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.

An Early Look at Mike Mularkey’s Offense With Marcus Mariota

Marcus Mariota showed during his rookie season that he was a quarterback and not a gimmick. He quickly separated himself from the ‘system quarterback’ label that had been unfairly applied. When he dropped back into the pocket, he comfortably shifted his weight with subtle feet while making timely coverage reads downfield. It’s all broken down here.

During the draft process it was often said that Mariota needed the right coach to get the most out of his skill set. The suggestion was that he needed a coach who would simplify the passing game and make use of his athleticism.

Ironically, it’s that type of coach that is set to derail his career. Continue reading

2016 NFL Draft: The Tennessee Titans’ Best Direction

21 teams have hired a new head coach since 2013. Eight of those teams have hired two coaches over that time period. The majority of those hires have been paired with new general managers. One of those teams is the Tennessee Titans, the holder of the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

The Titans replaced Ken Whisenhunt with Mike Mularkey, they snared Jon Robinson from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be their general manager. When Mularkey and Robinson were introduced for their new roles, Robinson repeatedly emphasized that he was going to build a winner, from the Titans official site:

“If you only remember one thing from this presser, please remember this, and this goes out to our fans: This is my home and you guys are my family. I’ve been a Titans fan ever since ’97 when this football team moved here. We’re going to build this team the right way. All decisions that we make will be made in the best interests of this team, your football team. Please let us earn your support,’’

Every coach/personnel guy says something along these lines when he takes over. Robinson talks about building his team the right way and making decisions that are in the best interest of the team. With how ruthless and impatient NFL owners are these days, that’s a lot easier to say than it is to carry out.

Any head coach and general manager who wants to stay employed should be fully focused on the quickest way to become competitive. The Titans need to rebuild their roster, it’s why they are picking first overall in this year’s draft, but sacrificing a long-term view to prioritize short-term results will help the new regime more than trying to be patient.

That doesn’t mean you have to trade away all future picks and try to load up your roster with established veterans. It also doesn’t mean that you have to invest big money in subpar free agents, forcing an identity onto a roster that isn’t ready for it.

It does mean you should build on your established strengths or focus your investments to create an area of strength.

The Oakland Raiders did an excellent job of this after hiring Jack Del Rio last offseason. Recognizing that they had a talented second-year quarterback, the Raiders set about building an offense around him that could prop him up as he continued to develop. Michael Crabtree was a key free agent addition, though not as big as the addition of center Rodney Hudson. Hudson and Crabtree were the first wave before wide receiver Amari Cooper became the team’s first pick in the draft and tight end Clive Walford followed in the third round.

Lee Smith and Roy Helu were also added to bolster the offense’s depth.

Hudson, Cooper and Crabtree were the most important additions. When the Raiders invested in them, they weren’t sacrificing anything in terms of talent, though it should be noted that Crabtree’s deal was a prove-it one. They were making smart decisions that just happened to help them create an offensive identity that they would be able to rely on during the 2015 season. The Raiders defense improved also, but it was the offense that propelled them in the right direction.

Even though the Titans are picking first in the draft, they aren’t dramatically far away from being a competitive team. Playing in the AFC South helps but injuries to key players on both sides of the ball limited what they could do in 2015. Marcus Mariota gives them a quarterback who they can build around, Mariota has talented receivers, led by tight end Delanie Walker, and the addition of DeMarco Murray gives them a proven running back.

What Mariota needs is help from his offensive line.

Drafting Laremy Tunsil would push the Titans towards competitiveness faster than selecting Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey may turn out to be the better player over the long term, but it’s not like the Titans would be passing on a great prospect for a bad one. Tunsil himself is discussed as a generational type of player, player being the important part there because we’ve seen a recent generational athlete, Greg Robinson, struggle over the first two years of his career.

Tunsil would allow the Titans to move Taylor Lewan, a player who struggled last season as a left tackle, to move to the right side. Mariota excels in the pocket, he doesn’t need a great offensive line but he can’t play behind the one he did last year. That unit was completely void of talent, though right guard Chance Warmack has shown flashes throughout his career. If Tunsil could come in and lock down Mariota’s left side, it should have a ripple effect on the whole offense.

After Mularkey took over for Whisenhunt during the 2015 season, he put a greater emphasis on protecting Mariota. He contradicted himself by talking about running Mariota more but did use tight ends more often to help his offensive tackles. This obviously comes with a trade-off as the Titans then had fewer receivers on the field and fewer options for Mariota running routes downfield.

For the Titans to get their best players on the field together on a regular basis, they have to use fewer multiple tight end packages. Delanie Walker should be the only tight end on the field with Murray in the backfield, Rishard Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham outside and Kendall Wright in the slot. To get the most out of Green-Beckham and Walker’s downfield ability while still protecting Mariota in the pocket, the Titans need to have tackles who they can trust alone in pass protection.

Tunsil could be one of those tackles, Lewan could be another if he plays on the right side. That pairing would allow the Titans to use all five of its eligible receivers in routes rather than have one, two or even three committed to pass protection.

Having added Tunsil, the Titans could look for a starting left guard or center in the second round, but it wouldn’t be absolutely necessary. Tunsil alone would completely alter the expectations for the offense because it would move Lewan to the right side and address thee biggest weakness of an offense that has plenty of talent to succeed.

The Titans would still have a lot of questions on offense, Dorial Green-Beckham’s development, Tunsil’s adjustment, Murray’s fit, Kendall Wright’s health, Mariota’s usage, but those are the types of questions all teams face. There wouldn’t be a need for any more major acquisitions or question marks about the quality of players available. The offense would be set up to thrive if the coaching staff could prove to be competent.

Momentum, Luck and Mariota

If you’ve been on twitter at any point over the past two or three years, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed debates over momentum. Weirdly, momentum is a subject that pulls more passion out of NFL analysts than most subjects.

Part of the passion is the greater influence of analytics. We live in a time where there is a prevailing cultural acceptance that numbers are what matter most. Continue reading