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Marcus Mariota Isn’t a System Quarterback Anymore

The second-year signal-caller is flourishing in an old-school offense

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On their first play from scrimmage on Sunday, the Titans lined up in an offset I-formation and DeMarco Murray followed fullback Jalston Fowler to break loose from the Packers defense for a 75-yard touchdown run. Then, on Tennessee’s next possession, Murray took a toss from the Green Bay 10-yard line, tucked the ball under his arm, and ran a few steps before pulling it back out and tossing it into the end zone to Delanie Walker for a 10-yard score.

Those two plays are the embodiment of the “exotic smashmouth” offense head coach Mike Mularkey promised to bring to Tennessee during the offseason — a physical, downhill run game as a foundation with some trickeration sprinkled in to keep defenses honest. But that renewed emphasis on the run game isn’t what has the Titans now sitting at 5–5 and within arm’s reach of a playoff spot.

Marcus Mariota completed 19 of 26 passes for 295 yards and tossed four touchdowns and no picks to finish with a near-perfect 149.8 rating in a 47–25 blowout. With 10 more professional games under his belt, Mariota has shed the “spread-offense, read-option” quarterback label that he brought into the season and has developed into a real-life pro style passer.

On Sunday, Mariota outplayed two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers. He notched his sixth straight game with two-plus touchdown passes — tying a Titans/Oilers franchise record held by Hall of Famer Warren Moon — and became the first Tennessee quarterback since Steve McNair (2003) to eclipse 20 touchdown passes in a season. He’s now passed for 2,482 yards, 21 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions; he’s also rushed 39 times for 243 yards and two scores. Although Mariota now shows the ability to take handoffs from under center, make throws from the pocket, and go through his reads, the 23-year-old’s path to his breakout performance over the past six weeks has been anything but conventional.

As a rookie, Mariota showed some promise, but there were still plenty of questions about whether or not he would ever earn the “franchise quarterback” label. And Tennessee’s lack of organizational stability certainly didn’t seem like it would help him ever get there. Come January, both the coach (Ken Whisenhunt) and GM (Ruston Webster) who drafted him second overall were fired. Then, Whisenhunt was officially replaced with a head coach with a career 18–39 record and who seemed dead set on pulling Tennessee’s offense back to the Stone Age.

It didn’t seem logical for the Titans to put their modern, up-tempo, shotgun, spread-offense, dual-threat passer into a system that asked him to play like a traditional pocket passer. The situation looked a lot like another example of an NFL team completely botching the development of a talented-but-raw quarterback prospect by not catering an offensive system toward his strengths. Tennessee’s 1–3 start, in which Mariota threw just four touchdown passes, tossed five picks, and compiled a 73.9 rating, only seemed to confirm this.

Except, since Week 5, the Titans have gone 4–2 to pull into second place in the AFC South, and Mariota has exploded to throw 17 touchdown passes and just three interceptions while completing almost 68 percent of his passes. Sunday’s performance against the Packers was a perfect representation of the skill set that Mariota brings to the table; it’s too good to be muted by Mularkey’s old-school offense.

When the Titans have the ball, the first thing that stands out is Mariota’s accuracy. Midway through the first quarter, after faking a handoff on play-action and with pressure in his face, Mariota lofts a pass to Delanie Walker, placing the ball perfectly out of reach of the defensive back in coverage so Walker could catch it in stride, break a tackle, and keep running downfield.

For young quarterbacks who spend most of their college careers in the shotgun, these play-action throws can be hard. When they take the snap from under center, they’re turning their backs to the defense, and so they lose a key second or two of time to read the defense and assess the coverage. (A quarterback still has his head upfield when feigning a handoff from the shotgun.) But late in the first quarter, Mariota again demonstrates his comfort in the heavy, multiple-TE play-action looks, rolling out after faking the handoff to Murray, holding the defense on the right with his eyes before coming back to the left to hit tight end Anthony Fasano in the end zone.

Midway through the second quarter, Mariota lofts a touchdown pass to Rishard Matthews, and Micah Hyde gets no help over the top because of the way that the second-year signal-caller manipulates the defense with his eyes. After dropping back from under center, Mariota waits until just before he throws to look to his left; by that time, the Green Bay secondary has tilted to the right side of the field, leaving Matthews in single coverage.

While the Titans have frequently used Mariota in the role of a traditional pocket-passing quarterback, they still utilize his athleticism and mobility in the passing game at times. With two minutes left in the half, Tennessee offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie dials up a moving pocket for Mariota, and he strafes to his right (by design) before hitting Kendall Wright on an out route near the pylon.

In most college spread offenses, reads are simplified and quarterbacks are rarely asked to go to their second or third routes. But Mariota’s fourth touchdown pass of the day illustrates another important facet of his game: the ability to go through route progressions if his first option doesn’t immediately open up. On a third-and-5 midway through the third quarter, Mariota looks to his first read over the middle. When it’s covered, he goes to his second read to the right, drifts to that side, and hits a wide-open Tajae Sharpe, who reels it in and runs for a score.

Due to Mariota’s run threat, defenses frequently assign a “spy” to try to follow him around in case he tucks the ball and tries to take off. This removes a player from coverage, and that (along with his accuracy and growing ability to go through his reads) has allowed Mariota to be amazingly efficient inside the 20-yard line: Over his pro career, he’s tossed 29 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the red zone.

Of course, Mariota hasn’t been flawless; he’s still a young player and will make mistakes as he continues to develop. A pick-six late in the fourth quarter last week against the Chargers ultimately killed the Titans’ comeback attempt, and he leads the league with four lost fumbles this year and has lost 10 in his career.

But for all the shit we gave to Mularkey before the season began, the Titans have put together an effective, balanced offense despite doing exactly what convention says you’re not supposed to do with a young quarterback: Instead of building a custom scheme tailored around the talents of their signal-caller, they’ve asked their passer to adapt to a different system. Mariota has responded to that challenge with gusto, and 10 weeks into the season, it looks like this is the offense he was meant to run all along.