Photo Credit: AP
The Tennessee Titans have an upcoming dilemma. Actually, they seem to have a problem. No, even better, they have a paradox. They have a Marcus Mariota Paradox.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a paradox as: “a person or thing having qualities that seem to be opposites.”
Marcus Mariota has been everything you want in a quarterback from the moment the Titans drafted him 2nd overall in the 2015 draft:
- Hardworking, Studious, Dedicated At His Position
- The Well-Mannered, Well-Spoken Face Of The Franchise
- Successful: Only QB in Titans History To Have 3 Straight +.500 Seasons
In fact on Mariota’s first day on the job, in his first NFL game start, he threw for 209 yards and 4 TD’s. All 4 TD’s came in the first HALF of that game. His passer rating for the game was 158.3, which is a perfect QB rating. To put this performance in perspective, at the time only 28 other QBs in NFL history had thrown 4 touchdowns in a single game. He also threw more TD’s (4) than incompletions (3.)
Right now, Mariota fans are feeling warm and fuzzy with nostalgia, reigniting how they felt the moment they knew the sails had finally turned in the favor of the Titans franchise. Mariota gave the Titans and their fans something they hadn’t felt in a very long time that day: HOPE. Within his rookie season, Mariota found 3 wins, while making the Titans a competitive team for the first time in years in the eyes of many Titans’ fans.
The next 3 years of Mariota’s career feels as though Mariota has gone through an identity crisis:
- In 2016, Mariota had rated on average of 95.6, with only one game rating being close to the median, a loss to Indy where he rated a 95.8. The bell curve was tremendously thin, however, as many the lower performances were between 45-72 in rating, and many of the better performances were +102. 5 game performances were +117 ratings, all of which led to Titan wins. Stat-wise, Mariota went 3,426 yards with 26tds on the year. The Titans found 9 wins on the season, but losing week 16 to the Jags lost the Titans a chance at the playoffs for the year. During the stretch of play to make the playoff push, however, the Titans were led to the dramatic, signature, franchise turning wins over the Broncos and Chiefs, as well as a 47-25 thumping of the Packers.
- In 2017, there was a seemingly drastic decline in Mariota’s performances, just based on ratings given. He never reached a higher QB rating in a game than 110, which came in a loss to the 49ers. His average rating that season was a 79.3, while his lowest rating on the season was a 39.6 in a loss to Arizona, which based on the good ole fashioned “eye test” was his worst professional game.
Before we move towards 2018, however, we need to examine what happened non-statistically in 2017 for Mariota. This kind of year would make you think Mariota was slumping and the Titans would be unsuccessful. You would’ve thought Mariota would’ve been the reason for a 3 game losing streak entering week 17 in a season that already had 8 wins and only needing 1 win in 4 games to make the playoffs as a Wildcard. You would’ve thought Mariota slumping at that time of the year and facing a Jacksonville team looking to make a deep playoff push with one of the best defense in football that year too large of an obstacle to overcome. You could have thought that as a Titans fan, but if you stayed the course, you were rewarded by Mariota. Week 17 in Nissan stadium was the coldest game on record at home in Titans history, but fortunately for Titans fans, Mariota stopped being cold that day. While the stat booked shows 12 completions on 21 attempts, Mariota’s accuracy was not an issue that day. Two major drops by Decker within that game could’ve resulted in a blowout, and a Derrick Henry mishap on a scoring drive late kept the Jags, with starters intact, in the game late. However, with the game on the line, the season on the line, in a win and you’re in game, Mariota showed in one instant why the Titans found a franchise QB in 2015.
Ironically, the moment Mariota baptized Church to win the game for the Titans, was the moment he seemingly exorcized the demons many fans had long held towards him for his play as the face of the franchise up to this moment. This feeling of euphoria lasted almost a week until the Titans fell 21-3 at halftime in the wildcard against the Chiefs. With the season again on the line and the ball in his hands, Mariota showed up again.
