Pessimistic fans of the Tennessee Titans just knew that the franchise would somehow fumble the selection of Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.
Once the clock stopped ticking on draft night, and the Titans grabbed their man, the clock started ticking again. And it kept ticking. And then it ticked some more.
With reports stating that the Titans were struggling to connect with Mariota’s camp on some of the language within his rookie contract, doubt grew, and even optimistic fans started experiencing an occasional flash of panic.
Luckily, the panic is now over.
Mariota officially signed his contract with the team on July 21, three months after he stepped onto the stage at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago to embrace his future with a franchise that managed only two wins in 2014.
Mariota’s shoulders likely felt a little heavy that night. That’s what happens when an NFL franchise identifies you its savior.
But while the pressure kicked up a notch when he stood with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and placed the fine-looking Titans hat on his head, it doesn’t compare to the pressure that he now faces.
The contract has been signed and delivered – Mariota is now officially on the clock.
The Young Grow Old
Marcus Mariota is 21 years old. Most 21-year-old males are celebrating for different reasons at that age. But not Mariota.
No, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner is now a leader of men. As a rookie quarterback, Mariota is expected to be the leader on and off the field for the Titans this season. He will be the player that everyone on the offense side of the ball turns to when challenges are presented and obstacles must be overcome.
The Titans really have no other choice. The ideal situation would be for Mariota to sit on the sidelines and study the ins and outs of the NFL game before being placed in a pressure-packed spot on day one. However, the Titans can’t give him that luxury. Not now. Not after a 2-14 season.
Former starter –and perceived quarterback of the future for the franchise – Jake Locker abruptly announced his retirement in early March after injuries robbed him from reaching his full potential. Zach Mettenberger – while often underrated at times last season – still doesn’t pack the same type of punch that Mariota does.
So, the Titans will be forced to make Mariota earn his new chunk of change right away. Barring any unforeseen setbacks or injuries, he will be the one under center when Tennessee takes the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay on September 13.
On the other sideline will be fellow quarterback Jameis Winston, who Tampa Bay decided would be its savior of choice when they drafted him with the top overall pick in the draft. Winston is also 21, and he’s been given the keys to the Bucs franchise.
The Titans are Mariota’s team now. That much we know.
A Chance to Succeed
There’s something odd about putting the future of your franchise in the hands of a player that has never taken an NFL snap.
Former college stars have failed to live up to the hype upon entering the NFL, and the ridiculous amount of pressure and expectations that come with being a high draft pick have usually been to blame.
The good news for Mariota is that he may have enough help around him to allow him to succeed sooner rather than later.
Second-year running back Bishop Sankey showed signs of potential during his rookie season, but with an underwhelming offensive line, he could only do so much. The line will be improved, and that should allow Sankey to take pressure off of Mariota in the passing game.
When it comes to the receivers that Mariota will have at his disposal, well, this could be one of the deepest wide receiver units in the entire league. Even if Justin Hunter is released due to his recent legal troubles, the Titans are still loaded at the position that will determine Mariota’s progress.
Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas, Hakeem Nicks, and Dorial Green-Beckham will all be crucial parts of the Titans’ passing attack in 2015, with some reports suggesting that the latter of that group could find his way into the starting lineup.
Green-Beckham had the overall talent to be taken in the first round of the draft, but injuries and off-the-field problems caused him to slide into the second round. Hopefully, for Mariota’s sake, Green-Beckham’s issues are a thing of the past. A 6’5 wide receiver is a nice thing to have when you’re a rookie quarterback trying to make an impact right away.
So, it’s clear that Mariota will have help around him. Surely that will relieve some of the pressure.
Venturing Into the Unknown
The pressure will still be there, though. Even if Mariota throws for four touchdowns in Tampa, and leads the Titans to a convincing win, the pressure won’t go away.
The Titans are a desperate franchise. No playoff appearances and only one winning season since 2008 will make you that way. Second-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt understands that winning is all that matters in the NFL. No one cares what your five-year plan is. Not in this league.
Whisenhunt’s pressure will slowly, but surely, make its way to Mariota. Starting quarterbacks don’t just carry their own problems. They also carry the problems of an entire roster, an entire coaching staff, and an entire fan base.
The pessimists will find problems with Mariota’s technique on the very first snap. The optimists will view him as the second coming of the late great Steve McNair.
No matter how it eventually turns out for the young quarterback, right now, all eyes are on him.
And fair or unfair, so is the pressure. Welcome to life as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Marcus.