'Aloha, Y'all': How the Titans Are Preparing Marcus Mariota for NFL StardomMay 26, 2015
It was at Sandy Beach on Oahu's South Shore where Marcus Mariota grew up. But as a quarterback, he's going to have to grow up in a place near Music Row in Nashvegas, just a pleasant walk past the Johnny Cash Museum and over the Cumberland River.
Here, the spotlight will shine on him brighter than the sun. Instead of the roar of the waves, he will hear and feel the roar of the crowd. The stink of dirt and sweat will replace the smell of the sea breeze. In this place, the young man will be asked to do things he never has done before.
Baggage? He is arriving with some, as you would expect of a kid who comes from Honolulu, Hawaii, via Eugene, Oregon. It is not the kind of baggage that makes you cringe. It's the kind that makes you wonder. It is the baggage from playing in an offense at Oregon that relied on zone reads, short passes, no huddles and a fast tempo. It is not the type of offense anyone has ever seen here, except on TV.
LP Field, home of the Titans, is where Mariota will earn his money and his reputation. It is where he will try to disprove the skeptics who say he's just another spread quarterback, a college phenomenon who can't hack it in the big time.
There will be days this summer when Mariota is in the team meeting room with his back to the big screen, a digital clock counting off the seconds. In that position, he will call a play using a language he never has spoken. Then, he will turn around and face the screen. He will be looking at a defense in a pre-snap set. He will point to the middle linebacker, redirect the traffic and then use cadence to get the play off. Then he will look for coverage rotation and determine where his pass should be going.
"It's going to be constant repetition of the operation," Titans quarterbacks coach John McNulty said. "Obviously we're going to run the practice plays, like everybody. But we're also going to have to find as many ways as possible to simulate the operation, with the clock running, crowd noise, traffic, redirecting and the play call. Over and over again, we'll simulate that stuff.
"Most of the guys, the older guys, they do it unconsciously. They don't even think about it. It's going to take a while to get to the point where he doesn't have to think about, 'I have to do this, that, this.' We'll do it ad nauseam until we're both sick of doing it."
It is one thing to do this in a library-quiet meeting room in June, thumb on a pause button. It will be another to do this in real time, in the chaos of an NFL moment when his career and physical well-being are threatened.
Mariota's college playbook was different from Jameis Winston's, and that may be the only reason Mariota was the second pick in the draft and not the first—even though he won the Heisman Trophy, the Davey O'Brien Award and the Rose Bowl against Winston's Florida State Seminoles.
The physical act of receiving a snap under center should be the easy part. Going back to when Titans coaches observed Mariota at the combine, they believed he took snaps naturally—better than any of the other spread QBs in the draft. But there is so much more to the transition than that.
McNulty has worked with three rookie quarterbacks the past three years, but none of them came to the NFL from the type of offense Mariota does. The history of quarterbacks who have come from college spread offenses is not encouraging. Among those who have not played to expectations recently are Blaine Gabbert, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden and Tim Tebow.
The Titans, who chose another spread quarterback in the first round in Jake Locker just four years ago, carefully examined this phenomenon in their draft meetings.
"There isn't enough evidence one way or the other to say these guys are at a major disadvantage," Titans general manager Ruston Webster said. "This hasn't been going on that long. I think it depends more on the skill of the player than the offense they come from. Coaching stability in the NFL is a part of it, too."
The Titans came to the conclusion that Mariota has more ability and better intangibles than the spread quarterbacks who have struggled. He also was different in that he was more of a passer than runner in college.
It took Alex Smith, another college spread quarterback, many years to establish himself in the NFL. But he was saddled with seven offensive coordinators in his first seven seasons. The Titans believe Mariota can begin his career more like Andy Dalton did, if they set him up him accordingly.
The resume of Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt confirms he knows quarterbacks and offenses. He has done it his way, with his system, and he has not veered far from his core beliefs. That could be about to change, though. When the season kicks off Sept. 13 in Tampa against Winston and the Bucs, Whisenhunt needs Mariota making first downs and throwing touchdown passes. For that to happen, the coach knows he will have to bend more than he ever has.
This was understood in the predraft process that led the Titans to select Mariota. In fact, in early April, a few weeks before the draft, the Titans offensive coaches began a series of meetings. Since it had become evident by that time that a good chance existed the team would select Mariota, the coaches started work on a Mariota plan. They studied the system he operated at Oregon, then looked at teams like the Eagles, Dolphins and Bengals that used similar concepts at the NFL level. Then they considered how they could make their offense more Mariota friendly by borrowing from these pioneers of offense.
Part of the plan, especially in this transitional phase, involves tapping into Mariota's special ability to run. He rushed for 2,237 yards in college, and he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the combine, which made him the fastest quarterback. The Seahawks and Russell Wilson provide an interesting model for that type of skill set, and the Titans have studied it.
"We'll have to come up with how often, when, and in what situations to let him run the ball," McNulty said. "The Seahawks have a good feel for when to hit those plays. Whether it's something that's happening in the game with the backside end, the team they are playing, whatever it is. We're looking at how they handle it, how they've had success and managed to keep Russell healthy."
The Titans are not likely to call for as many designed runs as the Seahawks do, though. Most of Mariota's running likely will result from necessity.
"If you think a quarterback is going to run a lot, that hasn't traditionally worked out," said Whisenhunt, who never has been a zone-read guy. "Those guys take shots. It's a tough, physical league. So I think you have to temper those things to a degree. But if a play breaks down and he can run for a first down, make a big play, that's an important piece."
