Marcus Mariota believes in going full-throttle after what he wants.
It is an attitude that was instilled in high school, when his parents sold their house in Hawaii to be able to pay for his private school and send him to football camps on the mainland.
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It’s an attitude he continued in college when he decided to head to Oregon even though Johnny Manziel, one of the top prep quarterbacks in the country, was supposed to be going there.
And now, in his NFL rookie season, it’s an attitude that has the Titans quarterback playing at a high level, despite the fact he is on a losing team with a below-average receiving core.
Mariota’s Titans enter their game against the Jets Sunday with a 3-9 record, including 3-7 in games he has played. Yet despite their struggles, which include a midseason coaching change, Mariota has made a surprisingly quick adjustment to the pro game.
Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, has thrown for 19 touchdowns in 10 games and has a 95.1 quarterback rating. With four games left, he is in striking distance of the all-time rookie record of 26 TD passes, held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.
But what may be most impressive about Mariota is how he seems to be getting better as the season goes on. Over his last five games, he has 10 TD passes and four picks. In last week’s win over the Jaguars, he threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns, marking the fourth time this season he has thrown at least three touchdown passes. He also had a stunning 87-yard touchdown run, which is the third longest touchdown run by a quarterback in NFL history.
“He’s a first-year quarterback playing like he’s four, five years in the league,” Jets cornerback Buster Skine said. “He can throw the ball and he’s an athlete too, so you have to keep your eye on him. What really impresses me is that he just keeps getting better from week to week. He’s gotten better every game.”
When the Titans drafted Mariota out of Oregon, which runs a fast-paced spread offense, more than a few observers questioned if he would have a difficult time adjusting to an NFL offense that requires him to play quite a bit under the center.
One observer who never questioned Mariota, however, is former Cowboys vice-president of personnel Gil Brandt, who was one of the few draft experts who had him ranked ahead of Jameis Winston, whom Tampa Bay took with the No. 1 overall pick.
“Mariota is a guy who I think is going to be a real star in the National Football League for years to come,” Brandt, now a senior analyst for NFL.com, said in a phone interview. “He is everything you want as a quarterback. He’s got height. He’s a very, very bright guy. He’s got an accurate arm. He’s done everything he’s done this year with a subpar receiving corps. I think he’s a guy if you build around him, you’re going to get better every year.”
Mariota’s top target is tight end Delanie Walker, whose 67 catches are more than double the next closest Titans receiver.
Mariota admits that it has been challenging to adapt to the pro game, but he feels he is “getting better very single week.”
It also has been an adjustment for him to be playing on a losing ream, having come from an Oregon team that was 36-5 in his three years as a starter.
“It does get frustrating at times, it is tough, but it’s a part of it,” Mariota said. “You got to take it, handle adversity as it comes, and understand that it’s gonna make this entire team better moving forward, and no matter what, you just kind of stick to the grind and don’t get flustered or don’t get down on yourself for what’s going on, and just understand it’s a process and do your best to get better each and every single week.”
It would be hard for Mariota to play better than he did last week against the Jaguars. His long touchdown run really has the Jets talking.
The Jets play a lot of man-to-man pass coverage in the secondary, meaning they often have their backs turned toward the quarterback as they run with receivers. That can make them vulnerable to giving up a long run to an athletic quarterback like Mariota, so defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers is stressing to his defensive backs that they need to stay in their lanes.
“That [87-yard] play that he got out last week, they were playing man,” Rodgers said. “Guys running with their backs turned. They don’t see him until it’s too late.”
Jets rookie defensive end Leonard Williams said he’s not surprised that Mariota has been able to do what he’s done his rookie season. Williams, the Jets’ No. 6 pick out of USC, played against Mariota in college and then became friendly with him during the draft process.
“From knowing him over just a short amount of time, I could tell he was mature and has a certain leadership quality about him,” Williams said. “He’s shown he’s definitely a dual-threat quarterback. I don’t know if some people underestimated him, but I don’t think that’s something that’s going to happen any more.”