by Cian Fahey
It's time to look forward with Marcus Mariota.
To this point in his short career, everything the Tennessee Titans starting quarterback has done has been framed by how he was covered during the leadup to the draft. Mariota was repeatedly referred to as a system quarterback who wouldn't be ready to start in the NFL for a few years. That kind of negativity was always going to draw plenty of ire once Mariota had what may have been the greatest debut for a rookie quarterback in the history of the NFL. Mariota posted a 158.3 pass rating during a convincing win over Jameis Winston's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1. Since then, he has continued to outproduce all expectations despite the Titans' losing record.
Over four games this season, Mariota has thrown 126 passes, completing 82 of them for a 64.1 completion percentage. He hasn't simply been checking the ball down either, as he is averaging 8.0 yards per attempt (1,020 total yards) and has thrown for eight touchdowns with just three interceptions. He has been sacked 14 times and fumbled three times while rushing just 10 times for 72 yards. His eight touchdown passes are more through his first four starts than any player in NFL history. Andrew Luck is the closest player to him with seven, but Luck had thrown two more interceptions by this point of his rookie season.
What Mariota has done to this point has been very impressive, but what matters more moving forward is how he has done it. The Titans don't have an exceptionally talented supporting cast on which he can rely, and even though Ken Whisenhunt has made adjustments to incorporate the quarterback schematically, Mariota has largely worked from the pocket. Whisenhunt's alterations to accommodate Mariota have been minor. He is working to enhance the player's skill set rather than mask his flaws or take responsibility away from him.
Long-term success at the quarterback position is typically built on a quarterback's ability to mitigate pressure in the pocket and read coverages. So far, those have been two of Mariota's strongest selling points.
On this play against the Indianapolis Colts, Mariota can be seen working through his progression at speed. He is given time and space in the pocket initially, but Mariota's ability to cycle through his reads is what allows him to get rid of the ball just before a defensive lineman arrives in his lap. Quarterbacks who are willing to hold the ball in the pocket and move their eyes from receiver to receiver give the design of their plays the best opportunity to succeed. Mariota's eye discipline and patience are those of a quarterback who wants to throw the ball rather than move his feet to set up a scramble or turn the play into an exercise of improvisation.
Moving your eyes and maintaining your posture in the pocket is very difficult, but it's only valuable if you're doing it while making good coverage reads downfield.
The Colts rushed just four defenders after the quarterback, meaning they had flooded coverage in the defensive backfield. Mariota's first read was a deep out to a receiver who lined up wide to the left. The quarterback could see the cornerback establish outside positioning with another defender underneath, so it was a good decision to move away from his first read. His second read was a crossing route that was double-covered by the defense; completing a pass to this receiver would have required an exceptionally difficult throw. Mariota's third receiver was mirroring that route from further outside. Mariota looked to make that throw, but stopped himself as he saw the defensive back on the receiver's back and recognized his fourth option open by the sideline.
Because he scanned the field from left to right, the defense had reacted to Mariota's eye movement. An underneath linebacker was reading Mariota's eye movement and had held his position in the middle of the field. That linebacker was the closest defender to the Titans' tight end, who was late to leak out into the flat on the right side of the offense. Mariota was able to deliver the ball accurately with pressure arriving, giving the tight end a chance to catch the ball and turn up the sideline for a big gain.
That big gain was a direct product of Mariota's acumen on a full-field read.
Most quarterbacks struggle to make full-field coverage reads. Even at the highest professional level, many, many quarterbacks will occasionally struggle to execute a play with this efficiency. The best quarterbacks in the league are not only able to cycle through progressions quickly and accurately, but they do it with great consistency. Mariota will need more time to establish his consistency, but so far he has consistently made good decisions to attack defenses. Whether it's getting rid of the ball quickly against pressure, recognizing when his first read will come open, executing the correct option on package plays, or finding a second or third read in his progression at the perfect time, Mariota has offered up numerous examples of his ability to this point.
Full-field reads are the most difficult and most visually stunning. Against the Cleveland Browns late in the fourth quarter, Mariota was able to connect with Dorial Green-Beckham when throwing from a tight pocket after reading the coverage from left to right. What stood out on this play was Mariota's ball placement for Green-Beckham to go and get the ball, and also his lightning-quick and compact release. Mariota is able to make plays from tighter pockets because of his throwing motion. Therefore, even when he is slower to cycle through his progressions, he can make up that time with his release.
Avoiding a sack in this situation was extremely impressive.
Mariota's release helps his offensive line because of how quickly he can get rid of the ball, but that is less significant than his pocket movement. At Oregon, Mariota didn't throw from many tight pockets because of his movement between the tackles. His awareness to feel pressure around him and react to it without dropping his eyes or abandoning his throwing posture has transitioned to the professional level. Mariota has played behind an offensive line that lacks talent. As such, he has been put in position to panic on a consistent basis. Rarely, though, has he made a bad step, rushed his throw, or dropped his eyes.
