Being selected second overall in the NFL draft doesn’t come easy.
But you wouldn’t know that from watching Marcus Mariota during his three years as the starting quarterback at the University of Oregon.
Mariota made the game look simple with the Ducks, as he led Oregon to a 36-5 record during his career and threw 105 touchdowns in the process.
How many interceptions did he throw? 14.
So for head coach Ken Whisenhunt and the Tennessee Titans, taking Mariota at No. 2 in the 2015 NFL draft was a no-brainer. Whisenhunt went as far as calling Mariota the team’s day one starter before the team even drafted him.
“If he comes to us at No. 2, he’s definitely going to be the day one starter,” Whisenhunt said during the annual AFC coaches breakfast in March 2015.
Mariota comes to Music City fresh off a Heisman Trophy-winning season, with all the potential in the world at his disposal.
The 21-year-old Hawaii-born athlete will be thrown into the mix right away. The question is, will he be able to handle the weight of an entire franchise?
Escaping the Past
What Mariota did at Oregon doesn’t matter now. It’s a new era for him.
He joins the Titans at an interesting point in the team’s history. After finishing the 2014 season at 2-14, the Titans are hoping that Mariota can be the outlier in the team’s recent history of drafting highly-touted quarterbacks.
The Titans drafted Vince Young third overall in the 2006 NFL draft and hoped that he was the heir apparent to the late Steve McNair. While Young had initial success, it wasn’t enough to get the franchise back to being a perennial AFC contender.
Then came the selection of Jake Locker. The Titans took Locker in the eighth spot in the 2011 draft – and once again – thought they had their quarterback of the future. But citing a lack of desire to continue playing football after just four seasons, Locker abruptly retired in March 2015.
Now the Titans are in the same position they were nearly 10 years ago. A franchise without a proven starting quarterback. A franchise that is banking on a young man fresh out of college to be its savior.
Mariota faced plenty of pressure in playing for a traditional college football power like Oregon. The Ducks were expected to compete for a national championship year in and year out, so he felt the pressure to succeed.
Young and Locker were able to handle the pressure at times, but neither could ultimately provide the long-term solution that the Titans needed.
Mariota won’t be expected to simply handle the pressure at times. He’ll be expected to handle it on every play of every game.
That’s an enormous responsibility. And it’s easy to see why many young quarterbacks have been unable to to cope with it.
The Titans are hoping that Mariota is one of the few that can. In order to do that, he’ll have to escape the fear of the unknown with a new-look Titans offense.
AFC South foe Indianapolis is an example of a team that knows what to expect from its offense this season. The Colts offense is filled with elite players like quarterback Andrew Luck, running back Frank Gore, and wide receiver Andre Johnson.
With that much proven talent, Indianapolis knows how its offense will operate.
The Titans aren’t that fortunate. Mariota finds himself taking over an offense with a wealth of unknowns. Running back Bishop Sankey will look to take a big step forward in his second year, and the new trio of Harry Douglas, Hakeem Nicks and Dorial Green-Beckham will join wide receivers Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter as Mariota’s top targets. Tight end Delanie Walker also returns after leading the Titans in receiving a season ago.
Just like with Mariota, Titans fans aren’t sure what to anticipate with this new group. The fear of the unknown is understandable after an abysmal 2014 campaign. But with all the new pieces, the Titans offense should be better.
Exactly how much better? That will depend on Mariota’s progress.
If players were judged solely on their performances in training camp, Mariota would already be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He opened up training camp by impressing his coaches and fellow teammates day after day, which eventually led to perhaps the most talked about streak in training camp history. Mariota went numerous practices without throwing an interception, and for a Titans team that has struggled to take care of the football in recent years, it was an encouraging sign.
News of the streak spread quickly. Before long, all the major sports media outlets were talking about it.
Then came Mariota’s official NFL debut when the Titans took a short drive south to take on the Atlanta Falcons in the franchise’s first pre-season game.
It only took one possession for Mariota’s streak to end. Then on the next possession, Mariota fumbled away the ball. Two possessions, two turnovers. Perhaps the savior hadn’t arrived just yet.
What came after that was just what the Titans wanted to see. Mariota led a flawless 80-yard touchdown drive, and all was well again.
That ability to bounce back from mistakes will be crucial to Mariota’s progression this season.
“I hold myself to a really high standard,” Mariota told the NFL Network after the loss to the Falcons. “Turning the ball over is going to cost us games. It cost us today. I was upset, so it was good for us to finish on a good drive and we’ll be able to learn from our mistakes.”
Turning the ball over is not a formula for success in the NFL. Just ask Titans fans who watched this team in 2014. The team’s struggles had a lot to do with turnovers, as the Titans finished 28th in the league with a -10 turnover margin. To put that in perspective, 2014 Super Bowl champions New England finished with a +12.
The constant turnover problems are likely the reason why Mariota’s perfect start to training camp was such a big deal.
For those that thought Mariota would finish his Titans career without a single mistake, the two straight turnovers against the Falcons was disappointing. But it was a part of the process. A process that will play out week by week, year by year. Not one that plays out over the course of a couple of meaningless pre-season games.
The pre-season was Mariota’s introduction. Now the real story begins.
The Road Ahead
Mariota purchased a $1.05 million penthouse unit in Nashville in August 2015.
You can do things like that when you sign a rookie contract that promises $24.2 million guaranteed and adds a $15.9 million signing bonus. And he won’t even turn 22 until a day before Halloween.
Just like he did at Oregon, Mariota is making life look easy.
But during his rookie season, few things will come easy. There’s nothing easy about being handed the keys to an NFL franchise that is in desperate need of reform.
Putting his past successes behind him will be important, as will eliminating reminders of past failures of the Titans franchise.
“You can’t dwell on the past,” Mariota told the NFL Network when asked about responding to his initial mistakes against the Falcons. “You just gotta focus on what’s going on right now.”
It wasn’t the first time Mariota said that. He also said it after a rough stretch early on in training camp.
“For me I’ve kind of always had that mentality,” he said during a post-training camp press conference. “Dropping the last play and focusing on what’s coming up next.”
That certainly applies to life as a quarterback in the NFL, but it also applies to Titans fans
It’s hard not to make the comparisons to Young and Locker. Mariota enters the 2015 regular season with a similar amount of hype and an all-too-familiar task of trying to return the Titans to relevance.
Is Mariota is the man to lead the Titans to the Super Bowl for the first time since the memorable 23-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams back in 2000?
Kurt Warner, the quarterback who led the high-powered Rams offense during that championship run, may have the best answer thus far to that question.
“People need to remember it is a team process,” Warner told Jim Wyatt of TitansOnline.com during his time with the NFL Network at training camp. “Marcus is young, but so are a lot of his skill guys like Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, Taylor Lewan, Chance Warmack and Bishop Sankey.”
“All these guys are 2-3 years in, and everyone is going to have to come along and grow together.”
Warner is exactly right. But while it is undoubtedly a team process, we know who all eyes will be on at Nissan Stadium this season.
Yes, the Mariota era has officially begun. Here’s hoping that the Titans have finally found their future star.