Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota’s leadership style may be unique, but it works, and his teammates respect it.
Discussions of Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota potentially being a less-than-stellar leader have been had since the 2015 NFL Draft process, when several scouts and experts wondered if the quiet and reserved kid from Honolulu could be an effective leader of an NFL locker room.
The latest example is former Titans receiver Eric Decker calling Mariota “too passive” on FS1’s “The Herd.”
Contrary to what many seem to think, the fourth-year pro is the undisputed leader of the Titans locker room. He may be quiet and reserved, but his teammates on both sides of the ball adore him, and they would all go to war for him in an instant.
This begs the question of what exactly makes Mariota’s unique and perhaps even strange style of leadership work. That question is exactly what A to Z Sports has spent the last several weeks trying to answer.
Through talking to nearly every Titans offensive starter, members of the coaching staff, and Mariota himself, it has become clear that there are three major elements of Mariota’s unique approach to leadership that make it effective. As one might expect, none of the reasons involve volume or “swagger,” but that might actually work in Mariota’s favor.
Mariota on helping the team during crucial situations. pic.twitter.com/7kKFeEOxB2
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Of the three elements, this was probably the most obvious. Since the start of the 2017 season, Mariota has led a remarkable 11 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. In “clutch” situations, Mariota is the kind of player that any coach should dream of having at the quarterback position.
His most recent late-game heroics came in Week 13 against the New York Jets when he led the Titans offense down the field for an 86-yard touchdown drive to seal a victory.
“When [Marcus] got the ball in his hands for that two-minute drive,” tight end Jonnu Smith said following the team’s win over New York, “I was sure that we’d win the game. He just keeps us poised in situations and moments like that. He’s the leader. He keeps us all poised, and he’s able to let us play free, loose, and relaxed, and get done what we need to get done.”
“We appreciate the fact that everybody is different,” head coach Mike Vrabel said. “Marcus isn’t going to be that guy giving a pep talk, but he’s very calm, cool, and collected. He takes control of the huddle—you can see that in the most critical situations, he’s at his best.”
Leadership in the NFL is about more than just motivation, it’s about making your teammates comfortable. In that measure, especially when the game is on the line, Mariota is one of the NFL’s best.
Jonnu Smith discusses his improvement and what it’s like to have Marcus Mariota in the huddle. pic.twitter.com/6ADFapgVxI
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Authenticity is the characteristic that Titans’ coaches most frequently highlighted when asked about Mariota’s leadership. It’s also the one that Mariota himself said was the most important to being a leader.
“Honesty and, I think, integrity,” Mariota said. “Those are a couple things that are very important, because guys, no matter what, can tell when you’re being fake. Guys, no matter what, can tell if you’re just trying to put on a show.”
“guys, no matter what, can tell when you’re being fake. Guys, no matter what, can tell if you’re just trying to put on a show.”
Mariota certainly puts that belief into practice. He is always himself and never tries to act differently. For him, that means consistently keeping a quiet and incredibly humble presence.
It’s a presence that the Titans’ new offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, has noticed from his first day on the job.
“He’s extremely genuine,” LaFleur said, “and I think that anytime you’re in a leadership position, you better be who you are, and he’s true to himself. I just think he has a way, he’s got a positive vibe about him, he comes to work every day, he’s a pro, he works his tail off, and I think the guys are extremely receptive to that.”
Vrabel highlighted the aspect of consistency in Mariota’s leadership, in addition to his authenticity. “I think he’s been very consistent. I think that’s important that you are who you are, consistently. You’re the same person every day. Once they start to expect something, you continue to expect it throughout the week, instead of being high and low and one thing one week.”
The quarterback of the Titans may not always make for an interesting quote or provide his teammates with a rousing pre-game “hype” speech, but that’s just who he is. His coaches and teammates certainly appreciate the fact that he doesn’t try to be anyone else.
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Aside from his famous stiff arm of Jaguars safety Barry Church in Week 17 of the 2018 season, it’s hard to, on the surface, identify any moments of Mariota’s career in which he exhibited a “competitive edge.”
There certainly have been plenty of them, though, and many Titans players are well aware of it. One way that Mariota has exhibited a competitive edge that often gets overlooked is how he has battled through injuries.
“I really don’t like the guys that talk a lot,” said tight end Delanie Walker, “because most of the time the dudes that talk a lot are the ones that make the most mistakes. He usually just leads by example and does it every week. He fights through injuries.”
Wide receiver Corey Davis, who has developed a great relationship with Mariota on the field, also pointed out Mariota’s nature as a competitor. “He’s a guy that will go out there, doesn’t really matter what’s wrong with him, he’s going to put everything on the line for his team. He’s very selfless, he’s always putting others before himself. That’s a great trait to have as a quarterback. He’s a competitor, and I love playing with him.”
Perhaps Mariota’s stoutest supporter since the moment he arrived in Tennessee has been tackle Taylor Lewan. That was, initially, a surprising development for a couple of reasons.
Mariota’s predecessor as quarterback of the Titans was LSU-product Zach Mettenberger, with whom Lewan shared a close bond. Lewan, to this day, keeps a photo of he and Mettenberger in his locker. Mariota sort of came onto the scene as the “hot shot” replacement for Mettenberger.
Additionally, Lewan and Mariota’s personalities are polar opposites. Lewan is very vocal, both with his words and his actions. He has a bit of a mean edge to his game, which certainly helps when blocking the NFL’s best pass rushers.
Yet, Lewan is incredibly fond of Mariota and has frequently gone to war for the quarterback, more than any other Titans player.
“For as long as Marcus has been here,” Lewan told A to Z Sports, “people have been coming up and asking me for little things that show who Marcus is as a leader. Just watch how he plays the game of football. That’s the only leadership you really need.
“I don’t need a guy to come in wearing flashy suits and jawing, and all this. I can do all the jawing for him.”
“I don’t need a guy to come in wearing flashy suits and jawing, and all this. I can do all the jawing for him. He’s quiet, he works his ass off, he’s a competitor, and he sure as hell is a gamer… I think the biggest things people should worry about is his attention to detail and how he approaches every game, you can see it in his eyes when he starts playing.”
With quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Jameis Winston recently receiving criticism for various aspects of their leadership, Mariota’s ability in that regard deserves even more praise.
Sometimes convention isn’t always the best thing, and that is certainly true for the Titans. They love their quarterback, and they are lucky to have him.
When it comes time for the Titans to negotiate a contract extension with their franchise signal-caller during the upcoming offseason, Mariota’s competitiveness, authenticity, consistency and reliability should all play a major factor in deciding just how big of a payday he gets.
Cover image: USA Today/Christopher Hanewinckel