Sometime over the next 12 months, the Tennessee Titans have to decide whether or not Marcus Mariota is their franchise quarterback.
The fact that Tennessee still has to decide if Mariota, who is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2019 season, is “their guy” is not a good situation for the Titans.
If a player is truly a franchise quarterback, then the decision to lock him up longterm is typically a no brainer.
The Green Bay Packers haven’t hesitated to extend Aaron Rodgers on multiple occasions. The Atlanta Falcons have been quick to extend Matt Ryan’s contract twice. Those are just a couple of examples of easy decisions that NFL franchises have faced.
Unfortunately for the Titans, however, the decision to lock up Mariota isn’t quite so clear.
In fact, the situation might have become a bit murkier on Tuesday with the report (via Paul Kuharksy) that Mariota dealt with more injuries last season than we realized.
According to Kuharsky, Mariota had a cracked vertebrae, a “significant” tear of the plantar fascia in his foot, a strained oblique, a broken rib and a sprained AC shoulder joint. That’s in addition to the ulnar nerve issue in his throwing arm.
My first reaction when I heard the news about Mariota’s previously unreported injuries was that he’s clearly a tough individual. A lot of folks already thought this, but Kuharsky’s report certainly confirmed it.
The second thought I had, on the other hand, wasn’t a positive one — at least for Mariota and the Titans. I think it’s pretty clear that Mariota is even more injury prone than we realized.
Look, I get that Mariota’s had some freak injuries. A broken leg, cracked rib and nerve damage is a lot of bad luck. But when injuries keep occurring — especially to different areas of the body — it’s more than bad luck. At this point, I think this is who Mariota is — a quarterback who will seemingly always be labeled as “questionable”.
The Titans have to decide if Mariota’s abilities when he’s on the field are good enough to deal with the inevitable game or two he will likely miss each season.
I don’t think there’s any doubt the Titans want to extend Mariota. They desperately want him to be “the guy” in Nashville. Searching for a quarterback can set a franchise back for years. Just look at the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills for example. Finding a Pro-Bowl caliber quarterback that can carry a franchise is arguably one of the most difficult things to do in sports (the Titans know this as well as anyone). That’s why so many teams will lock up a player that’s viewed as only a top 15-20 quarterback in the league.
For now, it would be hard to argue that Mariota is any better than a top 15 quarterback in the league. Based on last year’s stats, at least, he’s definitely not any better than top 15 (though to be fair, Mariota gets a bit of a mulligan last year because of a new offensive system).
If Mariota was firmly entrenched as a top 10 quarterback when he’s on the field, it would be easy for the Titans to deal with a missed game or two and sign him to an extension.
Or if Mariota was a top 15 quarterback who rarely missed a game (or a half), then the Titans probably wouldn’t hesitate to extend him.
But as of now, Mariota is a fringe top 15 quarterback who is perpetually injured. When he’s on the field, he’s a good fit in the Titans’ offense and he gives the team a chance to win every week. Again, when he’s on the field.
So now the Titans are in an unenviable position, as they’re forced to gamble on landing a future stud quarterback in either the 2019 or 2020 draft (finding a quarterback through free agency likely isn’t happening), or hoping Mariota either suddenly becomes durable or becomes a top 10 quarterback.
Tennessee has a year to decide, but based on the last four years, I don’t think the decision will be any easier next winter than it would be right now.
Either way, the decision that Titans general manager Jon Robinson makes will shape the future of the franchise for years to come.
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