As the Titans reassemble, how much do they really trust Marcus Mariota?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Since he got past the basic rookie learning phase, Marcus Mariota been asked to do everything a team could ask of an NFL quarterback, at least to hear the Titans tell it.

But even as I’ve considered his lousy protection, his poor weapons and his long list of injuries, I’ve also often wondered, does what the Titans have really asked of him tell us what they really think of him? How much do they really trust him?MariotaFumbleHouston

As the Titans gather in Nashville for the start of their offseason program Monday, he’s the biggest question for the fifth year running. They’ve made moves to address what’s around him with a replacement coordinator in Arthur Smith, a new left guard in Rodger Saffold and a true slot receiver in Adam Humphries. The upcoming draft will surely provide more.

But it’s incumbent on Mariota to show the Titans enough this season to warrant a second-contract commitment, and there isn’t really such a thing as middle ground. It’s a 2020 franchise tag that will build on this year’s number of $24.865 million or a long-term contract built starting with that number.

Who among us expects them to be a quarterback-dependent team, like most of the league is?

Mariota’s done a lot of good things – in spurts. He was brilliant in his first NFL game with four touchdown passes in Tampa Bay in his 15 throws. He was close to perfect when he threw four against Green Bay in his second season. He threw for more than 9.5 yards an attempt against Indianapolis in Nashville in 2017. He had just one incomplete pass in a loss at Houston in 2019.

There are plenty of other highlight moments. Cian Fahey of Pre Snap Reads recently broke down his numbers and found him to be the NFL’s best passer in obvious passing situations.TicketsCMA1

(Let’s note in that piece Fahey writes: “(Mariota was) throwing the ball into tight windows by design.

"When the foundation of an offense regularly asks this much of the quarterback, his numbers aren’t going to be as high as his peers who are put in positions to make simple throws that turn into huge gains over and over again.”

To me, the Titans have had a lot of time to get Mariota in position to make those simpler throws to better people, and have not been able to do so.)

So, Mariota rates as a befuddlingly inconsistent player who leads a befuddlingly inconsistent team.

Last season with Matt LaFleur, we were supposed to see Mariota take more ownership of the offense. We were told behind the scenes he became more of a stakeholder. But the biggest evidence comes in what we saw in games, and there was no discernible difference there. There was certainly no difference in the way he spoke about what he was asked to do, what he wanted to do – and there won’t be. His personality isn’t going to change.

I talked to a quarterback coach about how much he can tell about a team’s trust in its quarterback based on what he is, and is not, asked to do. Here’s his whole answer:

Some help you win by protecting the ball and not losing the game for you, others will do it by going out and making plays. You’ve got to find that fine line of how much you’re going to stretch your quarterback, to find out how much he can do to help you to win the game without making a critical turnover to lose you the game. As you watch an offense in general, the more confidence the have in him, you find out in critical situations: red zone, third down, all that. Are they doing generic stuff just to make the play, are they attacking and trying to hurt the defense and score. A) It is the level of trust they have in him or B) some teams have an offensive identity, they don’t care who’s playing for them, this is how we’re going to play. We don’t care who our QB is, we play this way. Others say if I have a lot of confidence, we’re going to do this, I’m going to throw it deep. Some say I don’t know how he’s going to do if we throw it deep, we’re just going to check it short or go to the run game.

It not always if they trust him, it can be about the philosophy top-down showing up that way.

Some teams say I’m looking for a guy who, every time he touches the ball, he puts fear in the defense. Others say that’s not our style, we want to make sure we’re in the game late and we will find ways to make a play late so don’t lose it early. It’s a team, core mindset and it’s also individually base. So you can’t always tell how the quarterback playing on the field reflects that. It’s a team-by-team deal.

But, within a team, if a team wants to be aggressive and it doesn’t have a quarterback who reflects that, that’s when you start to see some disjointed play, you’ll see a roller-coaster. Some really good play, you’ll say, 'Wow they really opened it up.' And the next week you’ll say, 'Why didn’t they open it up?' That’s how you can start telling.

Rams coach Sean McVay echoed that thinking. He sees elements of trust mixed with a team's core beliefs.

