Mariota had debut for ages, leaving many to wonder if Winston was right pick for Bucs

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Eric Adelson
·Columnist
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TAMPA, Fla. – The hopes escalated as rapidly for one side as the concerns did for the other. Marcus Mariota, on his first NFL regular-season drive, tossed a long touchdown pass to Kendall Wright. Moments later, Jameis Winston, on his first NFL drive, threw a pass that defender Coty Sensabaugh saw coming, intercepted and ran into the end zone.

The Tennessee Titans cornerback ran straight to Mariota on the sideline and said, "We both got our first today!"

Mariota grinned. It was 14-0. And two thoughts crept over the stadium and anyone watching the game:

"The Titans got this pick right." And, "Did the Bucs get this pick wrong?"

(AP)
(AP)

Those feelings only cemented themselves as the sun set and the packed stadium went silent. Winston threw another interception and was hit hard on a scramble that made him look even more wobbly on his already sprained right ankle. Mariota looked ever more comfortable, throwing a second touchdown, then a third, then a fourth. He had only three incompletions to go with four scores, and his comparisons went beyond Winston. They went to Fran Tarkenton, who had the greatest rookie quarterback debut in this league's history (four TD passes on 17-of-23 passes for 250 yards; and one rushing score) until, arguably, Sunday. Mariota needed only three quarters and came off the field with a perfect passer rating (158.3). Nothing went wrong. Nothing.

"I don't think we had no drops at all," Titans wide receiver Harry Douglas raved. "He was putting the ball right in our hands, right when we could catch it."

The anticipated battle became an unanticipated blowout – 42-14 by the time it was over. Winston quietly limped to the locker room, eyes searching. Mariota walked wordlessly as well, but his teammates chirped: "That wasn't just a win; it was a domination!" said one. "Remember the Titans," said another.

Of course it's too early to conclude anything. Robert Griffin III had a 139.9 passer rating in his rookie debut, and he's now a scout team safety. Brett Favre also threw a pick-six in his first NFL pass, and he's one of the best who ever played. It's just Week 1.

But there may never have been a Week 1 game that engendered as much belief and disbelief as this one did.

"He was the only pick for this organization," Douglas said of Mariota. "He was the best pick for this organization."

Is anyone going to disagree after that performance? Mariota's problem was supposed to be remaining calm in the pocket, the way all NFL quarterbacks must do. Yet on the first drive, after nearly throwing an interception on the first play from scrimmage and then throwing another incomplete pass, Mariota fired a 22-yard completion on third-and-10 and then the 52-yard touchdown on the next play. He would only miss one more pass the entire afternoon.

"The way he attains information, gets us to the right plays, delivers the football," Douglas said. "He just has so many attributes that people have to account for. I knew it when he was in college at Oregon. I knew he was special then."

If Douglas saw it, shouldn't the Bucs have seen it too? That worry will float around this town for at least a few days. So will an even more troubling question: How did the Bucs get so completely outplayed and outcoached in their home opener, playing against a rookie quarterback and a team coming off a 2-14 season?

The Titans created a perfect blend of comfort for Mariota, mixing up a few looks from his Oregon days and still encouraging him to stay in the pocket. They let him roll out on occasion, but also left him in the shotgun where he could see the field better. Running back Bishop Sankey had his best game as a pro (74 yards rushing, one TD), balancing Mariota's throws. It was seamless.

"They got the ball out so fast," said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Anytime he dropped back and actually took a chance to look at the defense, we were all over him. But when you're getting the ball out extremely fast, it's hard to get after the quarterback. He just played a great game. The whole team did."

Meanwhile, the Bucs showed almost nothing creative, almost nothing deceptive. Even Winston's first pass was something Sensabaugh sensed. "I kinda had the idea the play was coming," he said.

Sensabaugh went to Clemson, and so did intended receiver Adam Humphries. So from studying his former schoolmate, and from knowing Winston's tendency to try to make plays out of nothing, he readied himself for a play of his own.

"Whichever way he went," Sensabaugh said, "I knew I could undercut him."

Winston admitted the play was a gut punch that Tampa never recovered from. "I believe if I didn't throw that pick we would have showed a different thing." The Bucs seemed woefully underprepared the entire game. They came out of the locker room at halftime and wound up with a fourth and 42 on their first drive. Late in the third quarter, the Titans downed a punt to the Bucs' two-yard line, and the Bucs responded with a false start, an illegal formation and a Winston pass that was nearly picked off. Sensabaugh said that he saw a rarity from Winston: frustration.

Beyond Winston's readiness for the NFL, which will take weeks or even years to determine, there are more pressing questions about whether Smith is the right head coach for a team with so little offensive spark. The blocking is mediocre at best, and so is the play-calling, and therefore so is the rushing attack. That's a lot to put on a rookie passer who already has an injury limiting his mobility. Winston has to only be a good quarterback to allay nerves in Tampa, but Smith has to be a great coach. He still has never won a regular-season game in this stadium, and right now he's making the reviled Greg Schiano look like he knew what he was doing.

"I thought we were ready to go," Smith said after the game.

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This came two weeks after a blistering preseason loss to Cleveland here that caused offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to admit, "We stunk."

Improbably, they stunk worse on this Sunday – when the world was watching. Now they go on the road to play New Orleans, followed by J.J. Watt and Houston.

There was so much eagerness for this game, both here and in Nashville. There was a sense that a lot would be revealed, and that those on the field would remember it for a long time. There is still that possibility, and yet the reality has gone far away from what was imagined – on both sides. Mariota made history Sunday, and when he was asked if this went better than he expected, he struggled for the humble thing to say and then let a breath out. "Yes," he finally said. Inside the locker room, Douglas said he wanted to get Mariota's jersey, for posterity.

On the other side, another sort of history was made. This was one of the most disappointing losses in memory for a franchise that once went winless in a season. The road seems interminably long now for the Bucs, even with the quarterback they wanted more than anyone else available – more than the guy who sliced them up here Sunday.

The road is long for the Titans, too. That is for sure. But on this important date, it seems fairly sure they have chosen the right one.