third safety in Buffalo’s dime packages, which tells you the Bills were lukewarm about his coverage abilities. The hope in Tennessee is that Searcy can at least be adequate in one-on-one coverage (it will usually be against tight ends). That’d make him an upgrade.

4. Brian Orakpo is a good free agent pickup if for no other reasons than this club had (and still has) no other edge-rushing presence. What didn’t make sense was re-signing Derrick Morgan for four years, $27 million. Morgan is a fine 4-3 defensive end but an ill-equipped 3-4 outside linebacker.

5. If the Titans had six or seven more Jurrell Caseys on their roster, they’d be a postseason lock. The rotund 300-pounder has sensational initial quickness and short area redirect ability.