I still remember where I was when the Titans drafted Marcus Mariota (or “Marioto” as Roger Goodell famously called him on the draft stage). It was before I was writing here at Music City Miracles and my wife and I were vacationing on the Carnival Sunshine somewhere in the Western Caribbean. We chose that ship specifically because it featured an EA Sports Bar on board where we could grab a few beers and take in the draft in between relaxing trips to the pool or sightseeing off the ship.
With the Titans having the second overall pick, we got to the bar early to save good spots. With the Buccaneers seemingly set on taking Jameis Winston with the top pick — though a late rumor that they might take Mariota was floated — most of the talk surrounded what the Titans would do at number two. It was kind of nice having the NFL world talking with genuine interest about this franchise.
Would they stick and pick Mariota, the reigning Heisman winner and one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in college football history?
Would they trade the pick for Philip Rivers? Rivers was just 32 at the time and already proven as one of the game’s better quarterbacks, but the Chargers were coming off their fifth straight season finishing between 7-9 and 9-7 and they reportedly coveted Mariota.
The biggest rumor was that the Eagles — with Mariota’s former college head coach Chip Kelly at the helm — were offering a king’s ransom to move up from pick No. 20 to pick No. 2 and reunite coach and quarterback in the City of Brotherly Love. The reported offer of two first round picks, a second round pick, the Titans choice of Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez, and “any player from the Eagles defense” (probably Fletcher Cox) is an all-time great Titans “what if” moment.
The buzz in the sports bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was all about my Titans. It was a welcome change from the mocking of a long 2-14 season.
I was torn personally. On one hand, the idea of Mariota and his “only red flag is no red flags” evaluation was certainly exciting. He was supremely athletic, highly intelligent, and had put up numbers that would make a video game quarterback blush. But on the other hand, I’ll admit that I was at least somewhat concerned with the “just adequate” arm strength and the idea that Mariota benefited quite a bit from a scheme that simplified everything for him.
Yes, the “can he take snaps under center” debates were total nonsense, but the questions about his ability to transition from playing dumbed down college defenses week after week — college defenses are not that complex in general and that’s especially true when they’re scrambling to keep up with the breakneck pace of a Chip Kelly offense — to reading and reacting to the NFL’s defenses who rarely provide clean pre-snap reads, and even when they do, are smart enough to adjust certain coverages slightly to take away what you want to do.
The thought of landing a proven passer like Rivers was appealing. Even if he wasn’t necessarily an elite quarterback, he was very close and would bring a stabilizing presence to the position after the rollercoaster rides that were Vince Young and Jake Locker’s careers.
When Goodell became the first of several thousands of people to mispronounce Marcus’s last name, my wife and I cheered. It was a new hope, a new beginning. One without the attitude issues of Young and without the accuracy issues of Locker.
Roughly four months later there was the opening game. After lots of buzz about his interception-free streak in training camp — that’s an interesting topic to look back on in hindsight — Mariota shined in his first game, going 13 of 15 for 209 yards and 4 touchdowns and becoming the only player in NFL history with at least 10 attempts to post a perfect 158.3 passer rating as a rookie in his very first start.
By the end of the 42-14 opening day blowout of the Bucs and Winston, Titans fans were convinced they finally had their special quarterback at long last. Someone who could compete with Andrew Luck for years to come and lift a long dormant offense to new heights.
That’s what makes today so hard.
Almost all of us believed in 8 at some point. Some have even held on to this bitter end, and I get it. He’s been among the most frustrating players to figure out that I’ve ever watched as a football fan. He shows glimpses of having everything you could possibly want in a franchise QB, and then he goes long stretches without showing you much of anything.
There have been more than enough excuses — or reasons, depending on how you want to look at it — for his stretches of bad play and those excuses were valid enough that if you wanted to believe he was a good quarterback being held back by injuries, a terrible supporting cast, or bad coaching staffs, you could make a real argument. However, today, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s beginning to look more and more like the problems Mariota had were Mariota problems.