Before I got anywhere close to Mike Vrabel with this topic, I knew where it would go: To week-by-week, opponent-by-opponent game planning.

I really like the Titans' approach here, but its part of why, in his first season, the Titans could look really good in some games where their matchups and plan were great (the Houston win, the New England win) and look terrible in weeks it did not (the losses at Indianapolis and Houston).

“Every week we try to come in and say what gives us the best chance to win?" he said. "For example, we went to the Giants game and it was pouring down rain. If we wanted to throw the ball 40 times, I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you guys. I felt like once it got to be a two-score game, it was over. I really did. So we weren't going to throw the ball. We were going to run it. We were going to punt. We were going to play defense.VrabelStare

"And I know that is not very flashy. But it got us our first shutout since 2001 or whenever it was. and it was a 17-point victory. If we've got to throw it like we did against the Eagles at the end there to win it, we will. I think every week there is a plan. We can do a better job with the plan, the coaches have got to do a better job, the players have got to do a better job executing it.

"I think you've just got to be careful of going down this wormhole of we've got to throw for 4,500 yards, we've got to throw for 315 yards this week. I think we have to find ways to be more efficient and we have to score more points, when we get to the red zone we've got to be much more efficient, we have to continue to play good defense and be good on special teams."

Vrabel asked if I watched the Patriots in the Super Bowl. But that skips like a smooth rock across a pond past Tom Brady's 1,100-yard passing edge over the Titans as if it was a non-factor in the differing fates of the two teams.

All the Titans coach says is great in theory but the game he uses as an example wasn't at Buffalo, where the Titans ran for 100 yards on 25 carries but threw for a whopping 121.

Of the 12 teams in the playoffs last year, 11 had a starting quarterback or a pair in the case of Baltimore (injury and demotion) and Philadelphia (injury) who threw for more yards than the Titans. Only the Bears' Mitch Trubisky (3,223 passing yards) didn't reach the passing yardage total of Mariota plus Blaine Gabbert (3,255). 

On average those 11 quarterbacks or tandems threw for 4,244 regular season yards, nearly 1,000 more than the Titans. (In the AFC it was 1,109 more.)

Here is a screenshot of him compared to his contemporaries over the last four years, thanks to profootballreference.com.

Screen Shot 2019 04 14 at 7.33.06 PM

Tennessee plays in the modern NFL, the league Titans' fans (and at least one reporter who covers the team) wants the team to participate in and the league where many of those, understandably, wonder if Mariota can hang on a weekly basis.

The Titans don't pass close to well enough, and while there are a lot of ingredients they tend not to talk about the quarterback as one of them. There is a constant mystery on the first drive of the game as to how he will look. How often does it feel like they are going to ride with him and live or die with what he can do?

New Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he thinks it's a mistake to judge a team's faith in its quarterback based on what it asks him to do.

Former Titans coordinator and current Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur said there are times you can get hints about it.

The Titans are going into the 2019 season planning on riding Derrick Henry and building from there. And that makes sense. Henry was outrageously good in the final quarter of last season. If he's that guy from the start, Tennessee's offense will be transformed, and a quarterback with Mariota's talent should have an easy time playing off of that caliber of run game.

Odds are against Henry being that guy all the time.

apple icon 144x144 precomposedAnd what the Titans need is a quarterback who can be good to very good a much larger percentage of the time. I'm not convinced the team believes in him entirely based on how he's been used.

They've had plenty of chances to change that, as they moved from Ruston Webster to Jon Robinson as GM, as they moved from Ken Whisenhunt to Mike Mularkey to Vrabel as head coach, as they moved from Whisenhunt to Jason Michael to Terry Robiskie to Matt LaFleur and now to Arthur Smith as play-caller.

I'd love to see them let Mariota cut it lose more. I'd love for them to want to be like the rest of the league because the path to major success in today's NFL is filled with 4,000-yard passers or at least 3,000-yard ones.

The going rate a new contract will cost isn't based on 19 of 29 passing for 215 yards with 1.3 TDs and .76 picks a game, Mariota's career baseline. That's another reason the Titans need to ask more of their quarterback if they are considering paying him top dollar. You can pay a lot less for that.

Mariota's ownership of another revised offense starts today. What exactly will they let him own? What do they think he can handle?

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