Marcus Mariota’s health is the topic of conversation among Titans fans as another semi-successful season comes to a close in Nashville. There are very clearly two camps on Mariota at this point. One camp firmly believes Mariota to be fragile and injury prone after failing to play a full 16 game season for the fourth straight year. The other camp believes that Mariota has had some bad injury luck, but mostly points the finger at the offensive line and/or coaching staffs for putting him in harm’s way too often.
The question of whether Marcus Mariota can be the Titans franchise quarterback remains at the forefront of any discussion about the future of this team, so let’s take a look at the quarterback’s injury history and how it stacks up to other quarterbacks around the league.
Mariota Injury History
Mariota suffered a sprained MCL during his fifth game of the season as then-Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon dove low into the quarterback’s left knee as he delivered a pass. It was a clear cheap shot. Mariota tried to finish the game, but was clearly hobbled and eventually was pulled for Zach Mettenberger. He would miss the next two games before returning to the lineup.
He was healthy for six games after returning, but suffered a sprain to his right knee against the Patriots when a blown blitz pickup by Antonio Andrews resulted in a sack. The Titans chose to shut him down for the final two games of a 3-13 lost season.
Games Left: 2
Games Missed: 4
Mariota’s best season as a pro — and not coincidentally his healthiest — came in his second year. He was healthy for the first 14 games of the season before Jaguars defensive tackle Sheldon Day tackled him from behind as he was escaping the pocket, landing on him awkwardly and breaking his leg. Mariota would miss the final game of the season and spend most of the following offseason rehabbing from the surgery required to repair his leg.
Games Left: 1
Games Missed: 1
Mariota managed to heal and be ready in time for the Titans opener to start the 2017 season. He was OK through the first three games, but injured his hamstring diving for the goal line against the Texans in Week 4 on a designed roll out. He would miss just one game, but was clearly hampered for several more after returning.
While that was the only injury that would cost him playing time, Mariota was banged up towards the end of this season. He had a minor knee injury during the Cardinals game and appeared to be hobbled at the end of the Bengals game as well, but didn’t miss any time from those issues. Though he played through injuries throughout this season, his production was pretty clearly affected by them, turning in his worst statistical season of his career.
Games Left: 1
Games Missed: 1
A healthy offseason and a new offense gave some hope that this season would see Mariota return to his 2016 form, but things went sideways immediately. Another dirty hit from a Dolphins defender left Mariota with an injured ulnar nerve in his throwing arm that caused numbness in his throwing hand and a loss of grip strength. Again, Mariota tried to play through the issue, but sailed two passes for interceptions immediately following the injury and was pulled from the game. He would miss the next start, but return off the bench in Week 3 to replace an injured Blaine Gabbert. Mariota would play that game and the next four with a specially made glove on his throwing hand to help him grip the ball.
He was mostly excellent after returning from the bye without the glove until he went down hard on a sack against the Colts. Mariota was diagnosed with a stinger and removed from the game. He returned to play the next game and, again, seemed to be effective. Finally, Mariota went down with what the team has called a stinger against the Redskins and did not return before missing the final game of the season.
Games Left: 3
Games Missed: 2
How does Mariota’s injury history compare to other quarterbacks?
Mariota has left seven games and missed eight games due to injury during his four year career. When you add in the missed start against the Jaguars in 2018, that’s a total of 16 games affected by Mariota injuries. So how does that stack up compared to other franchise quarterbacks since 2015?
I compiled data on 26 quarterbacks that I believe were considered by their organizations as “franchise quarterbacks” at some point during the 2015-2018 time frame. I omitted guys like Case Keenum, Josh McCown, and Tyrod Taylor because I wanted to limit the set to players that would only be benched due to injury. Here is the percentage of games missed (I did not add games left to this data set) for each quarterback:
Andrew Luck 40.6%
Ryan Tannehill 37.5%
Deshaun Watson 18.8%
Carson Wentz 16.7%
Aaron Rodgers 14.1%
Marcus Mariota 14.1%
Joe Flacco 14.0%
Andy Dalton 12.5%
Alex Smith 9.4%
Jameis Winston 8.2%
Ben Roethlisberger 7.8%
Mitchell Trubisky 6.3%
Cam Newton 3.1%
Derek Carr 3.1%
Drew Brees 1.6%
Russell Wilson 0%
Matthew Stafford 0%
Blake Bortles 0%
Matt Ryan 0%
Kirk Cousins 0%
Philip Rivers 0%
Eli Manning 0%
Dak Prescott 0%
Tom Brady 0%
Jared Goff 0%
Patrick Mahomes 0%
There are a few things to point out with this data. First, this is games missed in their entirety due to injury only. If you add in games left due to injury, Mariota jumps past Rodgers, Wentz, and Watson to be the 3rd most often injured quarterback in the NFL.
