We all remember our first time.
Get your minds out of the gutter you heathens. Of course I am referring to the first time you study a quarterback draft class and put together your own rankings on the potential passers in the group. I have no idea what else you might think I was talking about.
For me, that first draft class was the rather memorable 2015 cycle. When it was clear that there were two top quarterbacks and then...everyone else. While many analysts sided with Jameis Winston in that debate, there were some who placed their top ranking on the kid from Hawaii, the Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota.
I was in that latter group.
I even defended the selection a few years ago, when I revisited my quarterback rankings of that class for a 2017 piece over on Inside the Pylon. As I wrote then:
"At the outset, I remain proud of the call of Mariota over Winston. There were not many that went down that road. But again, looking at what I wrote about for both players, this was not a real 1 versus 2 type of ranking, but more of a 1a versus 1b. There were traits that I liked about both players, and felt that either one would be worthy of the first overall selection. For me, what put Mariota over the top was the fact that you could see how his game would translate to the professional level. You could see processing speed, decision-making, and anticipation throws on his tape, that illustrated that he could succeed at the next level."
Perhaps it is time to revisit things once more.
But as the Mariota Experience comes to an end in Tennessee, and the Chicago Bears (or rather their fanbase) contemplates a future of their own quarterback room, could a reunion of sorts be in order in Chicago? After all, current Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich coached Mariota while the two were at Oregon. Could Mariota be the answer Chicago has been looking for at the quarterback position?
I am, sadly, skeptical.
I want to believe in Mariota. Still. Every season with him he turns in a performance or even a few games where you get sucked in once more. It’s the old quote from Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Last season it was a Monday night in Dallas, when Mariota posted perhaps the game people like me were waiting for. He went 21-of-29 for 240 yards and two touchdowns passes, a quarterback rating of 119.9 and adjusted yards per attempt of 9.66, and I broke down some of this game over at Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio . As I wrote then:
"More than anything else, his processing speed and decision-making were on point throughout the evening. Every year in draft season, countless draft analysts (myself included) drone on and on about processing speed at the quarterback position. We talk about “pre-snap versus post-snap” and “identifying coverage” and “leverage,” and sometimes it sounds as if we just like hearing our own voices. But these things matter at the quarterback position. Remember, a QB is not just playing against the 11 guys on the defensive side of the ball, but he’s also matching wits with a defensive coordinator who has spent every waking moment of the past week ignoring the rest of his life and trying to scheme ways to confuse the said quarterback.
"So when the QB solves the riddles, it is worth highlighting."
Mariota managed to follow up that game with a two TD performance a week later in a victory over the New England Patriots. But that two-week stretch was likely the high water mark of his season. He spent Week 17 on the bench with an injury, and the Titans’ loss in the season finale kept them out of the playoffs.
This season, I again thought we were seeing the passer turn the corner. It came during this Week 4 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Mariota completed 18-of-27 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns, and one of those plays sparked my hope anew:
Processing speed, anticipation and placement. All highlighted here to an elite level.
A few weeks later, Mariota lost his job.
How did it come to this? Inconsistency.
A week later, the Titans hosted the Buffalo Bills, and the anticipation we saw against Atlanta was gone:
Mariota (#8) gets sacked here because he fails to pull the trigger on an anticipation throw. He wants to throw an in-cut to the slot receiver, but the robber coverage employed by the Bills on this play takes that route out of the equation. Mariota then transitions to the bunch formation look and locks onto an out pattern, but that decision comes much too late. If he speeds up his process and makes an anticipation throw, that pass can be completed. Instead, the quarterback is sacked.
The passer would be benched a week later in Denver, in Tennessee’s Week 6 loss to the Broncos. Mariota was sent to the pine after throwing his second interception in the game, but some earlier decisions highlight the issues he has been dealing with. For example, on this third-and7 play from the second quarter, he gets baited into a near-interception:
Adam Humphries (#10) manages to beat the cornerback at the catch point to prevent the turnover.
To be fair, this is a difficult coverage to decipher as a quarterback. The Titans are running an Ohio concept, with a flat route from the slot receiver and a go route from the outside WR. This is a concept designed to attack Cover 2, which the Broncos show on this play. Normally in such a coverage, the cornerback would stay on the outside receiver’s vertical route, opening up the flat for the slot WR’s route.
Here, however, the defense is doing something different.
Given that football is a game of schematic cycles, when offenses come up with a way to attack a defense, defenses will adjust. Then offenses will adjust to the adjustments, and so on and so forth.
In response to the Ohio concept, defenses started running Cover 2 Trap. In this scheme, the cornerback will backpedal as if he is covering the vertical route, but he is reading the inside slot receiver. Should the slot receiver break out to the flat, the corner will peel off and “trap” that route. It is an easy way to bait the QB into throwing a pick-six.
Offenses figured this out, and quarterbacks started throwing the go route in response before the safety could rotate over.
So...defenses adjusted. “Cougar” was born. In that coverage, the cornerback will actually turn and play the route as if he is in man coverage, but will still read the slot WR. That is what happens here, and Mariota takes the bait.
Now you might say that this is a difficult coverage to decipher for even the most veteran of quarterbacks. Well, here is rookie quarterback Jarrett Stidham deciphering the same look in the preseason against the Detroit Lions:
(If you want to get super nerdy I break down that play in depth here ).
Later in the second quarter, Mariota fell victim to one of the classic blunders. A quarterback must never throw late over the middle:
Mariota’s second interception, which came early in the second half, was due more to his arm being hit as he threw than anything else. But head coach Mike Vrabel had seen enough.
So the question for the Bears in 2020 becomes this: Can Mariota overcome this maddening inconsistency in Chicago?
My history in studying and covering him leads me to think this would be answered in the negative.
Because what have we seen over the years? Games like Week 4 against Atlanta this year, or the Monday nighter against Dallas a season ago. Impressive performances that the quarterback fails to duplicate. Sometimes the inconsistency can be found on more of a micro level, as in these games against Buffalo and Denver, Mariota still made some good plays, but the consistency was severely lacking.
Now maybe a change of scenery, or a reunion with his former college coach, could make things easier for him? Perhaps, but again there are huge question marks. One, the Bears are running Matt Nagy’s offense, and not Helfrich’s offense. Second, it would be Mariota’s sixth offensive coordinator during his time in the NFL, and that lack of consistency in offensive schemes does not lead to consistency in execution.
So, in summation, despite my continued belief in Mariota, I am not sure Chicago is the right destination for his resurrection campaign.
All of this means that Mariota to Chicago to compete with Mitchell Trubisky is a mortal lock.