Mariota’s effort in one instant ignited the Titans to a rally, and their first playoff win in 14 years (the last being a 2004 wildcard win against Baltimore.) This wasn’t Mariota’s only “franchise QB” instant of the game either, as Mariota connected late with a struggling Eric Decker on a perfect pass (which was needed given his struggles late that season, God bless his soul.) The game stats for this ended up being a 19/31 and 205-yard effort, 2tds and an interception, for a rating of 88.8 Also, with the season and game on the line, AGAIN, Mariota did this:
While the Titans ultimately fell the next week in the playoffs in New England 14-35, it wasn’t for a lack of effort from Mariota, as he put the Titans in the lead early with a beautiful strike to Davis, but ultimately couldn’t put more points on the board until late with another Davis TD pass when the game was out of reach. Mariota went 22/37 for 252 yds and a passer rating of 98.3 that day. Unfortunately, he also took 8 sacks for 52 yards negative, which encapsulated the Titans offensive play for the day.
- So finally, we arrive at 2018, this previous season, and the last of Mariota’s rookie contract before the Titans chose to pick up his 5th-year option for the 2019 season, which was deemed to be a no-brainer after the dramatic plays that ended the 2017 season. The entire 2018 season for Mariota was as depressing, and unique, as the first game of the season. The marathon that was the Miami game, that honestly the NFL botched (and possibly caused Mariota a healthy season and ended Mariota’s primary target in Delaney Walker’s season), was Mariota’s worst outing on the year as he went 9/16 and 103 yards, no TDs and 2 interceptions that compiled to a 36.2 passer rating. This game was his worst passer rating performance of his career, in possibly the worst conditions you could ask any athlete to perform under, the back and forth off the field for hours on end. This began the roller-coaster season Mariota then faced, as he gritted out a win against Jacksonville with nerve issues and an iconic glove for his passer hand, and the signature overtime win against defending NFL champion Eagles at home the next week, ending with a perfect pass to Davis. Then became the slide for Mariota, as Nick Williams (sorry bud, but we are still looking at you) cost Mariota a come from behind victory in Buffalo. This led to whatever it was that was supposed to be football being played the next week at home against Baltimore, as they teed off on #8 to the tune of 11 sacks in a miserable blowout/shutout loss. Finally in the skid came the heartbreaking loss on the decision to go for two in London, basically ending on a missed Mariota pass attempt. The climb for the Titans and Mariota began after their bye playing in prime time against Dallas, which many “fans” on Titan social media already writing off as a loss before the game was even played. This led to something special happening, however, as Mariota turned in a performance akin to his 2017 playoff magic, going for a passer rating of 119.9 and 21/29 for 240 yards and 2 TD’s, one on the air and one on the ground. It wasn’t just what he did statistically that night though, it is how he did it. Making Johnu Smith appear to be the next coming of Delaney Walker with an early pass that turned into a house call, and being deathly accurate as seen in the cutup by the guys as QB Film Room below:
The next week against New England, Mariota turned in a 125 passer rating against the AFC champion and eventual SuperBowl winning Patriots, throwing 16/24 for 228 yards and 2 TDs. Although Mariota was injured the next week in a loss to Indy, the following week Mariota turned in a 22/23 for 303 yards and a 147.7 passer rating in a LOSS to Houston. Over the next 4 weeks, however, Mariota found a come from behind win at home with a dramatic last-minute TD pass against the Jets, a thumping against the Jags (which isn’t really new for the Titans at the point, they just keep beating them.) Beating the Giants in a downpour, and then playing the Redskins for a half before ending the season there.
This leads to the current situation. The paradox, that is the decision that will need to be made on Marcus Mariota going forward. Why discuss how Mariota has played since being in Nashville, and not just discuss his win-loss record, or simple statistics game by game for the Titans? Because they lie.
Many forget how lowly the Titans roster was when Mariota took over. In his sophomore season, he graded above a 70 (that’s passing on most tests) with a roster that was still under-performing. If you’re in the crowd that disagrees with that statement, pop quiz: who was the leading player at the wide receiver position for the Titans in 2016? If you guessed it was a guy who couldn’t break the Jets starting lineup this year, or backup lineup, or practice squad lineup in Rishard Matthews:
And I know, the argument from the detractors is coming: Tennessee has upgraded since 2016, why hasn’t Mariota went insane on the stat lines with all their additions since then? You can blame a little on the playcalling in 2017. Exotic Smash Mouth (RIP) was still a thing for the Titans that year, with Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry receiving the bulk of work on offense behind a retooled offensive line and great work by Anthony Fasono paving the way. Within this system construct, however, Mariota was able to excel. In 2017:
The same argument could be made that 2018 had a same linear improvement in the Titans overall roster, especially offensively with the addition of Dion Lewis, who was the league’s leading back in protection in 2017. However, that was found not to be the case, as Mariota never duplicated the level of success reached in the prior two seasons. Reasons for this are up to a barrage of reasons, but let’s address the elephant in the room for Mariota first:
The Injury Bug.
