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Rishard Matthews on Marcus Mariota: “You’ve Got to Demand Greatness”

Does Marcus Mariota lack specific leadership qualities that hinder his (and the team’s) performance?

Tennessee Titans v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, former Titans receiver Rishard Matthews joined Darren McFarland, Willy Daunic, and Chase McCabe on their radio show for ESPN’s 102.5 The Game in Nashville to weigh in on the Titans current quarterback situation.

Matthews has a unique perspective, having spent 2012-2015 with Ryan Tannehill in Miami and 2016-2018(ish) in Tennessee with Marcus Mariota. Matthews and Tannehill were actually part of the same draft class; Tannehill was taken No. 8 overall while Matthews was the 227th pick.

Here’s a couple of comments from Matthews that I found particularly noteworthy...

“Why don’t you think there’s been better production?”

“[Marcus Mariota] definitely loves to compete. He loves being a quarterback, and he loves being a leader, but you know, in high school and college you can be that silent leader, but when you get in the league, you’re around grown men, you’ve got to demand greatness from grown men. They’ve got to be able to see that every day and not just every now and then.

“I think Jon [Robinson] and [Mike] Vrabel and Arthur [Smith] and everybody, they’re doing a great job at bringing guys in to make it easy, but at the end of the day, the quarterback has to be the leader of the team. He has to be vocal. He can’t be forced to be vocal, and I think that’s kind of what’s hurt Marcus a little bit, is having that genuine chemistry, you know. When I was with Ryan [Tannehill], he used to make us go out there twice a week in the offseason and go run routes and get on the same page, and it was like once in the offseason when I was in Tennessee. It’s hard to get chemistry that way.”

“In your experience with Marcus, why do you think he is like that, where he’s just this quiet guy and he’s not going to be the fiery quarterback like we’ve seen throughout the league?”

“He’s so respected that nobody wants to keep it real, everybody’s afraid to be real with him, and sometimes I think people are forced into situations to kind-of baby him along the way. It’s just tough for people to be that real with such a respected, cool guy. He’s cool, nothing bad, but at the end of the day, you’re in this business to win. The guy that leads the team is the quarterback. On all the great teams, you’ve got a great vocal quarterback who wants the ball in their hand and who demands greatness from their players.”

Listen to the full interview with Matthews here:

Now, I don’t mean to question Marcus Mariota’s leadership abilities. There is no shortage of supportive comments from teammates, both current and former, for the fifth-year quarterback’s ability to lead. To quote this great piece in the Ringer from September 2017...

These are the legends of Marcus Mariota. They are as crucial to his story as anything that happens on the field. There’s an entire locker room that would do anything for him because these moments, stacked upon one another, form the most interesting and effective leadership style in football.

“These moments,” as mentioned in the above excerpt, came from teammates like Ben Jonesthe first player Vrabel mentioned when asked about leaders on offense this past Monday—Delanie Walker, Taylor Lewan, numerous former Oregon teammates, and even Matt Cassell, who was quoted as saying, “His leadership is absolutely amazing.”

Delanie Walker told this anecdote:

“I think that’s what shocks people. When you tell people what Marcus is like in the huddle, they don’t believe it,” Walker said. “One time Taylor Lewan—you know, he’s one of these guys who is always downfield hitting somebody. Well, one time we were huddling and Taylor wasn’t in the huddle and Marcus yells, ‘Taylor, get your butt in the huddle!’ and we’re all going, ‘Whoa.’”

Tony Dungy interviewed Mariota ahead of 2017’s Thursday night debacle in Pittsburgh, and asked him how he’s able to “get on people” when that’s not his natural personality.

“It’s a process,” Mariota said. “Sometimes, it’s not yelling at a guy. It’s putting your arm around a guy. Or, for instance, if there’s a guy that needs to get yelled at, you have to find it in you to do it.”

“How do you find that?” Dungy said. “Because you’re not a yeller. Who was the last guy you yelled at on the field?”

“Probably [tackle] Taylor Lewan,” Mariota said with a laugh. “It’s easy with Taylor because he’s that type of guy. He understands that I’m yelling to bring him up.”

By this point in his career, there should be no doubt about Mariota’s ability to be a leader for his teammates. The question I now raise is if this type of leadership that Mariota exhibits is enough to succeed at the NFL level.

More from that Ringer article:

Robinson had also heard rumors about Mariota’s soft-spokenness.

