Tennessee Titans' quarterback Marcus Mariota's NFL career is at a crossroads

Aaron Fentress
NBC Sports Northwest

Tennessee Titans' quarterback Marcus Mariota's NFL career is at a crossroads originally appeared on nbcsportsnorthwest.com

Former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota shouldn't be considered a bust four years into his NFL career with the Tennessee Titans. That designation would be patently unfair. 

However, it's clear that the 2014 Heisman Trophy recipient has yet to distinguish himself as a star in the NFL, of as even a legitimate building block at the most important position for a potential championship contender. 

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A proper grade for Mariota's career to date would be: Incomplete. 

For that reason, and the realities of financial obligations surrounding the most important single position in any team sport, Tennessee was wise to acquire quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a sixth-round pick in 2019 for a fourth-round pick in 2020 and a seventh-round pick this year.

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Mariota is due to make $21 million this season on the final year of his rookie deal. Tennessee has not indicated that it will seek to sign Mariota, 25, to an extension until after he proves himself this upcoming season. And why should they? Mariota has not demonstrated that he is worthy a team tying up $100 million with huge long-term cap hits to a quarterback that has not proven to be a franchise guy. 

That's exactly the reason why Miami moved Tannehill, 30, after seven seasons with the Dolphins. In 2015, he signed a contract extension worth $96 million that tied him to Miami through 2020. But instead of continuing with that deal, Miami decided to move on from Tannehill and take a cap hit of about $13.4 million this season in order to free up money sooner and find another quarterback in the process. 

Miami took a chance on Tannehill and it didn't pay off. Tennessee is trying to avoid making the same mistake with Mariota and has signed Tannehill as insurance in case the former Duck is injured or simply does not perform well. The Titans will be in a position to either sign Mariota long-term should he elevate his play, or franchise tag him in 2020 and make him prove it again, or let him go with no cap ramifications and go with Tannehill in 2020, or completely start over at quarterback without a huge financial obligation at that position. 

Titans general manager Jon Robinson has stated that Mariota is the starter and that Tannehill is being brought in as the backup. But he is no ordinary backup. He is a former full-time starter that has had some success and would offer a much better option to turn to than Blaine Gabbert did last season. 

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Robinson met with the media today and talked about Mariota's progress from his injury that slowed him last season. 

"He said he's feeling good, working out and moving around, throwing," Robinson said told reporters. "I think he's going to come back here a little bit before the appointed time (April 15) and get some work in. I'm looking forward to getting back to work with him, excited to have him back on our football team. Look forward to it."

Mariota has been brilliant at times. In his second season he passed fro 26 touchdowns with nine interceptions and appeared to be on the fast track to stardom. But his season ended late in the year when he fractured his fibula. The impacts of that injury appeared to linger the following season and he regressed, passing for just 13 touchdowns with 15 interceptions. Tennessee used a potent running game and solid defense to overcome the lack of a quality passing game and reached the playoffs where Mariota orchestrated a second-half comeback at Kansas City that resulted in a playoff victory for the Titans. 

Last season, Mariota began slowly after an elbow injury cost him some time. But he was magnificent on several occasions.

  • Sept. 30 vs. Philadelphia: Mariota had arguably his best performance as a professional when he threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns with one interception and had the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to defeat Philadelphia 26-23. He also rushed for a touchdown. 

  • Nov. 5 at Dallas: Mariota threw for 240 yards on 21-of-29 passing with two touchdowns and ran for another in a 28-14 Monday night win at the Cowboys.

  • Nov. 11 vs. New England: Mariota completed 16 of 24 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in a 34-10 win over New England.

  • Nov. 26 at Houston: Mariota completed 22 of 23 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to the Texans. 

 

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The problem was that Mariota had trouble staying healthy, twice going down with injuries. He also closed the season with zero touchdown passes over his final three appearances, all victories, to finish with 11 touchdown passes and eight interceptions on the season. 

In 29 starts over the past two years, Mariota has thrown just 24 touchdowns with 23 interceptions. Compare those numbers to Tannehill​​​​​​'s final two healthy seasons in Miami (he missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury) when over 24 starts he threw for 36 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. 

On paper, one would wonder why Tennessee is even bothering with allowing Mariota to be the presumptive starter in 2019. But there are plenty of reasons why one shouldn't give up on Mariota just yet. 

First, and maybe foremost, he has had three head coach in four seasons. Ken Whisenhunt was the man in 2015 when the Titans drafted Mariota but was let go after a 1-6 start and replaced by Mike Mularkey.  Mariota had his best season under Mularkey and won a playoff game the following season. But, the Titans let him go following the 2017 season to hired Mike Vrabel. He is now on his second offensive coordinator after Matt LaFleur left Tennessee after one season to take the same job in Green Bay. The Titans elevated former tight ends coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator. 

Needless to say, a revolving door of head coaches and offensive coordinators is not very quarterback friendly. 

Also, Tennessee has been very average at wide receiver during Mariota's career. Dorial Green-Beckham led team wide receivers in 2015 with 549 yards. Rishard Matthews led the team in 2016 with 945 yards and in 2017 with 795. Corey Davis, the fifth-overall pick in 2017, led Titans' wide receivers with 891 last year and appears to be on track to becoming a legit star. Maybe. 

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The lack of a true No. 1 receiver over the years and then the season-ending injury to tight end Delanie Walker last season, have certainly worked against Mariota's progress as a quarterback. But blaming the receivers only goes so far. 

What we know about Mariota is that he still can move around at an elite level with his feet, he is extremely accurate on short and intermediate throws and he doesn't make a ton of mistakes, although he still suffers from some ball security issues in the pocket that popped up from time to time when he was at Oregon. 

Mariota, just like when he was at Oregon, has not proven to be a great downfield passer. He doesn't scare teams deep. Your best NFL quarterbacks - Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes II, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, etc,. - can all strike fear in the hearts of defenses with the threat of the long touchdown pass. With Mariota, so far, not so much. 

One thing that must be pointed out is that Mariota's overall efficiency last season was at a career high. His passer rating of 92.3 ranks behind his second season (95.6) only if we include the two interceptions he threw during the season-opening loss to Miami that occurred on two throws made after he injured his right elbow and still tried to play through the numbness in his passing hand. 

Take those passes out of the equation and Mariota's passer rating pops up a bit to a career-high of 96.6. But that would only rank 15th in the NFL during an era when a rating of 100 or better is the gold standard. 

Plus, with the season on the line, Mariota was unable to play against the Colts in the final regular season game. The Titans, who started Gabbert, lost 33-17. 

It's safe to say that the 2019 season is Mariota's final audition for the Titans in an attempt to convince them to give him a fat new contract. He must stay healthy. Put up 35-30 total touchdowns. Lead the team to the playoffs. And show that he is worthy of a long-term investment.

Should he fail, Mariota could be on the move next season and it might be to find a job similar to the one Tannehill has now. 

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