That doesn’t mean any of those other points aren’t valid — this isn’t a situation where it has to be all one thing or all something else despite what those on Twitter would like you to believe — but going back through a couple old scouting reports from before the 2015 draft proved to be hauntingly accurate when it comes to some of Mariota’s weaknesses.
First, if you’re so inclined, I’d recommend checking out this piece from Eric Stoner from 2015 where he describes Mariota as “the task-oriented quarterback”. So many of the same issues that we’ve seen in 2019 are apparent in his film review. Dropping his eyes as the first hint of pressure and lack of ability to adjust to unexpected post-snap changes in the defense are the two biggest.
However, if you really want to be spooked, read the “weaknesses” section from NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein back in 2015:
Benefits from an offense that is predicated on simplified reads. Offense able to create wide-open receivers after busted coverages at times. Needs to improve resetting feet when maneuvering pocket to improve accuracy and power. Tends to “see” pass rush too often. Will drop eyes and look to escape pocket rather than stepping to available pocket space. Frequent trips outside pocket increase opportunity for injury. Pocket feel is very average. Stepped into sacks he had no business taking. Didn’t have to throw to tight windows often. Average processor on field. Still learning when to get rid of the ball and move to next play. Slow to make anticipatory throws and can improve patience in allowing combo routes to mature rather than rushing the read. Missed obvious pre-snap blitzes. Drive accuracy needs work. When cutting it loose, ball tends to sail on him a bit. Arm strength is adequate but inconsistent to field side. Needs to bring hips through throws to increase zip into tight windows in NFL. Fumbled 27 times during his career.
When I read that last night it hit me like a ton of bricks. These issues — Every. Single. One. — are still here in Year 5.
Shame on the Titans for not helping him improve on those issues or finding ways to coach around them, but I don’t think the “Titans broke Mariota” narrative is completely fair either. These things were a part of his game all along. They’ve just gotten worse as his confidence began to wane.
Having a bad offensive roster around him in 2015 hurt, installing new offenses during three of his five offseasons hurt, taking until his fifth season to truly surround him with talent at receiver hurt, but painting Mariota as the victim ignores his contributions to the issues.
The quarterback has led all quarterbacks in percentage of pressures converted to sacks in three of his five NFL seasons (2015, 2018, and 2019). That’s a Mariota problem and it’s been particularly crippling to this offense over the last two years. You don’t lead the entire league in a stat like that in three separate seasons with three different offensive coordinators and three different sets of teammates and have it be anything but a you problem.
Mariota has proven to be a very conservative quarterback who lacks the confidence to challenge tight windows consistently and too often overestimates his ability to escape with his legs. He still often appears surprised by blitzes and doesn’t adjust well when the look he gets post-snap doesn’t match his pre-snap expectations.
For a guy with his athleticism, he’s remarkably easy to bring down in the pocket, rarely finding ways to escape. When he does manage to get out of the pocket, he almost never makes the defense pay with a big throw down the field. His pre-snap and post-snap recognition have been a problem for a while now and continue to trend in the wrong direction. If he’s expecting Cover 3 and the defense rotates late to Cover 2, he’s too slow to react and find the right route to beat the coverage.
All those issues continue to be major problems for this Titans offense. Yes, there are absolutely other problems — the offensive line is a mess and so is the playcalling — and I’m not sure any quarterback would truly thrive here right now, but independent of all that... Mariota hasn’t been playing well and it’s making everything worse.
So now we’re here... Mariota was benched mid-game in Denver after a 7 of 18 for 63 yards and 2 interceptions start in a critical road game for the Titans. The offense has scored a total of 55 points in the five games since their 43-13 blowout of the Browns in Week 1. They’ve tumbled all the way down to 25th in the league in points scored and five of the seven teams with fewer points have already had their bye week. Only the Redskins and Bengals have scored less while playing six games.
There are a few immediate questions facing the Titans. First... who is the starting quarterback this week? Ryan Tannehill played OK coming off the bench. Yes, the Broncos were playing a little softer at that point, but the ball moved up and down the field almost immediately with him in the game. I have to think he gets the nod over Mariota for the Chargers game. At this point, the Titans owe it to the defense to try something else. They can’t continue to play a guy that leaves a clean pocket against a two-man pass rush.
