Franchise quarterbacks are not of abundance in the NFL right now. Only about half the league has a quarterback realistically capable of leading their team to hoisting the Lombardi trophy. Of course, a Super Bowl run takes more than a quality passer, the NFL has not seen a team win a Super Bowl without one since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did so more than a decade ago. With the ever-increasing need for a good quarterback (and seemingly dwindling quantity of them), teams needing a rebirth must first renovate their situation at quarterback.
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After finishing second to last in the NFL, the Tennessee Titans came to the conclusion that former day three pick Zack Mettenberger was not going to cut it at quarterback. To replace him, the Titans selected Marcus Mariota, a player who is the Dr. Jekyll to Mettenberger’s Mr. Hyde. Coming from the electrifying spread system of Oregon, Mariota has a lot to prove to those questioning if he can handle the transition to the NFL.
Monotony Can Be Exciting
- Identify the numbers advantage.
- Throw the safest route or primary route, or run if none are safe.
Generally speaking, this is the thought process for the Titans new passing prodigy, Marcus Mariota. Is it wrong? In theory, no. In theory, a team should win every game with a quarterback if he can perfect this line of action. It is essentially risk free, bound to eat up a ton of clock and, assuming the quarterback is quite athletic (Mariota is), puts a stress on the defense to respect the running threat and allow wider passing lanes, creating a vicious cycle for the defense. The problem with all of this lies within the fact that theory, in the NFL, is bullshit.
In theory, everything the offense does should score a touchdown and everything the defense does should stop a play for no gain or, better yet, a loss of yards. That doesn’t happen. Being that offensive play calling vs defensive play calling is partly just a complicated game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, sometimes plays will not favor your team and the “safe” option won’t be enough to gain a first down or touchdown. While Mariota is evidently intelligent and athletic, he has been programmed to follow the structure of a play exactly as it was designed. As smart as he is, this often means a positive play, but there are instances in which the defense’s “rock” will best Mariota’s “scissors” and he has to find a way to beat a defense that has the jump on him. Is he capable of that?
To this point, there is evidence for each side of the argument, but for there to be any sort of considerable amount of evidence indicating that he does, in fact, falter when structure falls apart is concerning. The most insightful way to explain Mariota’s play style is “task-oriented”, dubbed by Eric Stoner. This does not necessarily imply that Mariota needs a specific system to succeed, though it still plays on his tendency to not be able to consistently stray from the plan and either take a gamble or think on his own.
This play, for example, displays Mariota’s reluctance to differ from the design of the play. The running back is not devoid of blame, though. The running back failed to jog through his route and create the moving target Mariota wanted, but that was a secondary problem. The primary problem is that Mariota failed to identify multiple players breaking this play, in turn failing to react to the defenders and sprint out into the open field to his right. Mariota stuck to the script and wound up gifting the other team a touchdown.
As stated previously, this methodical play style certainly does have its pay offs. When everything clicks and goes according to plan, Mariota looks good and can often string together a handful of plays like this to drive down the field. Once Mariota gets the ball rolling, it is tough to stop him from continuing his path toward the end zone. When a play turns out just as Mariota had envisioned it on the white board, he looks damn good.
Now, flip the coin and see Mariota’s other side: the side of him that finesses oncoming rushers and finds receivers down the field. For Mariota, it appears as if he can not stray from the set structure of a play unless he is forced off of his spot, triggering his instinctual side. This is when Mariota can be lethal. He turns off his robotic mentality and triggers his primitive way of thinking: survive and succeed. Whether he ends up taking off for himself or finding a receiver open down field, Mariota’s sense of what to do once he is mobile is menacing.
This juxtaposition of Mariota’s traits makes him an intriguing case study. In many ways, Mariota resembles Ryan Tannehill. This type of quarterback is predominantly conservative, but not overly so (See: Smith, Alex) and they can turn broken pockets into explosive plays. How one values this sort of quarterback roots in one’s philosophy of the position. For me, players like this are generally less preferable than more aggressive passers because of the “preventer vs creator” concept that Justis Mosqueda created.
Simply, some positions are designed to create, while others are designed to prevent. Quarterbacks are creators. For quarterbacks, this means take calculated risks and gambling on occasion if it that is what it takes to get ahead. Mariota does not much embody this “creator” persona, though he is still a damn good player. A quarterback like Mariota is going to need strong counterparts that he can rely on, otherwise the offense may crumble without a support system for Mariota, who will generally not create on his own, to depend on.
Then again, in situations that typically call for one to be a creator may be easier for Mariota because teams are going to fear him running. It is more likely than not that he will see softer coverages than most, giving him more time to find the best, safest option to throw to. This extra cushion should help Mariota in situations that generally breed pressure.
What you see is what you get with Mariota. He is not going to surprise you, he is not going to deviate from the play and do something thrilling or stupid. Mariota is as consistent as the day is long, but being as that consistency is from a player with athleticism, poise, intelligence and enough arm talent, being able to expect the same play in/play out result is exciting.