What to Make of Marcus Mariota’s Third Year Regression

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 16: Marcus Mariota
PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 16: Marcus Mariota /

After an outstanding first two seasons in Nashville, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has struggled in 2017.

If Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota had not broken his fibula in Week 16 of his second season in the NFL, he would have been a Pro Bowler. He was first in line to replace any signal caller who was not willing or able to make the trip, which was the case with Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, among others.

Mariota earned that honor because of his stellar performances throughout the season. After a rough start to the season in which the Titans were 1-4 as a team, Mariota put on a show for the remaining twelve games. Particularly in November, when he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month, he looked like an elite quarterback.

In the four games the Titans played in November of 2016, Mariota had a stellar 11:2 TD-INT ratio. He also ran for nearly 80 yards and a touchdown during those games, as well as totaling 1,124 yards through the air.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Mariota’s success last season was that he did it all with an underwhelming group of receivers. Aside from Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker and emerging star Rishard Matthews (who is really more of a #2 WR than a #1), Mariota was completing passes to a rookie fifth-round pick (Tajaé Sharpe), a former first-round pick who ended the season as a healthy scratch (Kendall Wright), and a slow 32-year-old wideout (Harry Douglas).

For that reason, despite the traumatic leg injury he suffered against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Christmas Eve, a lot of excitement surrounded Mariota heading into the 2017 season. In addition to having the same five offensive linemen who dominated in 2016, Mariota’s weapons were also primed to see a drastic improvement.

Most of the Titans’ offseason was spent doing just that. The team signed veteran receiver Eric Decker in free agency and drafted Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor. Yet, with a vastly improved receiving core, Mariota has not improved. In fact, he has regressed at an almost alarming rate.

There are no bones to be made about it: Marcus Mariota has looked really bad during the 2017 season. No, he hasn’t been as bad as Nathan Peterman, DeShone Kizer, or Jay Cutler, but those guys weren’t exactly expected to be impressive. Mariota, on the other hand, was expected to breeze through the AFC South and make the Titans a legitimate contender in the AFC.

Through his first nine starts of the 2017 season, Mariota has a dismal 8:10 TD/INT ratio. To put that in perspective, Mariota threw ten interceptions his entire rookie season while also tossing 19 scores. He does have four rushing touchdowns, but that doesn’t exactly make the picture more appealing.

Only twice all year has Mariota eclipsed 270 passing yards in a game, and only once has one of his receivers (Rishard Matthews vs. Pittsburgh) recorded over 100 receiving yards. The Titans have a winning record, recently won four straight games, and will more than likely be in the playoffs, but Mariota doesn’t have a ton to do with it.

So, why has Mariota gotten a lot worse with better weapons? Why, with a fully healthy Corey Davis and Delanie Walker, did he have an absolute meltdown game against the Steelers on Thursday Night Football? The answer is pretty simple.

Last season, the Titans had the most physically imposing and generally dominating rushing attack in the entire league. Two offensive linemen were given national offseason recognition (Taylor Lewan, Pro Bowl; Jack Conklin, All-Pro), and DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined for nearly 1,800 yards.

As a result, Mariota had a very effective play action at his disposal. The passing game was also opened up when opponents sold out to stop the run, leaving more space on the perimeter for receivers to work.

This year, the Titans running game has been not just ineffective, but it has harmed the offense. Henry, the team’s leading rusher, has averaged 3.25 YPC or less in four games. Murray, previously a Pro Bowler and one of the NFL’s truly elite running-backs, has looked dreadful when carrying the ball. He has averaged less than 3.5 YPC in six games.

Not only are their positive runs often pedestrian, they frequently lose yards on first down. The difference for a play-caller in facing 2nd & 12 versus 2nd & 6 is monumental. It also has an incredibly negative effect on the quarterback.

In addition to consistently being behind the chains on second and third down, Mariota hasn’t had the luxury of defenses fearing the running game. As a result, passing lanes have become much more congested, and receivers’ routes have been much more contested. Without a dominant running game, Mariota’s ceiling seems to be a slightly above average NFL quarterback.

What does that mean for his career? It means that Marcus Mariota likely will never achieve the success of players like Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rodgers. While this idea is negative, it certainly isn’t a bad thing.

Luckily, we know from Mariota’s second year that, when he does have an effective running game, his ceiling is incredibly high. He is much better than quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Brock Osweiler, and Eli Manning.

That said, the group of quarterbacks that Mariota seems to fit in with is very respectable. He isn’t elite, but he also isn’t a “game manager” or below-average signal caller. Mariota will have mostly quality games, some bad games, but he can become a superstar with a good running game and talent around him. Those traits fit the mold of players like Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Tony Romo.

Ryan was an average to above-average quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons for several years before exploding as the NFL MVP last season. He has won the division multiple times, had some pretty bad seasons, but can be deadly when his weapons are up to par.

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Newton is a very streaky quarterback. One game he’s a hero, the next he’s the turnover-prone goat. His floor is what he did last season, leading the Panthers to a 6-10 record and throwing less than 20 touchdowns. His ceiling is what he did in 2015, earning NFL MVP honors and winning the NFC Championship.

Romo was everyone’s favorite quarterback to hate, but it often wasn’t for good reason. For most of his career, Romo was surrounded by poor talent, yet often slung the Cowboys into the playoffs. When the team finally gave him a dominant offensive line, receiving core, and running game in 2014, he was an MVP candidate.

Truly elite quarterbacks very rarely come around, and their immense success should not be the measuring stick. Marcus Mariota will never be an elite quarterback, but he can still be a very good one. There should be no doubt that he is a franchise guy and someone that the Titans can win with for years to come.