I took a look at the correlation between number of hits taken per game (both sacks and designed runs) compared to percentage of games missed and the relationship between those two numbers was very low. That means that taking a lot of hits doesn’t necessarily lead to a bunch of games missed for most quarterbacks.
Some anecdotal examples include Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson, and Russell Wilson. Those three guys are in a class by themselves when it comes to taking hits. Newton averages 9.9 hits per game, Watson averages 9.4, and Wilson averages 8.1. No other QB averages more than 6.5. Despite all those hits, Wilson has yet to miss a game, Newton has missed just two over the past four years, and Watson’s injury was suffered during a non-contact portion of practice in Houston. Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill — the two quarterbacks with the most missed games during this stretch — rank 13th and 14th out of 26 in hit rate.
One thing that stands out about this list is that Mariota and Trubisky are the only two quarterbacks that haven’t played a full 16 game season during this time frame and Trubisky likely would have done so last season if he hadn’t been on the bench behind Mike Glennon for the first four games.
It’s really hard for me to make the argument that Mariota isn’t injury prone at this point. It’s not just the number of missed games, but also the number of injuries. He’s suffered at least five distinct injuries that cost him games since 2015 (and I’m being generous combining the nerve issues of 2018 into one injury here), easily the most among NFL quarterbacks in that time span.
The one — possibly? — redeeming factor with all his injuries is that they haven’t been repetitive outside of the nerve issues this season. He’s sprained his left knee once, sprained his right knee once, broke his leg once, strained his hamstring once, and had a nerve issue. Usually, when I think of guys that are truly injury prone, it’s a recurring issue around a body part that is clearly breaking down. I think about Sean Lee’s hamstrings, Sam Bradford’s knees, or (earlier in his career) Brian Orakpo’s pectorals. I can’t think of another player that had the constant seemingly random stream of injuries that Mariota has over the last four years.
Where do the Titans go from here?
I think it’s 100% fair to question Mariota’s durability and how that might affect the team long term. One thing that is not fair to question is his toughness. There has been plenty of criticism of Mariota for not “gutting it out” to play against the Colts, but unless you have access to his actual medical records you have no business calling him out for not playing. Mariota has played through injuries consistently over the last four years. He likely had no business being on the field with that hamstring injury in 2017 against the Colts and Browns, but he pushed through and got out there. I still believe he was far more banged up than we knew at the end of that season as well.
Playing through a nerve issue is also not the same as playing through a muscle injury or sprained ankle. Sure, you could make those injuries worse, but an ankle or a hamstring will heal. If you sever a nerve or cause significant damage to it, you risk losing feeling or function in that body part permanently. For that reason, I think any questioning of his toughness is completely out of bounds and ridiculous. You have to know it was killing him to not be out there with his teammates in Week 17.
The big question now is exactly what was causing the nerve issues that have plagued him throughout this season. It’s not normal for a guy to have three separate nerve-related injuries in the same season so clearly something is going on that’s either pinching or damaging the nerves in his throwing arm. What that issue is and how it can be addressed is impossible to know based on the information that is out there currently. I’m guessing we will learn more over the next few weeks, but then again, we may not given how tight-lipped the Titans have been with injuries.
Barring a really bad diagnosis regarding the nerve issue, I see no way that anyone besides Marcus Mariota is starting behind center when the Titans kick off the 2019 season. However, I would also be shocked if the team gave him a big money extension this offseason. If I was Jon Robinson, I think I would be planning on letting Mariota play on his fifth year option and seeing if he can produce and stay healthy before committing to him long term.
I would also be taking a look at a viable backup plan. Blaine Gabbert was OK as a backup in 2018 — certainly light years better than Matt Cassel — but as long as Mariota continues to consistently miss time with injuries, the Titans can’t afford to have an “OK” backup situation. The Titans should pursue a top level, young backup. Maybe a guy like Teddy Bridgewater, Trevor Siemian, Robert Griffin III, Nate Sudfeld, or Brett Hundley in free agency. If the team decides to bring Gabbert back for the second year of his two year contract, they should look at drafting a quarterback. I wouldn’t spend a first round pick, but I could be talked into a second or third if there was a guy that they felt really strongly about.
Mariota has shown enough flashes during his four seasons to make me think that he can be a franchise quarterback if you surround him with more talent and he stays healthy. The Titans must take care of the first part of that equation and I think they have to give their quarterback at least one more season to prove that he can do the second.