INDIANAPOLIS — For Marcus Mariota, the issue isn't really the arm. It might not be the frame. It probably isn't the legs and certainly isn't the brain. The issue isn't even really the option plays, the scrambling or the wide-open, freewheeling Oregon playbook itself.
Mariota's issues are all in the cards.
"So many times, you are evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play, who has never used a snap count," Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said at the NFL combine when asked about the perils of projecting a college quarterback to the pros. "They hold up a card on the sideline, he kicks his foot and throws the ball."
Arians made no secret of how he felt about that no-huddle play-calling style. "That ain't playing quarterback," he said. "There's no leadership there."
Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who has enjoyed a fair amount of success with a mobile quarterback and an option-flavored playbook, is also wary of evaluating quarterbacks who read their plays from cue cards. "It's harder now because you see a lot of these guys, if you watch college football, you see everybody look to the sidelines," Schneider said.
"You watch them play live, and they are looking at cards with turtles and colors and stuff," he said, "as compared to watching a guy line up, read a defense and run a play."
Oregon's no-huddle system may stand between Mariota and a top-five draft selection. It may slow his development into a starting quarterback. Mariota knows how to throw and run, but general managers are concerned that he has not yet learned how to speak.
Those concerns are legitimate, and Mariota shares them. When asked what his biggest NFL adjustment will be, Mariota answered without hesitation, "It's going to be huddling. I haven't huddled in a while. It seems like a little detail, but it is kind of a big thing."
Mariota has not called a play using his vocal cords since high school. He has been working with Kevin O'Connell (now a Cleveland Browns assistant coach) at a quarterback academy. San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has also been tutoring Mariota. In addition to his on-field training, Mariota is working on the fundamentals of calling a football play in the huddle.
So far, the lessons have been pretty remedial. "[O'Connell] has been giving me a play sheet," Mariota said. "At night, he tells me to read the play calls out loud. That's something little, but I think as this process goes, it's going to help me with whatever team I go to, in terms of just speaking in the huddle."
If it sounds like a long road from reciting calls off a sheet before bedtime to calling a complex NFL play in the heat of battle, that's because it is. "If you have ever been inside a quarterback room, that's pretty intense stuff," Schneider said. "It's like learning a whole language. Just think of the things that those guys have to go through and how fast it goes down."
The actual terminology of the play call, complicated as it might be in an NFL offense, is only part of Mariota's problem.
Mariota, like other no-huddle quarterbacks, has had little experience with snap counts or cadence. He has rarely lined up under center and had to drop a precise number of steps. Quarterbacks do lots of little things in the huddle, like settling teammates down and emphasizing elements of the call, that Mariota has never done. Pre-snap reads are simplified in a sideline-relayed play-calling system, and audibles are rare.
Few doubt that Mariota can learn many of the nuances of play-calling and huddle management. It's a question of how much he can learn, how well and how quickly. Mariota will have to think his way through elements of his job that are instinctive for many of his peers. "When you give them verbiage and they have to spit the verbiage out, use a snap count, change a snap count, they're light-years behind," Arians said.
When we talk about a quarterback "held back by his college system," there's a lot of confusion and garbled communication. Sportswriters who should know better interchange terms like "spread," "option," "read-option" and "no-huddle" as if they are all the same things. Coaches and general managers, who aren't exactly repositories of straight answers, respond vaguely to vague questions, creating a garbage-in, garbage-out situation.
The result is a muddled sense that teams might shy away from Mariota because he ran the option, scrambled or played in an offense that looks nothing like the one Joe Montana ran for Bill Walsh. It starts to sound like NFL teams are seeking immobile dropback passers, even as Russell Wilson leads the Seahawks to Super Bowls and NFL teams integrate options and other designed quarterback runs into their systems.
In fact, general managers don't worry much about scrambling, options or even the simplified reads that come from spreading speedy receivers across the field.
"I think college quarterbacks are put in positions where they have to do a lot of the things that are done on the professional level," Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "The collegiate quarterback probably does, on average, a little more running than the pro quarterback. But outside of that, I think they are faced with some of the same difficult decisions."
The problem comes when the huddle itself, and the duties that come with it, are taken away. What might look like great decisions on film turn out to be scripted elements of a play called from the bench.
"You question a guy's decision-making," Schneider said. "You may evaluate higher based on his intellectual level, or what a great football guy he is. But you don't know, because he's looking at the sideline, looking at cards."
Wilson, it must be pointed out, huddled and called traditional plays in college.
Mariota isn't the only quarterback prospect who was more of a Tarot reader than signal-caller in college. Baylor's Bryce Perry said Thursday that he had never called a play in the huddle at all before Senior Bowl practices. Lots of colleges use sideline play-calling systems these days, and high schools are following suit.
Mariota just happens to be the top quarterback from a no-huddle system this year, and he played for the highest-profile, most superficially unique offense in the nation. Only one NFL team uses a system even remotely like Oregon's. And while playing Chip Kelly Matchmaker is second only to eating cheesesteaks as a Philadelphia pastime this winter, the Eagles select 20th in the first round of the draft. Apprehension about the no-huddle is unlikely to drop Mariota quite that far.
Kelly himself, who has no scheduled press conference this week and is as elusive in Indianapolis as warmth, has not commented recently on his former college quarterback. But he has gushed about Mariota many times in the past. For now, Kelly is the only NFL coach who uses sideline picture cards to call plays. The NFL might adapt, but for now, Mariota, Petty and others face both a set of difficult language lessons and a league peppered with doubters like Arians.
When not taking Eliza Doolittle diction lessons from O'Connell and others, Mariota is working on other elements of traditional NFL quarterbacking. "For me, it's about learning as much as I can," he said. "Learning how my drops time up with the route concepts, how my feet are going to help me go through my progressions."
A trip to the Senior Bowl might have sped the learning process, but Mariota did not feel that he was totally healthy as that event approached, saying, "I thought my best step forward would be just going into San Diego and preparing for this process."
Mariota plans to learn all that he needs to learn in time for training camp. "My goal is to make an impact from Day One," he said.
Everyone I have spoken to agrees that Mariota is smart, competitive and dedicated. He will work as hard as he can. But teams that need immediate quarterback help will be wary. Coaches with complicated terminology will question his fluency. Teams whose coaches think that no-huddle quarterbacks "ain't playing quarterback" are going to look elsewhere; Mariota does not have the size-arm tools to overwhelm a skeptic with sheer talent.
The Mariota "system" concerns are real. They aren't some outdated holdover from the days when quarterbacks stood like pocket statues. Skepticism about the Oregon system will affect both Mariota's draft position and the smoothness of his NFL transition.
It's not because he's not good enough. It's not a knock on his effort, character or even his overall talent. It's just that 31 of the 32 NFL teams expect their rookie quarterbacks to learn poetry, while Mariota is still reading off picture cards.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.