Something is changing about the Tennessee Titans offense, and it’s not just that it has feasted on the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins. It has a new look, a new way of life. And it’s happening without changing the personnel one bit from that exotic smash-mouth group they’d hoped would take a passing league by storm.
The change is in Marcus Mariota. And it’s stark:
- First four games: 4 TDs, 5 INTs, 58 percent completion, 6.8 yards/attempt, 73.9 rating, 1-3 record
- Last two games: 6 TDs, 1 INT, 70 percent completion, 8.4 yards/attempt, 125.3 rating, 2-0 record
This isn’t the former Oregon quarterback from the up-tempo, read-heavy offense morphing into the under-center, pro-style passer Mike Mularkey has asked for. Plenty of pre-draft stereotypes of Mariota were going to be false, but a complete transition from the finesse to the powerful was always going to be a betrayal of what it means to develop a quarterback in today’s NFL. Suggesting otherwise was asking for him to play below his potential.
Instead, the Titans are finally showing they can mold around their signal caller. This is Mariota stepping back into shotgun on drives that aren’t in the 2-minute drill. He’s scanning the field from a step back, where he can start a play in space. He’s back to forcing defenses to constantly account for his ability to run while also trying to defend the pass.
This is the biggest shift in Mariota’s game as of late. In the first four weeks, Mariota ran 13 times for 72 yards. In the past two, he’s taken off 14 times for 124 yards and a touchdown. Enough of them have been designed runs, sometimes in the read-option, and others on bootlegs and rollouts from under center. They add the extra element that had been missing from an offense that was starting to become DeMarco Murray and not much else.
It’s not hard to understand why Mularkey opted for the system he did, and why the Titans continued to build around it. He’s familiar with it, and his lack of wide receivers doesn’t inspire something too much more advanced — although shipping out the team’s top deep threat, Dorial Green-Beckham, for reserve guard Dennis Kelly remains one of the most puzzling decisions of the offseason. The Titans trusted in Mularkey after firing Ken Whisenhunt last year because he’d said he’d protect Mariota from the hits that were breaking him down. With unimposing wide receivers inviting defenses to blitz, the best way to do that was to go under center and build around the run.
But the key to unlocking Mariota can’t be to avoid using him. To turn him into a player who hands off, works progressions on short throws and only turns loose in a do-or-die situation is to betray the courage it took to select him No. 2 overall, after Jameis Winston was gone and when the noise was the loudest. The real key lies in building around that kind of transcendent talent and seeing where it leads.
Mularkey and the Titans aren’t going to go full force in that direction, and Mariota probably wouldn’t last if they did. Neither Murray nor second-round draft pick Derrick Henry possess the quick twitch to operate out of shotgun all the time, which is why they’ve only done it 52 percent of their plays this season, good for 27th-most in the league. Even though that’s when the Titans are often at their best — they rank seventh in offensive efficiency out of the shotgun and 10th under center, according to Football Outsiders — it’s never going to become completely who they are. Exotic smash mouth isn’t going away.
But there had to be something between the offense Mariota ran last year, when he threw 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions but missed four games to injury, and what he started in this year, which kept him on the field but playing below the NFL standard. Mariota is a quarterback prospect like so few who came before him. Figuring out his strengths is a process that evolves with him.
That balance could be what the Titans are starting to show now. It’s required some improvement from Mariota, which has come on his deep ball. His yards per attempt have shot up from 6.8, which would currently rank 27th among passers with at least 50 attempts, to 8.4, which would rank 4th. He’s still working on hitting those downfield streaking receivers in stride, but it’s a crisper ball now, and his 3 completions of 40-plus yards have all come in the past three weeks.
It’ll continue to challenge the development of his receivers, but his outstanding pass protection and ability to move around helps them get open, too. The Titans would be crazy to move away from the power running that ranks them seventh in rush efficiency. Rather, to build off that on roll-outs and bootlegs, and to invite some of it from Mariota, is to start to unleash one of the more exciting young talents at the game’s most important position. To have him run things out of the shotgun, to go against the grain sometimes, is to start to see what he can become.