Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota made his NFL debut Friday against the Falcons. He threw an interception and fumbled to start the game, but came back strong to show an ability to overcome adversity.
Marcus Mariota's much-publicized training camp streak of passes without an interception does not matter all that much, other than perhaps helping to build his confidence. Same goes for his brutal beginning Friday night, in his Tennessee preseason debut.
But how the No. 2 pick responded to that ghastly start will be of interest to the Titans' coaching staff.
Mariota's first preseason series as an NFL quarterback ended when he lofted an attempted screen pass right into the arms of Falcons linebacker Justin Durant. At best, it was a poor read that turned further south when two Titans blockers missed Durant and RB Bishop Sankey was slow to turn; at worst, it was an inexcusable decision.
Three Tennessee plays later, Mariota coughed up the ball again. This time, he lost his grip while cocking his arm to throw and fumbled. Atlanta's Paul Worrilow scooped up the loose ball and scored.
It was a disastrous sequence for Mariota. The silver lining was that it provided a chance for the Titans' coaches to see how Mariota would respond to adversity—his training camp thus far had been borderline flawless, and the praise of his play effusive.
The rookie bounced back Friday night about as well as he could have. Mariota's final possession: 6-of-6 for 78 yards. Included among that production was a third-and-12 dart on which Mariota stepped up in the pocket to find Harry Douglas, and a beautiful wheel-route connection to Antonio Andrews for 27 yards.
Granted, Atlanta already was dipping into its second-string defense at that point. The importance of the scoring drive, though, was not that it happened but rather that it happened after a string of failures.
There are going to be some ugly moments this season for Mariota, and likely for the Titans in general. His team is fighting an uphill battle back to respectability, with a roster that looks rather talent-starved on paper. Mariota himself has to go through all the usual college-to-pro challenges as a quarterback, while also feeling out a new system.
Some of the concerns over Mariota's transition have been overblown from the get-go. He looked just fine leading the huddle and had no issues under center, even if Tennessee limited him to just one non-shotgun pass attempt (a 9-yard completion on a play-action receiver screen). Others will rear their head throughout the 2015 season, maybe beyond—how comfortable Mariota is throwing off three-, five- and seven-step drops remains to be seen, for example.
The Titans never were going to have all their answers by Week 1 of the preseason. This is going to be a lengthy process.
"If I could script things that would give [Mariota] confidence, I would do a whole bunch of them," embattled Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said at his press conference Monday. "Sometimes you can’t control those things. Do I lay in bed at night and hope that we have success early so you can build off that? Yeah, and you try to think about plays that are ones that he is comfortable with, that he can be good with.
"Not that I don’t think he can’t be good with all of them, but obviously there is a comfort level with that, but you just never know. There are so many variables in this game."
What to watch with Mariota—as with any young quarterback—is how he progresses from one game to the next. Can he learn and grow at a reasonable clip?
While Friday's outing does not prove anything one way or the other, the way Mariota finished the game offers a glimmer of hope.