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The Importance of Being Marcus

The Titans have a tantalizingly modern quarterback, but if you think that means they’re going to embrace the spread, you’re sadly mistaken

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Few football players embody the modern game quite like Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. He can pass, he can move, and he ran a college offense that’s helping to shape the future of football. His highlight reels should be beamed into space to show aliens what humans can do.

But ability doesn’t always translate into results. And so as the Titans embark on a crucial stretch for the former no. 2 overall draft pick on the eve of his second professional season, coach Mike Mularkey has forged a bold plan: In an age when seemingly everyone wants to be cutting edge, the Titans and their modern-age quarterback aren’t going to be particularly innovative offensively. And that’s by design.

“I’m going to do the things that I’ve had success with since 2001, and I will continue to do that until someone stops us,” said Mularkey, who served as the Titans’ interim head coach for part of the 2015 season and is now their full-time boss. Statistics show that NFL teams are passing more than ever, with teams throwing an average of 20 percent more yards in 2015 than they did in 2005. But Mularkey has no intention of adjusting his offense to fit that new reality, or indeed even accepting that there is a new reality: “I know people say this is a passing league,” Mularkey said. “I’ll argue with that.”

Bill Murray became a dramatic actor. Taylor Swift transitioned from country to pop. And now Mariota, the most famous player to ever emerge from Oregon’s electric spread offense, is moving to a ground-and-pound attack.

To Mularkey, people who think Tennessee’s offense could or should be more like Oregon’s “don’t understand the NFL.”

“I’m very careful about watching college and those schemes because I don’t think they are close to being similar to the NFL plays. It’s totally different,” Mularkey said. “There are some good things that happen there, but I don’t think anyone, at least that I know, are going to use that.”

The evidence doesn’t necessarily support Mularkey’s statement. The Panthers have embraced many spread principles to help Cam Newton become one of the best quarterbacks in football, and that’s just one example.

Another, of course, is Mariota’s original Tennessee coach. Upon acquiring the prized rookie, Ken Whisenhunt changed plenty about Mariota’s game, but not everything. Seventy-six percent of Mariota’s passes came on plays out of the shotgun formation during Mariota’s starts, and although the Titans didn’t replicate the Ducks’ breathless tempo, they operated out of the no-huddle on about 8 percent of Mariota’s pass attempts last season.

Mariota threw 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in a season cut to 12 games because of two separate MCL sprains. He also showed some promise on the ground, including on an 87-yard touchdown against Jacksonville, but managed just 252 rushing yards in total. No quarterback who attempted at least 300 passes on the season was sacked more often on a per-pass basis than Mariota, who was brought down 9.3 percent of the time he dropped back due to a mixture of slow-developing plays and a mediocre offensive line.

Even when he was scrambling to avoid pressure, Mariota looked exciting. But the team struggled mightily, and Whisenhunt was fired after posting a 1–6 mark in 2015 and a 3–20 record overall.

When tight ends coach Mularkey took over, his chief concern was addressing the team’s tendency to let Mariota get hit too often. The passer had sprained his MCL in October under Whisenhunt, and that knee injury meant health needed to be a priority.

Mularkey had to change the scheme to emphasize protecting Mariota, bunching receivers to keep more bodies near the QB and shield him from an onslaught of defenders. But the personnel couldn’t change midseason along with the scheme, and Mariota was sacked 12 times in his three December appearances. When he reinjured his other knee in December, he was ruled out for the season.

It was time to invest further in protecting him, so Mularkey decided to build a tough, physical juggernaut around Mariota. The team traded for beleaguered Eagles running back DeMarco Murray and drafted Alabama star and 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in the second round, securing two massive components for Mularkey’s desired ground-and-pound style. Mularkey can still envision Mariota running in 2016, but in a take-what-the-defense-gives-us way. “I had Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh, and he was very talented,” Mularkey said when discussing capitalizing on the holes a defense can leave open. “But not as talented as Marcus Mariota.”

Focusing more on the two new running backs and less on designed Mariota runs meant shifting away from spread elements — and spread players. The team spent the offseason with that in mind, and general manager Jon Robinson selected Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin eighth overall and Alabama’s Henry 45th, noting that those players appealed to him in large part because they came from pro-style college offenses. “These are teams built around running the ball,” Robinson said of MSU and Bama, “hence they would do things a little more technique-wise that we are going to favor.”

That means we’ll see fewer of the plays that resulted in Mariota’s first pro touchdown pass, for instance, which featured a tinge of Oregon: the shotgun, the QB read of the defense, and the eventual pass once the D had frozen.

In college, variations of that style of play led to Mariota’s development into one of the most tantalizing pro prospects in years. While masterfully piloting Oregon’s no-huddle, defense-shattering attack, he posted a 105-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio over three seasons, adding 29 career rushing touchdowns (and two receiving scores!) to boot.

Though the Titans never committed fully to the no-huddle last year, expect even less of that this season. Mularkey wants deliberate play calls from huddles to help spell out specific blocking instructions, and he wants Mariota under center so that the QB can more easily hand the ball off to new additions Murray and Henry or run play-action. Mularkey, who’s never been a fan of the shotgun, said it’s easier to be deceptive from under center since a run play develops quicker, allowing the offense to catch a defense off-guard with a misdirection play. In the shotgun, it’s harder to disguise where a running back is headed because the run starts so far behind the line of scrimmage.

Mariota has always known an NFL coach might want him to abandon his shotgun base. “It’s not totally brand new to me,” Mariota told The Ringer this week. “I did [plays from under center] in games in Pop Warner and high school.”

The day after his last college game, a national championship loss to Ohio State, Mariota began preparing for that possibility, taking snaps under center in workouts and in practice. He admits that learning to take the snap from under center is the biggest adjustment he’s had to make at the pro level — and that it’s still a work in progress. But Mularkey is encouraged and said it’s Mariota’s most improved trait thus far in camp.

Fans of the spread will have to cope with watching Mariota in an offense built for protection, not for highlights. Tennessee isn’t going to let Mariota operate in the wide-open fashion he might have if he’d gone to another franchise. Most notably, then-Eagles (and now-Niners) coach Chip Kelly, the league’s foremost spread practitioner, offered a haul to try to acquire the draft pick that Tennessee used to select Mariota, with the generally understood plan being that the Eagles would then run the up-tempo spread that made both coach and player famous at Oregon. The Titans declined the offer, and came up with their own plan.

Mularkey compared Mariota’s release to that of Matt Ryan, whom he coached in Atlanta. That might not be the flashy corollary Mariota fans are looking for, but Mularkey is convinced that the impact passes will come once the run game is established. The young QB’s development, the coach said, is already “pretty darn good.”

Mariota, for his part, was typically diplomatic when discussing the change this week. “I’m focused on what the coaches want me to do. I don’t have an opinion on it.”

He might not. But the football world surely will come September.