Now, let’s begin this discussion (actually it’s less of a discussion and more of a talking to) about Marcus Mariota being “injury prone,” or “soft” or “glass.” If those are synonyms for what you’ve used to describe Mariota since his inception in the NFL, but are a loud proclaimer that Steve McNair was an Iron Man that played the second half of a game with an amputated leg that was later surgically reconnected in time for him to miraculously play the following week, I’m going to have to respectfully tell you that you suffer from nostalgia. You also may suffer from not being able to give credit where it’s due. McNair played for the Titans during a stretch where the talent surrounding him went greatly unappreciated, and also had a consistency in coaching staff to allow him to be successful winning games 6-9 or 7-10 without being ridiculed by social media and, well, sports talk media on every channel and station in Nashville after every game. McNair played through some injuries and is in his own right a Titans legend (before you break out the pitchforks and torches,) but what he played through in comparison to what we now know about Mariota may not be as apples to apples as many would like to try to apply. Playing with bone bruises and random various pains aren’t hand in hand with playing through nerve damage or broken vertebrae. If you are in the crowd that believes that the Titans should start looking to replace Mariota because of the injury bug that has plagued him from his time in Tennessee, maybe you should first look at making changes around him. When McNair missed games due to injury (I know, it actually happened, despite the myth) the Titans had a very capable replacement by way of Neil O’ Donnell, who went 4-1 during his time as a starter in 99 when Steve McNair missed a month (inconceivable!) for back surgery. Nobody called for a McNair replacement at any point, because they understood his value on the field, despite missed time for injury, was worth more than the gamble of trying to find something more consistent at the same value. It was easy for fans to sit tight, because McNair had capable backups and competitive rosters around him when he went down, so patience was plentiful.
Titans fans do not currently live in the same era of peace and harmony that comes from trips to Superbowls and AFC championships, or even deep playoff runs. The franchise has been starved for success since 2003, and fans have seen a fair share of poor decision making within the QB position since then. Everyone can have a fair opinion about who has been at the helm since McNair left the franchise (which to this day seems like a ridiculous statement to even consider), but I think everyone can agree that not a single Titans QB has been a “franchise” level player since McNair left. Don’t come at me with Vince Young either, I had my own “Vince Young Deserves To Be In The Pro-Bowl” Facebook page at 19 (I’m a football nerd, leave me alone), but I think it is fair in hindsight to say that he never lived up to his potential while in Tennessee. He showed flashes, but the fact remains you can’t throw your shoulder pads into the stands and ever be considered a “franchise player.” (Well, maybe that might be a thing in the XFL, but we can only dream.) Mariota has been the closest thing the Titans have seen to having a franchise quarterback since McNair, and even with the laundry list of injuries sustained, has managed to scratch and claw 3 consecutive +.500 seasons together, in spite of having backup quarterbacks with the skill set equivalency as the default player you start out with at quarterback trying to get a college scholarship on NCAA 2014. (But we love you Blaine for getting dubs against Houston and the Redskins this year.)
Mariota’s injuries may look like a combination of things that were caused by his inability to get the ball out, or an inability to protect himself on scrambles or designed runs. He will even publicly take the blame for sacks that get him injured. (He publicly takes blame for everything though, even when everyone knows it isn’t true. Another quality of a franchise QB, but I digress.) Most of Mariota’s injuries, however, were caused by fluke situations beyond his control. His first season-ending injury against the Jags with the broken fibula was on an absolutely trash-bag hit that if it were any other NFL QB (Cough-Brady-Cough) would have resulted in penalties, fines, arrests, NATO hearings, but because Mariota is labeled a “mobile QB” by the league, it is pretty normal to take roughing hits with no-calls. (This is probably the bad juju that has kept the Jags from beating the Titans since.)
