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The Ken Whisenhunt Offense and Marcus Mariota

What does Ken Whisenhunt want out of his signal caller and does Marcus Mariota fit?

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

I think, in many ways, coaching is overrated at the NFL level. There are outliers - coaches that can elevate talent, or squander it. In the middle, there are coaches like Ken Whisenhunt (though, admittedly, at the end of last year I probably would have put him near the bottom of the list). With the right pieces, he has a clear ethos and strategy. He has his system with core concepts. From this framework, he's going to adapt to the personnel, so long as that fits within the basic architecture of the system. Perhaps to a fault, Whisenhunt has a strong belief in his offense.

This is a fundamentally important point when understanding the lens through which evaluations are being made. The system – the Whiz’ offense – is the centerpiece, and everything flows through that. Players successes or failures will be a result of facilitating what Ken Whisenhunt wants out of his offense. In an interview with an Arizona radio station, this is what Delanie Walker had to say about Ken Whisenhunt earlier this offseason:

I think he didn’t want to show us that he had some doubt. And, I don’t think he had doubt, but I don’t think he wanted to show us that. So, he went at it as, we were, you know, we still in this. "We’re going to keep preparing the way we’re going to prepare. I’m not going to change anything." He used to say that. "My stuff works. I’m not going to change it."

I think as a team, we’ve got to really understand his philosophy. Being his first year, bringing in a whole new coaching staff. New defense. New offense. New special teams. I think the team’s got to learn the philosophy before we can understand what he wants from us, and I think this year is going to be that year to build that.

For these reasons, many dismissed Marcus Mariota as a fit for the Tennessee Titans. Yet, the more I watched Mariota, the more I realized that he was the perfect fit for Ken Whisenhunt. The ultimate system quarterback*. A guy who’s offense had everything flow through him, including the running game, and executed one of the most efficient attacks in college football history. Whisenhunt and Webster saw this and came to the same conclusions. The offense may have been different, but many of the tasks were the same.

*Sometimes the term "system quarterback" is lumped in as a condescending term when it relates to quarterbacks. Every QB runs a system. All of them. The question is what was each quarterback asked to do with the offense, and – if we’re evaluating a prospect like Mariota – do these traits and responsibilities translate to the next level?

Here’s what Ken Whisenhunt had to say about Mariota on the Jim Rome show:

"There will be some things that we do that fit what he does, and what he’s had success with. There’s a lot of concepts that he’s run in college that are very similar to parts of our offense and you can already tell he’s comfortable running those parts of it," said Whisenhunt. "But there’s other parts he’s got to learn how to do, from a standpoint of taking a snap from under center, being able to handle the complexities that come with some of the different checks and some of the different defenses you face. And from throwing in the pocket, at some point in this league you got to be able to make some throws in the pocket and he will do that, and I think he did some of that at Oregon, and we will certainly find good middle ground for us."

One of the largest misconceptions about Mariota is that he was asked to run hardly any "pro style" concepts. The term "pro style" isn’t a favorite of mine, and I think it’s fairly nebulous. Spread concepts are all over the NFL. Moreover, I think it’s equally lazy to lump all "spread" QBs into a collective group and dismiss them all as the same thing. The important thing is what’s being executed at the college level, and how that translates to the NFL level.  Mariota was asked to run the zone read and a heavy dose of play action off of it, and, at times, the Ducks did use the screen game as an extension of the run game.  Still, there were many other passing concepts asked of him that he will execute at the next level as well.

Two man slant/flat route combination on back side of play here.  Mariota wants to work the slant first, but the weakside linebacker sinks on the route.  Mariota works frontside and finds his receiver running a seam that he bends at the end of the route.  The strong side of this play is a fairly common concept.  The underneath receivers stretch the defense laterally, while the deep receiver stretches the defense vertically.  It creates a triangle between the receivers, which we see over and over at all levels when we look at three man route combinations.  Here's a very similar concept from Whisenhunt's 2004 playbook:

Whiz play

The play isn't identical, but the tasks translate the same.  Alert to X if he can win, otherwise work strongside.  The play we ran against the Steelers in the red zone bears similarities as well.


Another staple of NFL offenses, and a Peyton Manning favorite is the levels concept.  Tennessee ran that concept in their offense last year:

Levels TN

Oregon did too:


We could really get down the rabbit hole on this.  The thing to note is as you start looking for concepts in both offenses (which I'd encourage everyone to verify on their own), you find that many of the same concepts are in both offenses.  Formationally they may differ, but the task that's put on the quarterback is the same.  This is what's important.

Within these concepts, Mariota runs things at a high level.  He's decisive in his reads, and quick with his eyes.  The latter is an important point, and one where Mettenberger struggled at times.  Mariota doesn't have the same tendency to hang on reads looking for the big play.  He plays within the confines of the system that his coach has designed - selflessly, and methodically working through progressions.  These are the things that I believe Whisenhunt fell in love with during evaluations.  While the highlight reels may show explosive runs, the reality is that Mariota always looks to execute the concept first and run second.  His legs are a weapon, but not a crutch - a critical distinction, especially at the NFL level.

I do think Mariota will have a bumpy start, but not for the reasons that we commonly hear.  Perhaps the most prevalent of which is learning to take snaps from under center.  Here's what coach Mike Leach had to say about this years ago:

"I only need a three-hour window. I'll have a great clinic for all the NFL coaches who are so horrible that they can't teach a guy to take a snap under center and go backwards."

While that may be an extreme (reads, and drops - for instance - are different), I do think the topic is overblown.  Recently, a local beat writer wrote of this transition "[Mariota] will take the majority of snaps under center instead of the shotgun."

Yet, as we actually look into the statistics, we find that this isn't particularly likely.  Here are the splits from last year:


While I don't think we have to take the deductive leap that these splits will continue, I also think it's a stretch to say that we'll suddenly go from 33% snaps under center to over 50%, especially given that our quarterback is transitioning.  If anything, there will likely be a more concerted effort to implement plays from the gun.  Moreover, of those snaps from under center, 70% were runs.  83% of our passes were from the shotgun.  It's just not a concern for me.

The tough transition, in my mind, will not be the things asked of Marcus Mariota, but the things defenses show him.  Oregon runs at a breakneck pace.  At this speed, the defense is just working to get lined up and execute their scheme.  Disguising things is a luxury.  This will all change at the NFL level.  The defense is faster, and pre snap reads very often change post snap.  This is where we may see growing pains.

At the end of it all, I think Mariota comes out the other end all the better.  He's got the make up mentally to handle what the NFL will throw at him.  And, no one will dispute that he has the tools to play at the NFL level.  Despite what may appear as an awkward fit with an inflexible coach, I think it's a good match.  A methodical quarterback in an offense that requires it's centerpiece to act as the point guard, distributing the ball to playmakers based on what the system tells you and the defense gives you.  Mariota did this at Oregon, and he'll do it again in Tennessee.