Watching Marcus Mariota is a glimpse into the future of the quarterback position.
While Cam Newton looks super-human and feels non-replicable, Mariota is the end product of a decade-plus takeover of the spread option and air-raid attacks throughout college football.
When the Tennessee Titans did the all too predictable thing and removed the “interim” tag from Mike Mularkey, it felt to many like a missed opportunity to see a fully-fledged spread offense be built to challenge the league. Instead, Mularkey has instituted his “exotic smashmouth” offense, which blends old-school ideals with some creativity.
In some ways, putting Mariota into an old-school offense feels like a waste. Yet, what it may represent is a road map for the rest of the league on how to build structure around a new generation of quarterbacks who are experiencing an ever expanding gulf between what they’re asked to do in college and in the NFL.
Mularkey’s offense is about moving the ball on the ground and making life easier for his quarterback. He likes to move a lot of his pieces pre-snap (in the nine games he was in charge last season, the Titans were third in the league in pre-snap motion or shifts) and he runs a hybrid zone/gap blocking scheme that’s akin to the one the Dallas Cowboys run. The system gets offensive linemen on the front of their feet, takes the fight to the defense and pounds the front seven.
New general manager Jon Robinson tailored his offseason to building a bruising offense that protects the franchise’s investment in their young quarterback.
After getting a haul back from trading the first overall pick, the Titans moved back into the top-10 of the draft to grab offensive tackle Jack Conklin, a lineman with heavy hands who is a mauler in the run game. He isn’t an elite athlete, and kicking out in space isn’t his game. He wants to fire off the ball and hit you in the mouth. The same can be said for Sebastian Tretola, a guard they selected in the fourth round. He’s likely a depth piece early on, but points to the Titans’ offensive mindset. He’s a powerful interior lineman with short arms, a jarring presence in the run game.
With Conklin and Tretola, the Titans have shown their intent for a powerful, run-first offense. Taylor Lewan, their starting left tackle, is better in the run game than in pass protection. The same is true of guard Chance Warmack and Jeremiah Poutasi, a powerful player who can get lost outside at tackle and is much better playing inside.
The Titans supplemented their additions up front with two running backs: drafting Derrick Henry and trading for DeMarco Murray. Both work best running behind pulling linemen and working between the tackles.
The offseason took care of the smashmouth portion of the offense. Now, they need to install the exotic parts.
Through the first three weeks of the preseason, we have seen some signs of creativity. Admittedly, the preseason isn’t the best place to unveil creative wrinkles, but we’ve seen some fun stuff, including a dual Henry and Murray backfield (Fig 1), and a number of misdirection plays, including a classic Statue of Liberty play (Fig 2).
But those are only minor play calls in the grand scheme of an offensive philosophy. The biggest creative question that looms over Mularkey and his staff is the kind of run-pass option plays (RPOs) they include in their offense.
RPOs, also called packaged plays, are as they sound: a combination of a running and passing concepts packaged into one play.
There are two forms of RPOs: pre- and post-snap.
Pre-snap RPOs are as simple as getting two play calls — a run and a pass — reading the alignment of the defense and how many defenders are in the box, then opting which play to run. Coaches often refer to them as “kill” calls as the quarterback will “kill” one of the plays after surveying the defense.
Post-snap RPOs involve the quarterback reading the defense on the fly and deciding what to do with the ball. The design works because, in theory, the defense can never be right: if they do X, the quarterback does Y; if they do Y the quarterback does X. A defensive player simply cannot be in two places at once.
They’re the latest evolution of traditional “option” football, but have a much more devastating impact.
The evolution of RPOs has progressed, and now almost all teams build in some sort of option package. However, the question of how successful and sustainable they can be at the NFL level still remains.
Early last season, the Titans built in a number of RPO concepts.
In Week 1 vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mariota made the game look easy with a series of second-level RPO plays that isolated linebackers and eliminated them from the play.
Below: The Titans run a packaged play that pairs two very simple concepts. They build in a basic inside-zone handoff, with a quick slant. Mariota reads the linebacker; if he crashes down to play the run or freezes, Mariota throws the quick slant. If he backpedals into a zone, Mariota hands the ball off.
As the play develops, Mariota reads the linebacker, while the offensive line and boundary wide receiver block as though it’s a run play.
Against the split-safety look, Mariota freezes the linebacker, throws the quick slant, and Kendall Wright runs it in for a touchdown.
By design, RPOs are simple; the quarterback only has to read one player. It’s a big reason why they’ve been such a huge success at the college level. With RPOs, it’s a one-read-and-go system. They look complex, and require complex solutions, but the design is straight-forward.
