NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Quarterback Marcus Mariota, in all likelihood, won’t be a member of the Tennessee Titans next season. The impact he’s made on the organization, however, will be sticking around.
All of Mariota’s teammates have a great deal of respect for him, and deservingly so. Discussions of his weaknesses among fans are frequently preceded by, “he’s a nice guy, but…”
Mariota’s immense impact on the Titans organization, though, goes beyond just being someone that everyone likes.
He was an exciting player, giving the franchise relevancy when it was all-too-close to rock bottom, and he helped to instill a winning culture that will remain with the Titans well beyond his tenure with the team.
STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM
— James🕖 (@SouthTexasTitan) January 20, 2020
When the Titans drafted Mariota with the second pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, the organization was coming off of a 2-14 season, its worst in 20 years.
The franchise’s ownership structure was messy following the death of longtime patriarch Bud Adams and the roster was almost completely devoid of talent. It was a seemingly hopeless situation.
But after Mariota made his first career start—a game in which he threw four touchdown passes, completed over 86% of his throws and recorded a perfect passer rating—a whole lot of hope started coming to the surface.
“He took this franchise and put it in the right direction, and I think in any relationship you start, whether it’s personal or business, you want to leave that place better than you found it,” tackle Taylor Lewan said. “He’s done that.”
While the Titans finished 3-13 in Mariota’s rookie year, the terrible record certainly was not the fault of the first-year QB. He played well, giving fans a reason to believe in a bright future.
Beyond just the fans, though, Mariota’s special talent inspired a great deal of belief within the Titans’ locker room. Along with the team’s other few exciting players, Mariota was a cornerstone for a mammoth-sized change of direction for the franchise.
“Those same bricks that guys like Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Delanie Walker and myself laid, [Mariota] laid that foundation too,” veteran linebacker Wesley Woodyard said.
MAKING THE TITANS EXCITING
people don’t forget pic.twitter.com/pNIf0nlnwU
— matt (@mattneely_) April 12, 2018
With Mariota as the starting quarterback, the Titans would follow up the 3-13 campaign with three straight winning seasons, one of them resulting in a playoff appearance.
Throughout those three years, Mariota had plenty of impressive moments.
At his best, he was an assassin in the red zone—2016 saw Mariota throw 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions inside the 20-yard line.
He also developed a knack for making big plays in key situations.
“My favorite one is probably that Kansas City game where he threw the ball, caught it, and scored,” tackle Jack Conklin said, referring to when Mariota threw a touchdown pass to himself during a playoff win over the Chiefs.
“That’s one of the craziest plays I’ve ever seen.”
Though frequent injuries and a clear on-field regression ultimately led to Mariota’s days as the Titans’ starting quarterback to come to an end, it is undeniable that he made the Titans an exciting team to watch for the first time in quite a while.
“Unfortunately, things didn’t go his way this year, but he helped lay this foundation and he’s a great quarterback,” Woodyard said.
“ONE OF THE HUMBLEST GUYS”
The 2019 season as a rough one for Mariota. For the first time in his football life, he was benched.
In the third quarter of what ultimately turned out to be a shutout loss for the Titans in Week Six, Mariota was replaced by QB Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill went on to lead the Titans to the AFC Championship, earning a Pro Bowl nod in the process.
Mariota was relegated to being a backup. He went from being the face of the franchise to running the scout team during practice and only entering games for an occasional gadget play.
Throughout his undoubtedly painful 2019 season, something that has always defined Mariota to those who know him best stuck with him: his character.
“I think he’s probably one of the humblest guys and has the best character I’ve ever seen in my life,” safety Kevin Byard said. “This guy, from everything he’s handled—from success to failures—he handled everything the same exact way. He never got too high, he never got too low.”
Instead of becoming apathetic when he was sent to the bench, Mariota’s strong character arguably became stronger.
He was a friend, not an adversary, to Tannehill. He humbly executed his role on the scout team to the best of his ability, and he did so with pride.
“How he handled everything—man, such credit to him,” rookie receiver A.J. Brown said. “He’s such a good person. I keep saying that because he really is. Some of the stuff he went through, how he handled it, I don’t think I probably would have handled it the same way.”
“He gets all my respect as a person, as a player and as a team member,” since-retired Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “He’s done a great job. He’s taken the role and given us absolutely the best look you can possibly get.”
Mariota’s attitude not only prevented rifts from taking place within his team’s locker room during their impressive playoff run, but it set a positive example.
“I talked to Marcus this morning and told him how proud I was of him for how he handled the situation,” head coach Mike Vrabel said.
“I think a lot of our players looked to Marcus to see how he would handle that situation. By how he handled it, I think that also positively affected our team to have a player, a star player, be able to handle that role.”
Ocho.. a real one! Few like him. Wishing nothing but the best to my guy! https://t.co/RL6MHHHUZu
— Corey Davis (@TheCDavis84) January 22, 2020
Mariota, despite his numerous accomplishments, was not able to become the franchise QB the Titans drafted him to be. It’s why he will almost certainly be looking for a new team when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in March.
Nonetheless, he deserves a great deal of respect. Not only was he a primary contributor to the turnaround of the Titans, but his attitude during a moment of intense adversity in 2019 helped to keep the team on track.
“He’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever played with, in my life,” Lewan said.
“I told him last night that I learned a lot from him, not even on the field stuff, but off the field, how he carries himself around the locker room,” Byard said.
“I’m going to take those lessons wherever I go in my life.”
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today