In his second preseason game, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota showed he may be further along than many expected.
When the Titans selected Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, the general thought process was that Mariota would take quite a while before he was ready for the rigors of the NFL. After all, at Oregon, Mariota didn't huddle, didn't change protections, and didn't operate from under center—and as much as the NFL has become a heavy no-huddle, shotgun league, quarterbacks must still know how to operate in multiple ways, and they must certainly be able to take care of protection calls and reading defenses.
Ken Whisenhunt, the Titans' head coach and longtime quarterback developer from his days in Pittsburgh and Arizona, seemed unconcerned by Mariota's alleged rawness. As early as February, at the scouting combine, Whisenhunt was touting Mariota's freakish combination of athleticism, field smarts and arm talent, and he was even more excited after the pick was made.
“I think any question that you're going to be faced when you're talking about a quarterback is how they process things," Whisenhunt said in early May. "To me, the hardest thing about playing that position is being able to diagnose what a defense is doing. What you have do to is to try to counter that and then be able to do that all within a matter of a few second and get the ball accurately to the right spot if you're throwing it.”
And as far as the fit? “We've already started working on that,” Whisenhunt said. “We'll have a plan.”
So far, the plan is working. In his preseason debut against the Atlanta Falcons on Aug. 14, Mariota hit 7 of 8 passes for 94 yards, with the only incompletion coming at the hands of linebacker Justin Durant, who picked the ball off in Mariota's first series. In his second series, Mariota lost a fumble, but he recovered nicely from those early jitters.
Mariota's second chance to show what he had learned in the preseason was also his first home game, as the Titans took on the Rams and ex-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher at Nissan Stadium. This time, there were no early issues—Mariota hit Kendall Wright for 16 yards on a slant on the first play of the game, and he showed the ability to throw with anticipation on this play—something many were concerned about, as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner generally had open receivers to throw to at Oregon. He also operated under center and ran play action seamlessly, which will certainly make Whisenhunt happy. FOX Sports' Pam Oliver reported at halftime that Mariota's communication system went down in the first drive, which left him running the offense on his own.
Mariota started his second drive of the three he had on Sunday with the most impressive play he's yet put together in his brief professional career—and it encapsulated why his potential is so exciting. Mariota ran boot-action to his right, outran Rams tackle Aaron Donald, and threw a perfect strike to tight end Craig Stevens for a 35-yard gain.
Stevens was far too open due to inefficient coverage from the Rams, but it was still up to Mariota to time the deep pass on the run, and that's what he did. This drive ended with a field goal, but it shouldn't have—Mariota stayed the pocket on a play that started at the St. Louis 9-yard line, progressed through his reads, stayed calm in the pocket, and threw an accurate pass to running back Dexter McCluster—which McCluster simply dropped.
At the start of his third drive, Mariota hit fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham with a quick pass on the run, throwing over the outstretched arms of Quinn. He then made his most graphic mistake of the day, throwing the ball to Rams safety Mark Barron, a pass Barron dropped. Mariota was reacting to pressure and threw too quickly; something to watch for as he continues to develop.
But overall, an encouraging second game for a quarterback who had so many questions about his NFL learning curve. He finished the Rams game with five completions in eight attempts for 59 yards. Mariota still hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in his NFL career, and he's yet to face the complicated defenses he'll see in the regular season, but he's managed to surprise a lot of his detractors so far.
“Just continuing to build a rhythm with the offense, get first downs and move the chains and score points,” Mariota said this week, when asked about what he wanted to accomplish in his second game. “The way we have been going in training camp, I think we have built a solid foundation and I believe we will continue to get better.
“I think we are all excited. Nissan Stadium, it’s going to be a lot of fun and being a night game, I know the crowd will be ready to go.”
Kendall Wright is impressed, as are most of Mariota's teammates. Mariota had to beat out Zach Mettenberger for the starting job, and Mettenberger had shown potential, so Whisenhunt had to balance the inevitability of a second-overall pick starting as soon as possible with the theory that competition will decide the starter in the short term.
“There’s grown men out here, and he’s out here leading grown men and being a great leader, and I think that says a lot,” Wright said of his new quarterback. “I think once we start the regular season and he gets these other preseason games out of the way, I think he’ll be ready to roll. He’s a rookie, he’s young, but he is not carrying himself that way.”
There's a long way to go before we'll know if Marcus Mariota has reached his potential. But one of the primary things you want to see from a rookie quarterback is the ability to take coaching tenets and make them reality. To date, he's done so beyond most expectations. If you think Mariota is a spread-offense hothouse flower who the NFL will chew up and spit out, you may want to take a second look.