While that has led to a decade of explosive offense at the college level, the NFL has already begun to sniff out some solutions. After shredding the league early, Mariota and the Titans got into some trouble.
The issue with simple one-read plays is that defenses can begin to set traps. As the Titans continued to run out RPOs that read linebackers, the league began to disguise and bluff their coverages to confuse Mariota and force him into making mistakes.
Against the Miami Dolphins, the Titans had the same packaged play called as they did a few weeks earlier vs. the Bucs. It’s the same design, an inside-zone handoff packaged with a quick slant.
Again, Mariota reads the linebacker.
Yet this time, the Dolphins disguise their coverage and attack the option, luring Mariota into a bad mistake.
After reading the linebackers, he opts to throw the quick slant. Once again, he’s anticipating the receiver being wide open in space. Instead, the nickelback has been coached to read the option himself; if his linebacker crashes, as he does, the nickelback drives to the inside shoulder of the receiver and makes a play on the ball.
Unlike the first week, when defensive players were frozen and unsure whether to play the run or pass, now they’re attacking both as they know it’s likely to go to one of two areas. Mariota throws the pass right at the cornerback.
In many ways, that’s a microcosm of the NFL. One week an offense is running a play that appears indefensible, a couple of weeks later defenses have figured a way to attack it.
And that’s not the only RPO-based problem for Mularkey and his staff. They need to find a way to keep their quarterback protected.
They’ve already spoken about incorporating more first-level RPOs (defensive line) into their offense; designed quarterback runs that should help open their ground game and force defenses to consider Mariota as a rushing threat on every play. Those can be precarious. Any time the quarterback is out in the open field you run the risk of him taking a big hit. Mularkey has suggested that on any designed quarterback run they’ll bring in additional linemen, but that in itself does not mean he’ll be protected, and is a easy way to telegraph play calls.
The question is, at the NFL level, are RPOs more trouble than they are worth? It’s certainly a discussion that many coaches around the league have had. ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden has nicknamed RPOs the “reckless protection offense” as they leave an unblocked defender against your quarterback, and if it looks like he’s keeping the ball he loses all protection rights as a quarterback.
While their innovation is exciting to watch, can they be sustainable at the top-level for an entire career? Many coaches believe not, including the likes of Mike Shanahan. After wrecking the league with Robert Griffin III — running what amounted to a run-and-shoot college-style offense — he attempted to navigate the young quarterback away from that style in a bid to build an offense that could produce sustained success. Griffin got hurt and couldn’t adapt.
That leaves Mularkey in an interesting place. Mariota has played solely in offenses that feature differing option plays, but how much does he really need to rely on them moving forward?
Perhaps the best option is to conserve RPOs for the red zone, or in close games, and use third-level (defensive back) reads.
The Cowboys unveiled a version of this during Week 1 of the preseason in Los Angeles.
Here, Dallas is in the red zone and reading the safety. If the safety rotates down into the box, leaving receiver Dez Bryant one-on-one, quarterback Dak Prescott will throw the pass. If the safety stays deep, Prescott will hand the ball off to the running back.
The offensive line blocks for the run (La’El Collins even gets away with being illegally downfield for a passing play), and as the safety drops to play the run, Prescott throws the ball to Bryant, who makes a great play for a touchdown.
Prescott is not the running threat that Mariota is, so in a similar red zone package the Titans could build in the third option of a quarterback keeper.
It’s all about being smart and not putting the quarterback in a position to take unnecessary hits. Unlike other dual-threat quarterbacks, Mariota’s athleticism is a benefit to his game, but not the main focus.
In his first year, Mariota showed as much ability from within the pocket as any recent rookie. The offense he was running may not have been as complex as those run by the likes of Andrew Luck or Jameis Winston, but as a decision-maker and thrower of the ball, Mariota was outstanding. Red zone stats are a great indication of decision-making and accuracy. As the field shrinks and windows get tighter, decisions get more difficult and impactful. In his rookie campaign Mariota was as close to perfect as anyone could be in the scoring zone, finishing the year with a 65% completion percentage, 15 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions.
With that in mind, what the Kansas City Chiefs (with Alex Smith) and Seattle Seahawks (with Russell Wilson) have built should be the template. Each build the mobility of their quarterback into run first offenses but do not make them the focal point. Both Wilson and Smith are mobile quarterbacks who operate from the pocket first and foremost, and are asked to make a couple of plays a game with their legs to keep the defense off-balance and to create some individual magic. That should serve as a solid foundation from which the Titans can build a new style of offense that could serve as the blueprint for the league as a whole moving forward. A mixture of the past, combined with the future.