The Tennessee Titans are in the thick of a Wild Card race despite quarterback Marcus Mariota’s inconsistent play and injury woes. His status with the team appears murky as he nears pivotal fifth-year.
On surface value, everything seems “fine” with the Tennessee Titans. First-year head coach Mike Vrabel has led the team to a Week 17 situation where if they win, they’ll make the AFC Wild Card. Even if the Titans lose, the Titans have a healthy-enough cap situation moving into the future, and a young roster that can be augmented with effective planning.
They also have a former No. 2 overall pick and 25-year-old quarterback who was once viewed as a promising franchise piece. Marcus Mariota was supposed to flourish in 2018 with first-year offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur after ownership and fans lamented former head coach Mike Mularkey’s old-school, run-first approach.
Some of the optimism was justified. Mularkey had the Titans’ offensive line playing extremely well, but the lack of explosive plays and easy production was a startling contrast to what Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan were busy creating. With LaFleur, the Titans had a plan to modernize the passing game around Mariota’s experience with run-pass options and quick-hitting throws that allowed playmakers to create in space.
“He has done it [RPOs] his whole career. He has a lot of experience with it,” LaFleur said of Mariota. “The more reps you get at something, typically the better you will be at it.”
But LaFleur’s first season with Mariota hasn’t gone swimmingly, and has led to more frustrations than flourishing. While he’s delivered on integrating reads and passing concepts that have dramatically increased Mariota’s completion percentage and dropped his interception rate, the passing game still lacks any sort of bite. This result is due to multiple factors, but Mariota’s own limitations serve as an overarching problem for any play-caller and offensive architect.
Even in Mariota’s most impressive statistical games, it’s hard to find where he provides impactful play. Being accurate in the short-game can be a building block for a great offense, as we’ve seen teams like New England, New Orleans, and Peyton Manning’s offenses execute in the past. But those offenses had all-time efficient quarterbacks who could consistently hit intermediate windows and were nearly perfect making pre-snap reads.
Mariota doesn’t have that type of accuracy or all-time cerebral nature, though, and the passing game lacks punch as LaFleur’s tried to build the unit around his skill set.
Reviewing his passing charts via Next Gen Stats reveals a non-threating passing chart. With only nine receptions beyond 20 yards, it’s clear the ecosystem doesn’t have to be respected by opponents. Some of this is due to a below-average cast of receivers outside of Corey Davis, but this is also who Mariota was in college.
Mariota was lauded as a hyper-accurate passer at Oregon, but that wasn’t the case. He benefitted from Chip Kelly’s spread system that covered up his spotty ball placement. While he throws catchable passes, they’re not precise, and that difference has been exposed in the NFL.
I charted Mariota’s Oregon games and he was decidedly middle of the pack compared to 56 other recent draft picks on short and intermediate attempts, while below-average beyond 10 yards. Notably, his percentage of throws beyond 10 yards was as alarmingly low as his 2018 attempts are.
He’s remarkably close to mid-career Alex Smith, and that’s simply not good enough in today’s more free-wheeling NFL landscape that calls for chunk plays and red zone efficiency.
It’s fair to bemoan his supporting cast and demand upgrades. Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith are fast but unreliable without a terrific scheme. Tajae Sharpe is just a guy. Corey Davis has star-like qualities but Mariota’s also not the type of gunslinger to relentlessly target him and hope for the best.
The Titans’ line has also struggled as LaFleur has stripped away the chip blockers and help in order to spread defenses out. Mariota’s been one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the league, according to ESPN.
In turn, the Titans have returned to their run-heavy approach as Derrick Henry has carried this offense. Their Week 16 win against Washington featured Blaine Gabbert providing the same impact as Mariota had, even with a similar passing chart. LaFleur is asking the bare minimum of both quarterbacks just so this team can squeeze out ugly wins.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work when a quarterback has a looming $20.9 million option. General manager Jon Robinson indicated they want to extend Mariota, but that was prior to the season, and hype has to has died off inside their front office since April.
The other elephant in the room is Mariota’s string of injuries. Diagnosed with a stinger this past week, he now owns a laundry-list worth of issues despite his age.
He had a previous elbow injury, an MCL sprain, a fractured fibula, and a hamstring and knee injury. He’s missed seven games in four seasons, but was saved from missing more as he broke down at the end of the year in those instances.
At some point, it’s fair to wonder if his body can handle the beating, much like Sam Bradford couldn’t. Injuries are often due to genetics and luck, and the Titans must wonder whether his injury situation and style of play bring enough upside to be worth investing in long-term.
With 24 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in his last 29 games, my plan would be to move on in the near future. That may be after 2019 after one last try of revamping the offensive playmakers, but it’s difficult to see this offense becoming Super Bowl-worthy anytime soon with Mariota as the signal-caller.