“I bristled at him just to see how he’d react to me. They didn’t do a whole lot of huddling at Oregon, so I said, ‘If we draft you and [then-Buccaneers offensive tackle Logan] Mankins misses his block, how are you going to rally him? What if he barks back at you?’ Marcus came back in that calm, calm voice. ‘I’ve done it before. I’ll be able to rally him. Trust me.’”

“Leading by example” is usually code for “never talks and isn’t a leader.” With Mariota, however, it’s real. Mariota rarely yells, but his teammates seem to hang on every word or action.

Which takes me back to Rishard Matthews’ comments: “You’ve got to demand greatness.” It also makes me think of something our own Mike Herndon wrote about Tom Brady a while back and has since commented on numerous times. From Mike’s practice notes a couple months ago:

Watching Brady operate in practice is truly mesmerizing. There is seemingly nothing that he doesn’t see. Whether its mistakes from his teammates or hints from the defense about what might be coming, Brady is noticing and calling it out. He can constantly be heard directing or correcting his receivers and isn’t afraid to hold guys accountable — loudly — when miscues happen. Brady isn’t just the best quarterback in NFL history, he might be the best receivers coach too.

At the quarterback position in the NFL, is “leading by example” enough? Is Marcus Mariota’s soft-spoken nature among the reasons why his offensive line is underperforming? Why his receivers sometimes appear to be in the wrong spot downfield?

The contrasting argument: it seems unfair to pin the struggles of the offense entirely on Marcus Mariota’s leadership style. Was he simply a “better leader” in 2016, is that why the offense was better? Was he a better leader in random games last season—vs New England, perhaps, or in Dallas—than he has been this year? Citing that as the main cause for the Titans’ lackluster offense seems rather silly in my opinion.

Players like Tom Brady don’t enter the NFL demanding greatness from those around them. That ability is cultivated over time as a player becomes increasingly more comfortable in a system, and thus, more confident in their own ability to communicate that system.

But even so, Matthews isn’t the first former Titans receiver to paint Mariota’s leadership style in a negative light. Eric Decker once called Mariota “passive” at a position where you “cannot be passive.”

Maybe you don’t value the opinions of Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews, and that is not unreasonable given their less-than-graceful exits from Nashville. But one player who was highly regarded for his ability and his leadership was running back DeMarco Murray, who appeared on Adam Schefter’s podcast in July of 2018. This is what he said about Marcus:

“A lot of guys in that locker room love him. They respect him. He works hard every single day putting in the hours, putting in the work. If he can really just be more vocal and take charge of that offense I think he’s gonna be great.”

Perhaps it’s not simply about leading, but also about speaking up when something on offense is not working, or when he’s not comfortable, or when he sees something others haven’t seen. Maybe it’s about being less passive when a receiver runs a route incorrectly.

There are plenty of positions in the NFL where leading by example, being a hard-worker on and off the field, and the “put an arm around a guy” approach, could result in an outstanding locker room presence and a “great leader.”

Is quarterback one of those positions?

According to Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews, the answer is “no.”

An important distinction: it’s not just having the ability to be vocal sometimes, but to do so consistently. We all saw how fired up Marcus was—and how it affected his teammates—when he got in the face of Barry Church, or threw that block for Derrick Henry. But the consistency is lacking.

Just a few months before Decker appeared on The Herd, he was singing a different tune about Mariota’s leadership style, this after the Titans playoff win in Kansas City...

I would never question Mariota’s toughness. And again, this isn’t about his leadership ability as much as it is the style. He’s obviously shown the ability to have vocal, outspoken moments, but if he can’t be that guy all the time, consistently and genuinely, is that affecting the entire offensive mindset?

Matt LaFleur once echoed a similar sentiment to “we go as Marcus goes,” saying that an offense takes on the personality of the guys leading it.

No doubt that the players will follow Marcus. But just where is he leading them? Is Mariota’s personality too often too quiet to get the offense fired up? Is this where the slow starts come from? Is this why he isn’t always on the same page as some receivers despite playing with them for years?

Ultimately, I’m not sure how much blame really falls on Mariota’s leadership style for his shortcomings as a quarterback. Is his nonverbal nature the reason he’s been missing simple screen passes? Is it why he isn’t seeing receivers open down the field? Again, that seems like a silly explanation.

That said, this trait—this fire, this ability to “demand greatness” from your teammates—is something I’ll be looking for when evaluating the 2020 quarterback class.