On this play against the Buffalo Bills this past weekend, the defense threatens a double A-gap blitz at the snap. Mariota recognizes that the blitz look was a disguise at the snap, allowing him to hold onto the ball when he gets to the top of his drop. The quarterback's eyes are angled to the right side of his offense as he drops back, but he brings them back to the middle of the field as he steps up. He steps up because Mario Williams was coming off the edge to pressure him. By stepping up in the pocket, Mariota allows his right tackle, Jeremiah Poutasi, to use Williams' momentum against him and push him downfield.
After stepping up in the pocket, Mariota looks for Kendall Wright running a deep in route downfield. Wright needs more time for his route to develop, but the Titans' left guard is losing his one-on-one matchup. Mariota aids his left guard by climbing forward through the pocket before side-stepping to reset his feet and deliver the ball downfield. The pass isn't completed, but Wright is tackled to give the offense a first down because of a defensive pass interference penalty.
On this play against the Colts, Mariota carries out a similar action by sliding away from the frontside pressure while moving his eyes from the right side of the offense to the left. He steps forward at an angle after sliding across the field to give his center and left tackle better leverage in their one-on-one matchups. Having masked the inability of his offensive line to give him a clean pocket, Mariota is able to locate the backside receiver who is running to space. His pass isn't perfect, but it puts the ball in a spot where only his receiver can catch it.
Mariota's footwork is outstanding. He is rarely off balance and understands how to adjust on the fly to give his offensive line better leverage.
In the previous plays Mariota had adjusted to frontside pressure. He has been just as adept at feeling backside pressure and reacting to it. This can be seen in the above play. Taylor Lewan, the team's starting left tackle and first-round pick from the 2014 draft, is having a bad year. Lewan has repeatedly been beaten on the blind side, forcing Mariota to adjust repeatedly. On this play, Mariota senses the pressure behind him while keeping his eyes downfield and working his way out of the pocket. The interior disruption forced him to slide to his left. What stood out most from this play wasn't his movement in the pocket, but his eye movement as he did it.
Mariota knew he was going to Delanie Walker from the beginning of this play. He also knew that he needed to create a throwing lane as he moved to his left because of the underneath linebacker. Instead of turning his body with Walker as he moved out of the pocket, Mariota kept his feet angled towards the outside, throwing from a less comfortable platform but one that kept the linebacker in coverage out of the throwing lane and gave him time against the incoming unblocked defender.
A significant amount of arm talent was required to make this throw.
Unlike his teammate Zach Mettenberger, Mariota doesn't possess a cannon for an arm. He does create a lot of velocity on the ball, he is very accurate to short and intermediate routes, and he can control the trajectory of his passes. His deep passing is his biggest concern at this point of his career, but it's more important to be an accurate intermediate passer rather than someone with a big arm who can throw the ball 50 yards on the move. In the above play, Mariota is unable to step into his throw because of the pressure in his face. As such, his pass has to be delivered flat-footed past a defender in his face. His pass doesn't travel 50 yards, but it arrives accurately and on time to an intermediate route for a first down.
Arm talent is more important than arm strength because it allows you to control the flight of the ball to make throws such as this one. Most offenses are built around throwing intermediate passes rather than pushing the ball 20-plus yards downfield on every play. The Titans have asked Mariota to take deep shots and the results have been mixed. He missed Kendall Wright for a wide-open touchdown on a double-move route against Stephon Gilmore last week on a play that particularly stood out as concerning.
His deep passing was also an issue in college, but it's something that can get better over time. It's much less likely that a quarterback will develop a better feel in the pocket or become as comfortable reading coverages as Mariota already is.
Mariota has made mistakes. He struggled to handle the extreme amount of pressure that was put on him in Cleveland when the Browns forced him into fumbling four times (including one negated by penalty). He also had late interceptions that proved to be crucial against the Colts and Bills. It should be noted that Mariota rebounded on the following drive against the Colts, and his interception against the Bills was a good read and good throw, but Stephon Gilmore had fortunately found himself in the right (/wrong) spot after being beaten down the sideline by Justin Hunter.
The Titans may be 1-3, but their future appears bright. Ken Whisenhunt understands the quality of the quarterback he possesses, while the defense is improving after ranking 29th in DVOA last year. If the Titans want to get the most out of Mariota moving forward, they need to invest in their offensive line.
Mariota is making the unit look much better than it actually is right now, but that kind of stress on a quarterback is far from ideal over the long term. In Chance Warmack and Taylor Lewan, the team has two key pieces in place. Lewan has really struggled during his second season, but his talent suggests he will develop into a quality starter eventually. Warmack has gone through his growing pains and is now an impressive right guard. Jeremiah Poutasi is a rookie playing alongside Warmack at right tackle, but he hasn't impressed to this point. Byron Bell and Brian Schwenke are placeholders who will ultimately need to be replaced.
Productive rookie quarterbacks aren't always quality rookie quarterbacks. Even those who are setting records during the initial stages of their careers can go on to be disappointing draft picks. Mariota shouldn't land in that category. He has shown off too many skills that transcend scheme and situation, too many skills on which the best quarterbacks in the NFL rely to be successful every week over the course of long careers.
It's easy to look back right now, but the future in Tennessee is going to be much more satisfying than anything that was said in the past.