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The Rapid Rise of Marcus Mariota

He’s only in his second year, but he’s already knocking on the door of the NFL’s elite passers.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t all that long ago that draft guys were wondering whether or not flashy Oregon product Marcus Mariota could operate an NFL offense from under center. Despite Mariota wrecking the NCAA for three consecutive years, Mariota was still picked apart in the draft process. “Gimmick offense,” they said. “He doesn’t have to anticipate throws — everyone is running wide open.”

While they may have been right about certain parts of Oregon’s offensive attack, they were dead wrong about Mariota’s ability to blossom quickly into one of the NFL’s best passers. The 2014 Heisman trophy winner was as close to a NCAA create-a-player as you could get. Mariota’s rise from little known recruit to the best player in college football was well documented, culminating in a national title loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes.

The Titans — under the Ruston Webster and Ken Whisenhunt regime — took Mariota at number two overall. There was a small contention of fans an analysts taking a stand for Zach Mettenberger, but Whisenhunt fell in love with Mariota. It was his lone contribution to the franchise, but it was a massive one.

From the first few snaps of Mariota’s career, you just knew this guy was different. The first game of his career, he ripped apart his draft counterpart Jameis Winston on the road. Ken Whisenhunt installed an RPO package for Mariota that gave the Buccaneers fits.

You saw little things out of Mariota that made you excited for his future. The main one for me was his ability to look off defenders with his eyes. Again, the knock on him at Oregon was how open his targets were. In the NFL, Mariota was not only anticipating throws from day one, but he was manipulating NFL defenders with his eyes. It’s second nature to him. If you study him, he does in on nearly every pass.

He even pulled off ridiculous no-look passes for touchdowns.

Mariota no-look
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Throughout his rookie season, analysts and fans alike had one common complaint about Mariota. He couldn’t seem to get the deep ball going. He would kill you over the middle of the field, but the deeper attempts always seemed to end up too flat or off target.

Some of this was a lack of protection and some of it was a lack of play-makers on the outside, but a lot of it fell on Mariota.

Even with the apparent lack of a deep ball, Mariota still flashed traits that you didn’t see every day. This prompted a coaching change in the middle of his rookie season with ownership feeling like Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t doing a good enough of a job taking care of the franchise quarterback.

In steps twice failed Mike Mularkey. He was promoted to the interim head coaching position and was tasked with finishing out 2016. Little did we know Mike Mularkey would be around for much, much longer. Mularkey was named the permanent head coach this winter after controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk interviewed a handful of candidates. The move wasn’t received well by the fanbase or national media, but Mularkey was grateful for the opportunity to work with a legitimate franchise passer for the first time in his career.

Now he just needed to add a couple of pieces here and there to complete his offensive plan. Rookie general manager Jon Robinson did just that. He stole DeMarco Murray for next to nothing. He quietly added center Ben Jones. He traded the number one pick and maneuvered his way back to Jack Conklin. He hit the waiver wire and found Josh Kline. Suddenly, the Titans had a revamped offensive line and a potentially potent rushing attack to pair with their potential superstar signal caller.

These moves paved the way for Marcus Mariota to take the next step as a passer. Robinson knew that Mariota needed a little more in the wide receiver department, so he remedied that with one of the best free agent finds of the offseason in Rishard Matthews. He turned around and drafted one of the most productive receivers in college football in Tajae Sharpe in the 5th round.

Sharpe was so good in training camp that he made 2015 second round pick Dorial Green-Beckham irrelevant. Robinson ended up trading ‘DGB’ during camp. Sharpe hasn’t looked back. Tajae Sharpe, Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker have been Mariota’s primary targets this season — and it’s working.

Mariota’s 2016 ascent wasn’t immediate. There were some obvious growing pains as he transitioned to Terry Robiskie’s playbook. I think there was a misconception out there that Mariota already knew the offense because he played under Mularkey as the interim. This was totally false.

There was a massive learning curve with plenty of new pieces in play. The chemistry with the new receivers wasn’t there right off the bat. Mariota would get into trouble when his receivers didn’t come free, but ever since that Miami game this offense has been downright dominant.

Mariota is the same player that he was last season, he just has better tools around him. He’s no longer running for his life every play or taking big shots. He’s been able to lean on the rushing attack to free him up in the passing attack. Terry Robiskie sucks the defense in, creating a loaded box and single coverage across the board. This is when they like to turn Marcus loose.

Prime example here.

Mariota deep shot
NFL Gamepass

Notice what the safety does. It’s a single-high look, so Marcus takes him out of the play with his eyes. By the time Mariota looks over Matthews way, the safety is no longer an issue. Matthews beat his man and Mariota put it on him.

Just about every deep attempt is built off of this. It’s offensive balance in its finest form. Again, the biggest difference in Mariota from year one to year two is what he has around him.

Check out these numbers from NFL research.

Staggering difference.

I’ve attributed the coaching staff and new pieces around Mariota, but let’s not forget how spot on he’s been for most of this season. He’s made ridiculous throw after ridiculous throw. Like this one.

Mariota-Matthews touchdown.
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...And this one.

Mariota to Douglas.
NFL Gamepass

Through 12 games and after a painfully slow start, Mariota currently sits at 25 touchdown passes (ranks 4th in the NFL) against just eight interceptions. He ranks 5th in passer rating at 101.9.

Mariota is so good through the air that you almost forget about his insane athletic ability. Robiskie and Mularkey have used his legs sparingly, but it adds a totally different dynamic to the offense.

Mariota read option

His athletic ability can offer a changeup when the offense struggles. Robiskie always has it in his back pocket as a backup plan. You’ll see him use these plays more in the redzone as the field shrinks, as you see in the play below.

Mariota keeper

Marcus Mariota appears to be the total package. He’s the most boring guy you’ll come across off the field, which is probably exactly what you want in your franchise quarterback. He has the arm, accuracy, intelligence and athletic ability. We are really seeing him blossom this year due to an improved supporting cast and coaching staff.

Much of the national media thought that Mike Mularkey would ruin Mariota, when in fact it’s been just the opposite. Mularkey and company keep putting him in situations to win. The scary part of all this is that he’s only 23 years old. He’s already playing at this level in his NFL infancy stage.

Tennessee has the next 10-12 years to add pieces to this team. The team needs a complete defensive overhaul along with a couple of more offensive play-makers — but the Titans are pretty close to serious contention. They are a couple of corners and linebackers away from being a solid defensive group and should be a really trendy pick headed into 2017.

As long as this franchise has Marcus Mariota, they have a shot in just about any football game. The quarterback is everything in the NFL and the Titans appear set for a very long time. One day in the not so distant future, we’re going to be debating McNair vs. Mariota. And maybe, just maybe, Mariota can finally lead this franchise to a title and erase the painful image of Kevin Dyson falling one yard short.

You can celebrate this meteoric rise with your very own Marcus Mari”GOAT”a shirt.