I don’t expect Tannehill to be the savior, but I can’t imagine him being any worse than what we’ve seen from Mariota for most of this season.
Then you have the question of the coaching staff, because, as I said above, the offensive issues aren’t ALL Mariota’s fault. I don’t know how Keith Carter and Arthur Smith survive the season at this point. Carter’s offensive line hasn’t just been a problem in pass protection, they’ve also failed Derrick Henry. Henry is once again among the league leaders in yards after contact, but is gaining a career worst 3.7 yards per carry so far and leads the league in rushes for negative yardage. This isn’t Henry getting back to his old “bounce every run” ways either, he just has nowhere to go far too often.
Smith, the Titans first time offensive coordinator, is leading an offense that looks far from coordinated. He’s running an offense that the personnel cannot execute and that’s a coaching problem.
I don’t expect the Titans will make a move to fire coaches this week though. If you’re going to make the move to a new quarterback, getting him ready to play has to be priority number one for the short term. Maybe you see if things look different with Tannehill operating the offense and let that help inform your decision on Smith and/or Carter.
If things don’t improve, the options on staff for those two jobs are Mike Sullivan for offensive line coach and Todd Downing for offensive coordinator. Sullivan has seven years of experience in that position, working with the Browns and Chargers for various stints. He’s now in his sixth season an offensive assistant — usually working with the offensive line — for the Titans so he would be a viable option.
Downing — the current tight ends coach — was the only offensive coach on the Titans staff who had ever called a play heading into 2019. He was the Raiders offensive coordinator and playcaller during Jack Del Rio’s final season in Oakland in 2017. He was the team’s quarterbacks coach for two years prior to that and was largely credited with the early development of Derek Carr, though it should be noted that Downing’s one year as OC resulted in Carr’s worst season besides his rookie year.
I don’t know that either of these guys fixes all the issues on offense. Maybe going to Downing would bring a different feel for the in-game playcalling — which has been dreadful — but he’s not likely to overhaul the entire scheme midseason. These are bandaid moves that would be more to placate a bloodthirsty fan base than likely to bring about any meaningful change in performance.
The upcoming offseason is a far bigger question though. Can the Titans keep the hemorrhaging failures quarantined to the offensive side of the ball? Does the locker room start to divide as the defense continues to play championship level football only to be let down by their offensive teammates? Does Mike Vrabel’s voice begin to lose the ear of his players?
If the Titans get somewhat of a bounce on offense from Tannehill and manage to pull a 7-9 or 8-8 record out of the wreckage, I would guess that Mike Vrabel’s job is safe and the Titans will sell a reboot on offense centered around a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator (it’s really hard for me to imagine Arthur Smith getting to year two unless things really turn around offensively).
The downside to that plan is that it’s impossible to know where Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson’s feelings about offensive football truly lie. Do they really want to be a grind it out, keep it close, and try to win on a late field goal team? If so, that calls for a total tear down from top to bottom. That’s the same Jeff Fisher-ball that this franchise seems to gravitate towards and will always result in the same mediocre, bad offense/good defense football that we’ve always seen here in Nashville.
However, there is at least some part of me that hopes — and I mean really hopes — that the Titans choices on offense the last couple years have been more about trying to scheme around a limited quarterback than a reflection of what they really want to be on that side of the ball. If that’s the case, maybe there is some reason to believe that a new quarterback with a new offensive coordinator — can I get a Joe Burrow plus Joe Brady combo platter, please? — will be able to combine with the Titans excellent defense and turn Tennessee into a formidable team under Vrabel’s leadership.
The danger here, of course, is that the Titans start the same cycle with yet another potential franchise quarterback as they did with Mariota. If Vrabel is part of the problem, not the solution, and they don’t find out until a year or two into the new QB’s rookie contract, it’s suddenly another total reboot during the formative years of a player’s career. There is also the risk that a hot, new offensive coordinator that gets brought in will leave for a head coaching job immediately.
