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Right Was Wrong for Marcus Mariota in 2016

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Mariota really struggled throwing to his right last season.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Mariota was excellent for most of 2016. He finished in the top 10 in the NFL in both yards per attempt and quarterback rating which are two of the better metrics of how effective your quarterback is in my opinion. He also finished 12th in ESPN’s Total QBR and 11th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA if you prefer those types of composite advanced stats. By almost any measure you like Mariota was in the top third of NFL quarterbacks this season and the eye test only reinforces this perception. As great as Mariota was he had one very oddly specific flaw: he really struggles throwing to his right.

NFLsavant.com has some really interesting data that has been compiled from NFL play-by-play data (shout out to TNTitanfan for pointing me in the direction of this site). When looking for some other information on this site there were some other stats that caught my eye. The NFL play-by-play data breaks down each passing play by location of throw in to one of six zones: Short Left, Short Right, Short Middle, Deep Left, Deep Right, and Deep Middle. Below is a table breaking down the Titans team passing stats when throwing to each of those zones. The information was not broken down by player, so we do have 5 quarters of Matt Cassel included in these stats, but that is small enough that we can consider these Mariota’s stats.

Titans 2016 passing stats by location of throw
NFLsavant.com

Look at how Mariota’s Short Right completion percentage and yards per attempt numbers are significantly down compared with passes to Short Left and Short Middle. The same story tracks to the next level when you look at Deep Right compared to Deep Left and Deep Middle. This seems to show a pretty clear drop off in his accuracy and efficiency passing to the right side of the field. This can be partially explained by the fact that right-handed quarterbacks usually try to escape to their right when under pressure which often leads to throwaways to the right side as well as tight, low-percentage throws on the sidelines as the quarterback is running out of room and trying to fit a perfect ball in to a receiver downfield. However, this is true for all the other NFL quarterbacks as well (there were no left-handed quarterbacks who took a snap in the NFL this year) and when we look at that data we can see that there really is an issue here.

When you combine both deep and short passes to the right, Mariota completed just 52.49% of his passes to that side of the field. Only Cam Newton (47.62%) had a worse completion percentage when throwing to the right and the other teams/players around Mariota were the quarterbacking dumpster fires of the NFL: 49ers (Gabbert/Kaepernick), Rams (Keenum/Goff), Broncos (Siemian). The data in here isn’t all bad though. It also says that Mariota is among the top 10 NFL quarterbacks in accuracy throwing over the middle and to his left.

When I saw this information it reminded me that this issue had been brought up by Paul Kuharsky after the Colts game on October 23rd. Here is PK’s tweet where Marcus was asked about some passes to the right side of the field that sailed on him during that game.

And here is the chart of Mariota’s throws from that game courtesy of Thomas Bassinger from the Tampa Bay Times that shows the most extreme example of this problem that we saw this year. In the image below, Green is a completion, Blue is a touchdown, Pink is an incompletion, and Gray is a throw out of bounds.

Chart of Mariota passes from Week 7 game versus Colts
Thomas Bassinger, Tampa Bay Times

I believe Mariota’s struggles throwing to his right are real, and I think they are primarily caused by his footwork when throwing to his right. When throwing to his left or over the middle he does a good job of getting his feet balanced and his shoulders pointed towards his target. This seems to break down a little bit when throwing to his right as he tends to leave his shoulders open and flick the ball to the outside which leads to some high throws as he is unable to get on top of the ball and drive through it. Here is a good example of his form when throwing to the left.

Here is a still shot of Mariota’s feet and shoulders as he his getting loaded to make that throw:

Notice that his feet and shoulders are aligned and pointed towards his target as they should be. Now let’s take a look at how his footwork should look on a throw to his right:

Here, again, his feet and shoulders are aligned and pointed directly at his target which allows him to stay on top of his throw and deliver an accurate ball to Sharpe. Now let’s look at what happens when things go wrong for him throwing to the right.

This is what a lot of Mariota’s bad throws to the right looked like. Take a look at his feet and shoulders and notice the difference between this throw and the one he completed to Sharpe in the play we looked at before:

Mariota’s feet are pointed downfield and his shoulders are not aligned over his feet. Neither his shoulders or his feet are pointed at his target which decreases his accuracy. Most of the time for Mariota this results in a high throw. From watching many instances of this it seems to occur primarily when the receiver’s route does not time up with the top of Mariota’s drop and he is forced to pause and drift a bit in the pocket before rushing to get his throw off without taking the time to reset his feet. When throwing to the left he has no choice but to set his feet since he has to turn to see the receiver and throw the ball in that direction, but to the right he is often tempted to just flick the ball out quickly.

The good news is that this is something that can be pretty easily “fixed”. Mariota is an extremely hard worker and has proven in the past to be a quick study when there are flaws in his game that are holding him back. Remember when he “didn’t know how to play from under center” coming in as a rookie? Now he looks like a natural. Remember when he “couldn’t throw the deep ball” in 2015? This season he was one of the best in the league. I would bet that Mariota recognizes this problem and addresses it during the offseason similar to his vast improvements he has made previously during his development as a passer. The future is extremely bright for Titans fans.