The start to the 2015 NFL season has been interesting, to say the least. New star players, holdouts, terrible game-deciding calls and, the weirdest of it all, Andy Dalton looks good throwing a football- this season has it all. With “new star players” in mind, Marcus Mariota has had quite the start to his rookie campaign. In his first game, Mariota threw for four touchdowns, joining Fran Tarkenton as one of the only two rookie quarterbacks to throw for four touchdowns on opening weekend. Mariota has thrown for eight touchdowns in the first four games, setting him on pace to beat Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson’s rookie passing touchdown record (26). Whether he will put himself in the record books again is uncertain, but Mariota has shown more than enough to put faith in him moving forward this season.
No matter how you dice it, the system that Mariota runs is critical to how much you are going to get out of him. The thing is, this is true of most players, especially rookie players. It is true that Mariota needs his role (#task #oriented), but it is also true that he has executed the offense he is in very well. To this point, he has only thrown two interceptions, one of which was a well placed throw that the receiver bobbled and gave to the defense. What’s most impressive is that this low interception number is not necessarily because he isn’t aggressive.
Tennessee’s offense throws short often by design. Whether it be quick slants, screens or RPOs (run-play options), the ball is coming out of Mariota’s hands fast. For the most part, Mariota has done well scanning the field pre-snap to find the open play and take it. This is what Mariota needs. He is a smart, twitchy player that can thrive by beating the defense with his mind and executing the play with swift precision. With these quick throws being the core of the offense, Mariota’s “open up” plays are typically intermediate/deep crossers, and he has not held back in throwing them.
At Oregon, Mariota had lapses where he did not seem sure of a throw and he would get gun shy. This still worked at the college level versus slower defensive backs, but in the NFL, waiting just a tad longer is the difference between touchdown and interception. Mariota has not shown that hesitancy much this year, even looking somewhat aggressive when plays did not ask him to get the ball out fast. It would be nice to see him drop back a bit more and stress teams vertically more than he does, but again, it’s tough to knock Mariota for his play style considering the results, to this point.
It is also likely that the simplification in play style does not last to this severity for his entire career. It may be because he is a young rookie. This approach worked recently with RG3, or at least it should have. RG3 had a wonderful rookie year because he had an offense tailored for him and that gave him confidence moving forward. That confidence was shattered by injuries and ignorant coaching staffs, but the blueprint is there. Mariota is going to stick prominently with what he is comfortable with for his first couple of years, then we will begin to see him open up the field more often.
Though, if Mariota wants to open things up more in his career, he needs to be able to scan the field better post-snap. Pre-snap, Mariota maps plays out very well, but defenses are going to throw disguises at him, or completely botch their coverage, and he needs to identify that and adjust. Take, for example, this throw versus the Browns.
Pre-snap, Mariota sees that he will have one-on-one coverage on the boundary and he likes his teammate’s chance of winning that play. Mariota drops back and fires just as the route is about to break. The opposing cornerback stays glued to the receiver and defends the pass. Just underneath the pass Mariota actually threw, he had an open shallow crosser that would have easily gone for a handful of yards. The problem seems to be that Mariota doesn’t know the linebacker who dropped from the line of scrimmage has no idea there is a shallow crosser behind him until the receiver is past him. Thankfully, Mariota is right so often pre-snap that these occasions are not too common. That does not excuse him from developing a more natural feel after the snap in the future, but it gives him a cushion for now.
The factor that seems to nullify most of Mariota’s troubles is his accuracy. At Oregon, Mariota’s ball placement was a bit of a roller coaster, albeit his “on” moments were quite special. Mariota’s ball placement in the NFL thus far has been more consistent than it was in Eugene. Both in and out of the pocket, Mariota plays as in form as he can. If he is sticking in the pocket, he keeps his feet under him with every movement to keep a solid base. On the move, Mariota does his best to square his frame before throwing in order to more easily hit his man on the run. Mariota is always giving himself the best conditions to succeed.
Sometimes, Mariota’s natural talent puts him in the best conditions to win. Athleticism is Mariota’s best friend, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend for it to be. On sprint outs and boots, Mariota’s quick feet and athleticism maximize the play. He works to the top of the drop and then back up field with ease, meaning he is in position to make a good throw before most other quarterbacks would be on those types of plays.
In this example, Mariota does not have to work back up field. He only has to drop and rollout, but he is doing so against a blitzing linebacker. Even with the linebacker’s immediate jump on the play, Mariota explodes out of his stance to the top of his drop, giving him plenty of room to get the ball out to the flats for a touchdown. Also, to bring up an earlier point, Mariota squares his frame on the move and puts the throw where it needs to be. Between his natural gifts and his ingrained drive for perfection, Mariota has a true gift in the way he is always creating the best environment to succeed.
There is still plenty of football left this season, but Mariota has a very strong case for offensive rookie of the year. If he keeps his current pace up, there is no doubt he will win the award. He is playing smart, poised and accurate, all of which are key ingredients to being an upper echelon quarterback. Mariota is not “upper echelon” yet, but he has all the makings to be and the start of his career has provided endless reasons to believe in him.
GIF Gallery – Marcus Mariota (Q1 of 2015 NFL season)