If Marcus Mariota learned one thing with the Tennessee Titans, it is never to take his spot on the depth chart for granted. Particularly not when it is the spot he wants.
Mariota entered training camp as the Atlanta Falcons’ starting quarterback and apparently has done nothing during the early days of training camp to make coach Arthur Smith or anyone else rethink that decision.
It has been more than two full seasons since Mariota’s last start, a Week 6 shutout defeat at Denver in his fifth – and final – season with the Titans. After that game, in which he completed just seven of 18 passes, threw two interceptions and was sacked three times, Ryan Tannehill took over, led Tennessee to the playoffs and was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Since then, Mariota has attempted 31 passes, barely more than his number of rushing attempts over that time, and spent the last two seasons as Derek Carr’s backup at Las Vegas.
“I think one of the biggest lessons I learned while I was in Tennessee was that it is a merit-based business, and you have to perform,” Mariota said this week at Falcons camp. “In this position, there’s always going to be guys coming in that want to play in your spot.”
The Titans selected Mariota second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft and effectively handed him the starting job from the get-go. At the time, the only other quarterbacks on the roster were Zach Mettenberger and Alex Tanney, neither of whom ever established themselves as starters in the league. Matt Cassel was well into his 30s when he spent two seasons as Mariota’s primary backup before Blaine Gabbert, five years removed from a starting job, stepped in for one year.
Tannehill had started all 88 games he had played before he arrived via a trade in 2019. It wasn’t long before he was a starter once again, and Mariota was a backup for the first time.
“Certainly, (Mariota’s) experiences brought him to this place,” Smith, his offensive coordinator in his final season with Tennessee, said. “And he’s in a good rhythm. He’s in a good flow out there.”
The one gunning for Mariota at this moment is Desmond Ridder, a rookie out of Cincinnati. The Falcons selected him in the third round of this year’s draft, 74th overall. That was 12 spots before the Titans selected Malik Willis, who now has his sights set on eventually replacing Tannehill.
The only other quarterback on the roster is Feleipe Franks, who was undrafted a year ago and currently doubles as a tight end.
That does not mean Mariota feels comfortable in his current spot.
“I think day in and day out, you have to continue to prove – not only to yourself but to the people around you – that you can play, and you can lead,” he said. “So, I don’t take this opportunity lightly.”