Tennessee Titans

Titans already need Marcus Mariota to overcome immense odds

The Tennessee Titans have one of the NFL’s most gifted young quarterbacks in Marcus Mariota, but it hasn’t always come easy for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

With zero touchdowns and two interceptions in a 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota did not get off to a solid start in his fourth NFL season.

Mariota is touted as one of the league’s most-talented quarterbacks under the age of 25, representing a new crop of signal-callers who are hoping to establish dynasties. The cerebral and calm Mariota will need to showcase the best of those two attributes this season, because life just got a whole lot more difficult for a player who was already trying to bounce back from a statistically lackluster 2017 campaign.

In that Week 1 loss to the Dolphins, Mariota suffered an elbow injury and was forced to leave the game early, yielding his spot under center to journeyman passer Blaine Gabbert. While Gabbert played just as poorly, Mariota’s underwhelming performance stings far more, given the expectations the fans have for the dual-threat quarterback.

Before suffering the elbow injury on a hit from Dolphins defensive end William Hayes, Mariota hadn’t thrown an interception in the game. I’m sure the injury bothered him, just as hamstring and ankle issues plagued him in his third season in the league.

While Mariota’s own elbow injury is a story in and of itself, the quarterback is expected to suit up for the Titans Week 2 game against Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans. So what may be worse than Mariota’s injury is the fact that two of the best players around him on offense also suffered Week 1 injuries.

Let’s start with the most severe injury, and this is the season-ending ankle injury suffered by star tight end Delanie Walker. The best target on the Titans offense, Walker has hauled in at least 800 receiving yards in each of the past four seasons, making him one of the NFL’s most consistent weapons at the position. Without Walker for the remainder of the 2018 season, Mariota, who has never completed more than 62 percent of his passes, will miss his best intermediate option.

On his left side, the reliable Taylor Lewan suffered a concussion against Miami. It is impossible to predict when he will return, and backup Kevin Pamphile is hardly a suitable replacement for Lewan, should he miss a significant amount of time. Lewan is one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and this is an injury that hasn’t been lost in the aftermath of Walker’s season-ending injury.

Mariota will have to improve on a 2017 season in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and his Week 1 performance didn’t exactly stop his critics. Nevermind the fact that Mariota threw what would have been a perfect touchdown, had it not been dropped by one of his receivers. In Mariota’s case, the deflated touchdowns and underwhelming stats don’t tell the whole story, but with one year left until his option expires in 2019, the numbers do matter at the bargaining table.

But more importantly, Mariota is hoping to improve on the Titans 9-7 record last season. Tennessee made the playoffs behind an improved defense and quality rushing duo, but with a pythagorean win-loss record under .500, they cannot rely on luck to take them as far in 2018.

Walker’s injury means that Mariota must make better use of his other pass-catchers, namely second-year breakout candidate Corey Davis and veteran Rishard Matthews. Davis showed up with six receptions for 62 yards in Week 1, but Matthews, who shined in 2017 with 15.0 yards per reception, was mostly anonymous.

Matthews is behind the curve due to a knee surgery that prevented him from practicing until late August, and he may have struggled in Week 1 due to a lack of familiarity with the offense. He’ll eventually step up, but, until then, Mariota may have to turn to more inconsistent options like Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor.

With a new offense, an elbow injury, the loss of his best pass-catcher, and a concussion to Lewan, Mariota is already up against difficult odds after just one week of play. With three seasons under his belt, Mariota is still incredibly young for a quarterback, but he’s being forced to “come of age” quickly for the Titans due to the circumstances around him.

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Anyone who has watched him fight through injuries, even in college at Oregon, can talk up his toughness. Mariota will have to dig deep to find something special, because he has both critics and adversity to fend off in his first season under head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur.

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