Deciphering Why Marcus Mariota Struggled in 2017

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Marcus Mariota
KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Marcus Mariota /

Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota endured a poor 2017 season. Let’s take a look at how and why Mariota struggled in his third year.

Despite what Mike Mularkey may have tried to convince us of in his final press conference as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, quarterback Marcus Mariota had a forgettable season in 2017. Instead of taking a major leap forward, which almost everyone expected him to do, he regressed alarmingly.

In the 2016 season, Mariota was an assassin under center. He overcame a major lack of athleticism at the skill positions to guide the Titans to a 9-7 record, consistently delivering the ball with supreme accuracy and utilizing several tricks that are typically only attempted by veterans.

During the month of November, after which he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month, Mariota played at an elite level. Particularly against the Green Bay Packers, he had his way with defenses and kept his turnovers to a very small minimum.

Perhaps most importantly, Mariota showed in 2016 that he had overcome some of the errors that stunted his rookie season, in which the Titans won just three games. His downfield accuracy and ball security in the pocket improved greatly.

The 2017 season was a much different story. Perhaps most of his issues last year can be attributed to the stagnant offense designed by former offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, but Mariota certainly deserves at least a portion of the blame.

Everyone points to the fact that he threw more interceptions than touchdowns (15 vs. 13), and that is certainly very, very bad. But the more alarming aspect of Mariota’s visible regression last year was the fact that he rarely ever looked comfortable.

Whether you point fingers at poor interior pass protection or an ineffective run game, Mariota really looked rattled throughout the 2017 season. Occasionally, for the first time in his young career, he just looked defeated.

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Instead of the dart throws with pinpoint accuracy fans had become used to in 2016, they were forced to sit through the agonizing torture of errant, flat-footed throws that consistently found their way into the arms of opponents in 2017.

Pro Football Focus, in their 2017 QB Annual, attempted to make sense of Mariota’s third-year struggles. While PFF should never be seen as having unmatched accuracy when it comes to grading players throughout the year, their postseason information on Mariota provides some interesting stats and facts that defined a disappointing season for the young QB.

Perhaps the most informative number when it comes to Mariota’s rough 2017 is his passer rating. Mariota was actually a better quarterback last season against pressure, posting an 82.7 grade while under duress. That number was good for third-best in the league.

A vast majority of Mariota’s struggles, oddly enough, came when he had a clean pocket. His poor passer rating of 78.2 when given good protection was one of the worst totals in the league, ranking 39th overall. That means that some backup quarterbacks were better in clean pockets than Mariota.

The sheer volume of Mariota’s giveaways last year can, according to PFF, be partially attributed to the fact that he was very unlucky. He threw only fifteen “turnover worthy” passes all year, yet was intercepted 15 times. A 1:1 ratio in that stat category is pretty rare.

The authors of PFF’s QB Annual explained.

"“While Mariota had an extremely unlucky ratio of turnover-worthy plays to interceptions, many of his turnover-worthy plays were on the lower end of the PFF grading scale. There were far too many misreads of coverage in the middle of the field, while his downfield turnover-worthy plays were often overthrows into a safety’s coverage.”"

Considering that Mariota was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL in the face of pressure, the idea that bad guard play caused his turnovers is incorrect. While a way-too-congested passing scheme didn’t help things, blame for a lot of Mariota’s problems should be placed squarely on his shoulders.

Hopefully, under the tutelage of a legitimate quarterback coach in Pat O’Hara and an innovative play-caller in Matt LaFleur, Mariota will return to his 2016 form.

If he’s able to play at that high of a level again with the assistance of much more talented weapons such as Corey Davis, the Titans offense could quickly go from frighteningly bad to frightening for opponents.

Next: Looking at the Mariota-LaFleur Pairing