If you want the blueprint for Vrabel to turn it around and become a successful NFL head coach, just look about 400 miles east on I-40 to Charlotte, where Ron Rivera has evolved from an ultra-conservative defensive-minded head coach to more of an aggressive, analytics-friendly leader. While Rivera hasn’t been wildly successful, he has gotten the Panthers to the playoffs in four of the last six seasons and has won four straight with undrafted backup quarterback Kyle Allen this season. He’s a guy who famously worked out his game management issues on the job. It’s not impossible for Vrabel to have similar — maybe even better — results if he’s open to changing his ways. That’s a big “if”, of course.
The questions can snowball from there. If you’re going to fire Vrabel — Jon Robinson’s pick as head coach just two years ago — do you also have to fire Robinson? It’s a weird spot that the Titans find themselves in. General Managers rarely get a chance to choose a second head coach, especially when the previous one lasts just two years, but GMs are also rarely fired without being given the chance to draft a franchise quarterback of their choosing.
So what gives? On one hand, Robinson deserves credit for rebuilding a roster that was in shambles when he got hired in 2016. The Titans defense is really really good just four years after fielding a group that allowed an average of 26.4 points per game.
The offense has some talent too, in my opinion, despite the results of the first six games of the season. They’re certainly more talented than the 2015 Titans that Robinson inherited with Antonio Andrews, Dorial Green-Beckham, Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack, and Jeremiah Poutasi all playing substantial roles.
The question — again — becomes whether the swings and misses Robinson has had on offense are a byproduct of bad quarterback play and/or bad coaching on that side of the ball or just bad players? I tend to think that you could stick Corey Davis or A.J. Brown into almost any other NFL offense and get immediate production.
I think there is a bigger discussion to be had about Robinson’s overall outlook on how to win football games. Is he really trying to build a team that is based around the defense and running game in 2019? If so, it’s time for him to go too.
It’s time for this football team to move into the 21st century on the offensive side of the ball. That doesn’t mean that they have to bring in the Air Raid and try to throw it 50 times a game, but the plan can’t be to run it 35 times a game “because teams that run more usually win” and hope your defense can hold the opponent to 17 points a game. The Titans have put that product on the field for 21 straight seasons now. The game has changed since the early 2000s and the Titans haven’t changed with it.
Anybody at Saint Thomas Sports Park that can’t get on board with embracing analytics — getting some scouts to “run some numbers” in their spare time between trips isn’t acceptable — needs to go and the Titans have to do everything in their power to both find the right quarterback moving forward and set that quarterback up for success by building the infrastructure around him. They have failed to do that for three straight top ten picks now. It has to stop here.
As for the new quarterback — whoever that may be in 2020 — I want this team to go find a player who is aggressive, accurate, and assertive. Give me a quarterback who has an attacking mentality and the personality to demand excellence from his teammates.
Watching Tom Brady on the practice field during training camp crystallized a few things for me, but the biggest takeaway was that Brady takes total control of that offense. Granted, Brady is the GOAT and has both the experience and the skins on the wall to be able to demand that accountability from his teammates. However, you don’t have to be Tom Brady to take the reigns of an offense. Players respect performance. If a rookie comes in and performs, they’ll follow him, particularly if he’s a guy that projects confidence. Maybe this is an overreaction to Mariota, but give me a guy that has some fire to his personality and isn’t afraid to hold his teammates accountable both publicly and privately.
Over the next ten weeks Ryan Tannehill, Arthur Smith, Keith Carter, and Mike Vrabel will be playing for and coaching for their 2020 jobs in Tennessee. If Tannehill performs well, the team could re-sign him and use him as a bridge or backup to the next quarterback. I don’t believe in tanking and would prefer for the Titans to win as many games as possible in 2019, even if that means it costs them more draft capital to move up and take their quarterback.
So I’ll be rooting for Titans wins every week — even if I don’t necessarily expect them — and spending a lot more time watching the top quarterbacks in the upcoming draft class.
It’s a sad day for Titans fans everywhere — even if you’ve been off the Mariota train for a while — but I’m ready for the hope that I felt on that cruise ship in 2015 again. Maybe Tennessee will finally hit the jackpot in Vegas next spring.