If you’ve watched the first few weeks of the NFL season, you’ve seen something Vince Lombardi never imagined.
The stodgy old NFL is looking like the Pac-12 on steroids. It’s now normal to turn on the TV and feel a momentary burst of confusion: Is today Saturday, or is it Sunday?
Concepts prevalent in college football have overtaken the NFL, and quarterbacks are the big winners. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, a second-year gunslinger out of Texas Tech, has taken the league by storm with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 35-year-old journeyman playing for his seventh team, just became the first player in NFL history to top 400 passing yards in three consecutive games.
This year’s average NFL starting quarterback has a passer rating on par with Joe Montana’s career rating of 92.3, and scoring is up nearly 10 percent. If you’re a quarterback on a team that has embraced this offensive revolution, there’s a good chance you’re headed for a career year.
Which brings me to Marcus Mariota.
In his fourth NFL season, Mariota is approaching a crossroads with the Tennessee Titans. The team exercised his fifth-year option last spring and must decide whether to sign him to a long-term deal or make him a free agent after the 2019 season.
Since winning the Heisman Trophy at Oregon in 2014, Mariota has gone on to a solid NFL career. He threw for 3,400 yards with 26 touchdowns in 2016 and led the Titans to a playoff victory last season. But he’s had trouble staying healthy, and he appeared to regress last season with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Coming out of Oregon, Mariota seemed like the prototype for a new generation of NFL quarterback. He had a running back’s speed, a surgeon’s precision and the character of a Boy Scout. What could go wrong?
Four years later, it appears the new wave of NFL offense could be coming too late for the Hawaii native who seemed born to ride it. Mariota is on his third head coach, the previous two having lost their jobs in part because they failed to develop him into a star. The coach he has now, former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, wasn’t hired for his offensive prowess.
The guy responsible for Mariota’s development is Matt LaFleur, a 38-year-old offensive coordinator known for his work with Matt Ryan and Jared Goff. The pairing may work out in time, but an elbow injury has slowed Mariota and contributed to his quarterback rating of 53.9, lowest among NFL starters this season.
Mariota came off the bench last week and led the Titans to a 9-6 victory against the Jaguars, despite struggling to grip the ball with numb fingers. Vrabel gave him the game ball in the locker room afterward. It was a celebratory scene, but winning a game 9-6 doesn’t exactly dispel concerns that your offense is behind the times.
Unless things change dramatically, it appears Mariota’s prime years will be spent with a team that doesn’t know how best to utilize his skills. That’s a shame, because when you look around the NFL, you see a bunch of teams succeeding with quarterbacks who come from the same mold.
The Patriots are credited as the first NFL team to incorporate elements of the spread offense as we typically see it in college football. The Chiefs under Andy Reid, the Eagles under Doug Pederson and the Rams under Sean McVay have implemented similar concepts. The stereotype of an NFL quarterback as a statuesque dropback passer is fading as players like Goff and Mahomes — products of the Air Raid offense in college — light up the league.
NFL coaches seem to be learning what college coaches figured out a few years ago. You can dismiss the spread offense as a gimmick, something that works in the Pac-12 but not in the National Football League. While you’re doing that, some spread-offense whiz kid will be scheming a way to kick your butt.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Mariota had been drafted by a team that was more willing to experiment with his skills. Remember, the debate at the time focused on Mariota and Jameis Winston, with the Buccaneers drafting Winston No. 1 because he more closely resembled the typical NFL passer.
Winston has been exactly what his college career should have foreshadowed: a gifted passer whose career is constantly derailed by his own immaturity and poor judgment. The reason Fitzpatrick opened the season as Tampa Bay’s starter is because Winston was suspended for allegedly groping an Uber driver. He’s thrown for more yards than Mariota, but knowing what we know now, there’s no question Mariota was the better pick.
Mariota is still a young player, only 24 years old. He could play another decade in the NFL if he stays healthy. For his sake, I hope he finds a coach and a system that can maximize his skills, either in Tennessee or elsewhere. All you have to do is look around the league to see what’s possible.
The new wave is here. It’s time for Mariota to grab his surfboard.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email email@example.com.