The NFL’s Overlooked Superstar Quarterback

Quinton Spain probably isn’t a name you know. Spain is a guard for the Tennessee Titans. He’s played a little bit over his two years in the league, starting more games than he sat in 2016, but even for guards he’s not a known name. Spain became the star for a fleeting moment during the Nashville Predators recent run to the Stanley Cup Finals. When the Titans offensive line got together to chug beer and hold up dead catfish in the stadium, Spain was standing front and center. Right there between Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan the way he is on the field. Shirtless, covered in beer, not the way he is on the field. Everyone noticed Spain. You couldn’t miss him. Not everyone noticed the guy off to the left, standing uncomfortably while waving a towel and wondering how long it was all going to last.

Marcus Mariota had rarely looked so out of place in Tennessee.

It’s unusual for any quarterback to be overshadowed by his offensive line, normally it works the other way around. It’s especially unusual for it to happen at a hockey game. If there was one quarterback it was going to happen to though, that was Mariota. The former Oregon prospect is a reserved character. He’s so reserved that when he was coming out of college one GM claimed Mariota’s red flag was that he had no red flags — a reach bigger than Randy Moss in the corner of the endzone. After his offensive line went viral, Mariota revealed that he has never taken a sip of alcohol in his life so the idea of him chugging a beer shirtless is even more absurd than whatever that GM was talking about.

During that draft process Mariota was pushed into the background by Jameis Winston. Winston went first overall in the 2015 draft, Mariota went second. Winston was considered a generational talent after a stellar couple of seasons at FSU. Mariota was widely regarded as a system quarterback who would struggle to transition to the NFL. He received lazy comparisons to Colin Kaepernick and other running quarterbacks simply because of his physical profile. Mariota can run. He’s obviously an excellent athlete. That doesn’t mean it was the most significant or even a significant part of his skill set.

Rather than compare Mariota to a quarterback such as Kaepernick, he should have been compared to a Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. He shared Brady’s quick release, outstanding ability to diagnose coverages in an instant and his precision on short/intermediate routes. He shared Roethlisberger’s ability to function effectively both inside and outside the pocket, extending passing plays and giving them every chance to succeed rather than dropping his eyes to run himself into trouble. The aesthetics of Mariota’s physical skill set distorted the view of his quality as a passer, setting the tone for how he would be covered early in his career.

Since entering the NFL, Mariota has proven his quality as a passer.

As early as Week 2 during his rookie season Mariota was making exceptionally difficult plays from the pocket. For Dorial Green-Beckham’s 13-yard touchdown against the Browns that week, Mariota initially looked to his left where he had two receivers covered tightly. He shuffled his feet, turned his shoulders and came back to the other side of the field as the pocket around him began to tighten. Mariota subtly moved backwards while pump faking to draw a linebacker out of the passing lane he wanted to attack. An edge defender arrived to hit Mariota as he began to release the ball. The quarterback’s release was so quick that the ball wasn’t affected. His mechanics stayed strong, he absorbed the hit and delivered the ball in perfect time to a perfect spot for Green-Beckham to catch the ball in the back of the endzone.

The now 23-year old threw 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt during his rookie season. Those numbers didn’t do his performances justice. Mariota played behind one of the worst pass-blocking lines in the league that season. He was regularly working from condensed pockets, buying time with subtle movements while keeping his eyes downfield. Without his quick release and poise in the pocket the Titans passing game wouldn’t have been functional. To compound those issues his receivers constantly left completions on the field. Mariota lost a completion on an accurate throw because of receiver error once every nine attempts that season. No other quarterback lost a completion that often and when adjusted for receiver error his yards per attempt lept to 8.9, the sixth-best adjusted yards per attempt in the league. Not only were his receivers ruining plays by dropping balls, they also struggled to get open. Relying on Harry Douglas, Dorial Green-Beckham and Justin Hunter meant that Mariota was constantly throwing receivers open with precision and anticipation into tight windows.

Jameis Winston was supposed to be the generational talent from his draft. He was supposed to be the guy who elevated everyone around him and played with consistency. Mariota did all of that without the major accuracy issues and turnover problems that Winston has had to this point in his career.

The Titans should have embraced Mariota’s obvious strengths after his rookie season. They should have set him up in a quick-passing, shotgun-heavy offense that featured three, four and five receivers as much as possible. Mike Mularkey has never emphasized those things. Mularkey has always relied on misdirection, heavy-set personnel packages and deep drops in the pocket that come with slow-developing, vertical releases for the receivers outside. It’s an offense that doesn’t give Mariota three or four options to attack the coverage on every play and it’s an offense that doesn’t let him get rid of the ball quickly. According to Football Outsiders, the Titans ranked second in the league in run percentage during the first half, fourth in the league in run percentage when trailing in the second half and used heavy packages on 43 percent of their plays, more often than any other team. 23 teams used shotgun/pistol formations more often than the Titans did. 26 teams used empy sets more often. Mularkey’s offense attempts to minimize the quarterback’s impact and responsiblity. It puts a greater emphasis on the design of the play and the execution of the supporting cast than the quarterback’s ability as a passer.