I understand, though, where Titans fans may be getting frustrated with the constant will-he/won’t he play every week/season. The last emotion Titans fans have had towards Mariota was watching the Colts, and their franchise star at QB, absolutely wear them out in a play-in game to end the season, all while Mariota watched from the comfort of his home. It is hard to constantly hear that Mariota made the “choice” not to play, as the organization tries to save face, but let’s make no mistake about it, there was no “choice” to be made. Mariota had played through so many various injuries that season, and took a hit on a sack late in the first half against the Redskins (Again, on a busted assignment on the interior of the line that led to a vicious hit before he could get the ball out), leading to a worsened nerve-damage in his body. Media covering the Titans saw him throw, standing still, without pads, during the week and labeled him able to play while having absolutely no idea what he was playing through in his body. After being told his career could possibly end if he fought through yet another deteriorating hit, he was not left with a choice, and it was irresponsible for the media to cover their tails after to say that was a choice. The same media didn’t throw McNair under the bus for recovering for a month for back surgery but found it advantageous to do so with Mariota because they were found to be wrong. If you think Mariota could have possibly played in that ballgame against the Colts, you have fan delusion, and you’re wrong.
The next knock against Mariota is his inability to thrive offensively under center, as opposed to the wide open, no-huddle offense he was worked to succeed in winning a Heisman, and often has needed to win ball games. (Let us not forget he has the most come from behind wins in the league since he entered. Feel how you want about that stat.) Fans (and even some “analysts” are quick to say that he doesn’t fit in a pro-style offense, but Mariota’s proof is in the pudding: he led the league at excelling with play-action in 2017. This past season, through total offensive difficulties, and difficulties all his own, Mariota’s ability to push the ball downfield with accuracy was top 10 in the league, another attribute to being effective at managing the “pro-style” offense.
Now, my goal today is not to cure your fan frustration in how the offense has yet to thrive in having put so much into a “franchise QB” that was a high draft pick. I understand just like everyone else that has followed the Titans as a fan, that we should have found more success with the product we have placed with Mariota on the field. Do I think the Titans hurt their future investment in wasted guys like Justin Hunter and DBG, which has ultimately haunted what we see now on the field? Sure. Do I think Mariota’s revolving door of offensive coordinators has stumped the growth of the franchise as a whole? Absolutely. My goal, however, is to allow you to look big picture at what the Titans’ staff has seen since 2015, that the general public seems to have a lack of faith in trusting.
Many fans currently do not see a future for Mariota after his contract year, as they feel the injury bug will be too insurmountable and feel as if the organization will grow weary of waiting for success. I will have to politely disagree, as the continual winning seasons tend to argue the fan complacency. Also, fans are growing tired of waiting to watch the Titans offense have a sudden boom akin to the “greatest show on turf” Rams of ’99, which is not what leadership has been looking to duplicate since the drafting of Mariota. The team has continually invested in running backs, linemen, and tight ends through free agency and draft, and has only placed a premium at wideout with the high drafting of Davis. That is not a team that intends to line up with 5 true wideouts and outscore you 50-0. For the fans that long for the success the Titans found in the late 90’s early 2000’s, they should be the loudest advocates for what is being built in Nashville right now. A gritty offensive unit that intends to beat you with time of possession, a beast at tailback, a sure-handed tight end, and a cast of possession receivers, all being led by an often beat up but proven winner at quarterback. Well by golly that sounds like I just did a write up of the Superbowl season.
All indications point to Mariota being the future of the Titans’ franchise. It’s just a matter of what that will look like going forward. Has he produced enough to be paid like an elite quarterback? That’s up to each interpretation (actually it’s up to Jon Robinson’s interpretation.) Given recent history and the trajectory of the market, it’s probably a safe bet that he will be a 100 million dollar quarterback for the Titans for the next foreseeable future. This will have a lot to do with how things play out this contract year of course, as the assumption will be that with weapons returning, protection improving, health improving, there will be no regression. If that becomes the case, the argument of whether a rookie can be paid much less, and perform as well with the upped contracts of Byard, Henry, Conklin, and Jackson will undeniably be made, and rightfully so. Fortunately for Mariota and his fans, everything that has gone right for Mariota so far as a professional trend towards that not being the case, and the Titans have found their long term franchise quarterback. Fortunately for the Mariota retractors, however, everything that has gone wrong for him as a professional trend towards the need to moving on towards the next Titans project at QB. So depending on where you stand on Mariota being the answer for the Titans, and where things stand today, you are both equally right and wrong, and you’re gonna have to endure another season of “what ifs” and “what abouts” to know if your 4 year argument will be vindicated or left wanting, again.