VOL. 42 | NO. 22 | Friday, June 01, 2018
Mariota is still the key to Titans’ success
By John Glennon
Marcus Mariota, with new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, has spent the offseason working on his throwing mechanics, hoping to correct a downward slide in his effectiveness. -- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey
Say what you will about the Titans’ new head coach, the team’s pricey free-agent acquisitions and its talented draft picks during the offseason.
The ability of this year’s team to improve upon 2017 is still likely to be based largely on quarterback Marcus Mariota’s ability to change and adapt, more so this season than ever before in his career.
Not only is Mariota learning a new coach’s offense – for the third time in his four seasons – but he’s also tasked himself with changing the very throwing mechanics that have brought him success over the years.
It’s all an effort to improve upon Mariota’s inconsistent 2017 season, when he swerved away from the upward trajectory of his first two seasons, throwing 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Mariota improved during the latter portion of the year – seven touchdowns and just two interceptions over his final five games – but the overall product was not good enough for Mariota, who’d set a high standard for a young quarterback over his first two years.
“We won some games, but I didn’t play probably at the level I wanted to throughout the year,” Mariota said moments after the Titans fell to New England in a divisional-round playoff last season.
“That happens. (But) I have to learn from it and grow from it, and I will.”
Breaking old habits
It was only a month later that Mariota made a difficult decision, choosing to change the throwing stance he’d used since he was a kid, the one that had helped him win the Heisman Trophy and become the second overall pick of the draft.
The move came with the blessings of the new staff, which included head coach Mike Vrabel, offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara.
“It was a mixture of both (myself and coaches),” Mariota acknowledges. “I think when you’re able to look at the film and your coach sees the same thing, it’s good. You’re communicating on the same level.”
Mariota had always kept his legs fairly close to one another when he was in the pocket, perhaps because it allowed him an easier transition into the mobile scrambler that frustrated defenses.
“I tend to get real narrow (in my stance),” Mariota explains, “and I think a lot of times that was, for me, trying to get out and run out of the pocket.”
There were, however, a couple of potential issues.
As advantageous as the narrow stance might have been for Mariota in the run game, it wasn’t ideal for passing, causing him at times to sail passes over the heads of receivers. There were also times when Mariota switched from a narrow base to a wider one just before throwing, taking an extra split second that would allow a defender to close on the pass.
A wider base from the very beginning, then, should presumably mean better and more consistent throws from Mariota.
“I think the ball comes out a little faster,” Mariota explains. “I think if I’m in a narrow base, it takes me an extra second to get to that base to be able to throw the football. If I’m in a good solid base, I can throw at any point in time and make the throws on time.”
Vrabel said he likes what he’s seen so far from Mariota, thanks in part to the help of O’Hara and LaFleur.
“Pat and Matt have done a great job,” Vrabel said during the team’s organized team activities. “They’ve brought drills in from all over. These guys have been around good quarterbacks, and they know how to develop them and teach them.
“There will be a lot of things that they’ll work on, and hopefully Marcus can take it, just like everybody else, and take it to 11-on-11 (drills). Because sometimes it may look good in individual drills, and then all of a sudden it’s 11-on-11 and you start to revert back to maybe some old habits that we’re trying to fix at all positions.”
The 24-year-old Mariota knows he must remain patient through the process.
“It’s coming,” Mariota says. “It’s tough because it’s hard to break old habits. I think for a long time I’ve been playing with such a narrow base.
“(But) if I’m able to accomplish, really, that goal of mine, to stay in a good solid base throughout, I think I can make a lot of the throws that are asked of me in this offense.”
The other adaptation for Mariota going forward will be learning the offensive system of yet another new coach.
It all began under Ken Whisenhunt in 2015, followed by Mike Mularkey in 2016 and 2017 before Vrabel took over in January. Mariota will actually be dealing with his fourth play-caller in as many years, as LaFleur was preceded by Whisenhunt, Jason Michael and Terry Robiskie.
Perhaps the good news there is that change is hardly new for Mariota, who also conformed to a more traditional NFL offense after playing in a spread, no-huddle attack in college at Oregon.
“It’s kind of part of the job,” Mariota points out. “The last couple of years with there being some turnover, you understand how it goes and you’re pretty used to the situation.
“Obviously, you don’t want that to be the norm, but I think being able to have gone through that situation before, it’s helped all of us to be ready and prepared for this new staff.”
In at least one respect – the run-pass ratio -- the Titans’ attack may not differ too greatly from the 2017 model.
That’s because the Rams, where LaFleur was previously offensive coordinator (not play-caller), ran the ball 54.6 percent of the time and passed 45.4 percent, almost identical to the Titans’ figures of 54.5 and 45.5 percent.
But the manner in which the offense is executed is likely to be different.
Based on coaches LaFleur has worked under in the past – such as Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Mike Shanahan – it would be no surprise to see Mariota and the Titans employ three wide-receiver sets more often, and also use play-action passes, bootlegs and screens more frequently.
“I think they’ve got such good ideas,” Mariota says of the new staff. “I’m just excited to be able to work with it, go out there on the field and just make it a reality.”
The Rams’ offense made a spectacular turnaround in one year under McVay and LaFleur, rocketing from dead last in the league in scoring to 2016 to first in 2017, when Los Angeles averaged a whopping 29.9 points per contest.
Per Pro Football Focus, Rams wide receivers gained 1,032 yards after the catch last season (seventh-most in the league) compared to 605 for the Titans (27th in the league).
“I think that says a lot about Coach LaFleur,” Mariota says of the Rams’ offensive numbers. “Again, it’s on us as players to do our job and execute, but I think they’ve done a great job as a staff of implementing what they want.”
So, for Mariota, more change than ever before represents the challenge, but the rewards of learning appear to be great.
Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.