Despite his own scheme working against him, Mariota was even better during his second season.

Tajae Sharpe and Rishard Matthews struggled to create separation on Mularkey’s vertical routes. With more bodies staying in protection, they were regularly running into crowds so Mariota was forced to throw receivers open into tight windows at every level of the field.

He was still an above average passer to each level of the field except past 20 yards. Dak Prescott was the only quarterback 25 or younger to have better accuracy percentages than Mariota. Prescott’s numbers were enhanced by the types of throws he attempted and the conditions he played in. He could sit in the pocket and wait for wide open receivers. He rarely aggressively attacked tight coverages because he didn’t have to. Furthermore, Prescott threw the ball short at a much higher rate. 39.8 percent of Mariota’s passes travelled further than 10 yards downfield (fifth in the league), whereas 32.47 percent of Prescott’s passes travelled that far (18th).

Only three quarterbacks had a deeper average depth of target than Mariota’s 9.78 last season. A big reason for that was the team’s reluctance to throw screen passes. 6.21 percent of his attempts were screen passes and only 39.49 percent of his yards came after the catch. 28 quarterbacks benefited from more yards after the catch.

The only time Mariota really struggled last season was during the first four weeks. Even then he was still making spectacular plays. In Week 2 against the Detroit Lions he was accurate on 80.65 percent of his passes. One of those accurate attempts came late in the fourth quarter when he hit DeMarco Murray down the seam for a 22-yard gain against tight coverage. Mariota was hit as he released the ball but still threw Murray open to the perfect spot on the field. That play set up the game-winning touchdown for Andre Johnson when Mariota diagnosed the coverage instantly by recognizing the linebacker turning his back to the quarterback over the middle of the field. Recognizing the linebacker’s movement allowed Mariota to fit a touch pass between two defenders to a spot where only Johnson could catch it even though the receiver was completely covered. Those two plays were of the highest degree of difficulty for a quarterback. They were the types of plays Mariota made repeatedly after the first month of the season.

Mariota’s skill set is so wide and advanced that he didn’t have major weaknesses to work on after his rookie season. His only real weakness is his deep ball, something Mularkey tries to emphasize. That meant his second season was about developing greater consistency and adding layers to things he was already doing at a high level.

Throwing receivers open against tight coverage against impending hits is something Mariota does better than all but one quarterback in the league: Aaron Rodgers. There are a few more quarterbacks who are better than him at cycling through progressions to find soft spots in different coverages, they are all older, less mobile, future hall of famers who have been in the league for more than a decade. Mariota is catching up to those guys in terms of manipulating defenders to create throwing lanes from the pocket. You could see very clear examples of him moving linebackers with his eyes against the Chiefs and the Packers.

Having a quarterback who can do all of that from the pocket consistently and make plays with his feet when he’s forced out of the pocket is hugely valuable. Even when Mariota breaks the pocket his instinct isn’t to run. He keeps his eyes up to exhaust every passing option before crossing the line of scrimmage. He is a reluctant runner. This means he gives plays every chance to succeed instead of running for four yards when there’s an open receiver 40 yards downfield. He doesn’t leave pockets without good reason to and he doesn’t predetermine his decision to pass or run. Everything about Mariota’s skill set sets him up to react to what the defense does and punish them for it.

Even with Mariota’s skill set, playing in that type of aggressive passing game with a limited supporting cast should have led to more turnovers.

Mariota only threw nine interceptions last season — he threw 26 touchdowns — and his interception percentage was exactly two, the 12th-best rate among quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts. It wasn’t luck. Mariota only threw 17 interceptable passes. A lowly 3.77 percent of his attempts were considered passes that should have been intercepted. In simpler terms: he should have been intercepted once every 26.53 attempts.

Only 11 quarterbacks had a better interceptable pass rate than Mariota. None of those players played in a scheme that was as aggressive as his and Prescott was the only one from the 25-and-younger club.

Even with his low interception total, Mariota was actually unlucky rather than lucky. On average each quarterback had 39.72 percent of his interceptable passes caught last year. 52.94 percent of Mariota’s interceptable passes were caught.

A quarterback who takes care of the ball while getting the most out of every play by attacking the defense in different ways and elevating his teammates is what every team in the league desperately wants. If Eric Decker can regain his health and Corey Davis erases the concerns about his speed to stretch the field, the Titans will have recievers who can create their own separation and adjust at the catch point for the first time in their young quarterback’s career.

That will help the Titans move closer to the playoffs.

It will help Mariota move closer to the spotlight.

It will help us acknowledge that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL…

…and the best young quarterback in the NFL.

Dak can’t match his precision into tight windows or his anticipation throws on intermediate routes. Winston can’t take care of the ball while creating opportunities for his receivers the way Mariota can. Wentz….Wentz shouldn’t even be mentioned in this conversation.

Even the recently-minted Derek Carr doesn’t have a broad enough skill set or consistent enough track record to challenge Mariota as the best young quarterback in the NFL.

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