For this to work, at some point Mariota has to become a pocket quarterback in a traditional sense. The Titans believe Mariota, who scored a 33 on the Wonderlic intelligence test to lead all quarterbacks at the combine, has the aptitude to become much more than a run-around QB. And they are convinced he will do whatever it takes.
Whisenhunt has worked with some special quarterbacks, including Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers. The great ones, he says, all have a recall ability that is rare. In a predraft conversation with Whisenhunt, Mariota brought up a game he played against USC a couple years ago. He said an unbalanced look the Trojans used presented problems. He talked about where defenders were lined up and how it caused him to adjust his run and pass reads.
"To say that unsolicited made me think about his recall and his special recognition," Whisenhunt said.
In 1998, the Jets drafted Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, now the Oregon offensive coordinator, in the third round. Titans western regional scout Marv Sunderland was a scout with the Jets at the time, and he and Frost have had a bond ever since. Sunderland trusts what Frost has to say, and Frost would not lead Sunderland astray.
Frost told Sunderland much about Mariota, but the biggest takeaway was this: "He told me you can install something with him and go through it, and by the second day, it's almost perfect," Sunderland said. "He's a quick processor, and he picks up concepts easily."
Thinking fast is part of Mariota's gift. Webster saw it on a practice field in Carson, California, the day before the Rose Bowl. The Titans were one of seven lucky teams that won an NFL lottery for a press box seat to the game and a pass for practice. Webster took the passes himself for a chance to observe Mariota as well as Winston.
"It was an active practice, quick tempo, and it was impressive how he ran the offense," Webster said.
The common perception is that Oregon quarterbacks are just automatons, programmed by the coaches, but the reality, as discovered by Whisenhunt, is the Ducks' scheme is not simple for a quarterback.
"There are a lot of things he has to do in that offense as far as protections, checks, getting the linemen on the same page with him, adjusting and identifying the Mike," Whisenhunt said. "I was impressed with the amount of communication he has to do with the line as far as protections or run-game things.
"His reads were similar to a part of our offense, some of the combinations he had to look at. So you felt good about him understanding the mechanics, identifying where the problems are and how to handle them, whether it's with a quick throw or changing the protection."
Their understanding of his responsibilities in the Ducks offense grew on March 12, when Whisenhunt, McNulty, offensive coordinator Jason Michael, Webster, college scouting director Blake Beddingfield and western scouts Phil Neri and Sunderland rented a private plane and flew to Eugene.
They watched Mariota work out at Oregon's pro day. Then, during a lengthy private meeting with Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and Frost, the Titans coaches and scouts watched tape of Mariota and asked what his reads were before and after the snap. It helped them understand what he was supposed to see—and what he was actually seeing. Afterward, the Titans met with Mariota for nearly two hours and peppered him similarly.
Now, the Titans are videotaping Mariota's practice reps with cameras stationed on the field behind the quarterback.
"This way every time he watches tape, it will be like he's at the line of scrimmage," McNulty said. "We will see his perspective from ground level, not 30 feet up. If you are using the end-zone view from way back, it's not the same."
During training camp last August in Nashville, Titans scouts got together and watched three of Mariota's games, as well as tapes of other top quarterback prospects. They saw that unlike Winston, Mariota was not required to make some of the throws Whisenhunt requires his quarterbacks to make—especially throws that can expose a lack of arm strength. So when the Titans coaches finally had a chance to work with Mariota during their private workout after their meeting with him at Oregon, they called for him to hit some deep in-cuts, as well as some deep comebacks. They came away satisfied his arm strength was sufficient.
By that time, Sunderland knew Mariota about as well as any scout could, having seen him in person a dozen times. He and Neri had been pounding the table about Mariota for two years in the Titans' offices, and their opinions mean something. Together, they have 76 years of scouting experience.
Sunderland is a former director of player personnel with the Giants. Neri is a former director of college scouting with the Browns and Seahawks. Independently, they came to the same conclusion about Mariota and each gave him a grade worthy of the best player in the draft.
That group trip to Oregon gave the Titans brass a better understanding of the player, but also of the man. In the weeks before the draft, word leaked that the Bucs thought Mariota was too laid back for their liking. His personality and his ability to lead were issues by the time about 100 scouts from 32 NFL teams converged in Eugene. So Titans evaluators were interested to see how four Oregon receivers, a running back and center Hroniss Grasu would respond when Mariota asked them to wait around for a couple hours and go through the Titans' private workout for the benefit of their quarterback. They were happy to oblige.
"That doesn't happen everywhere," Webster said.
It did not surprise Beddingfield, a potential future general manager who had studied television tapes of Mariota's games to search for clues about his personality.
"They have so many great shots on the sideline on the TV tape," he said. "You saw him take control of situations on the sideline and how he interacted."
In the Titans' initial 15-minute meeting with Mariota at the combine, he came across as somewhat guarded and quiet. In each subsequent meeting, he came out of his shell a little more. By the time the team's brass took Mariota and USC defensive end Leonard Williams for steak and oysters at The Southern near LP Field on April 29, he was relaxed and engaging.
The next day, Mariota met more with coaches and scouts—and also with interim team president Steve Underwood and other execs from the organization, including members of the player engagement and media relations departments, as well as the security department. It was a day for getting comfortable—completely comfortable.
"After that visit, it was apparent we were all in the Marcus Mariota camp," Beddingfield said.
Before he ever had a chance to work with Titans veterans, Mariota was making an attempt to get to know them. Just days after arriving in Nashville after being drafted, there was an arm around Kendall Wright, a high-five for Justin Hunter and a meal and game of cards with Taylor Lewan and some veteran offensive linemen.
This is the internal selling of Mariota. Then there is the external selling of Mariota. Weeks before the draft, the Titans put together a marketing campaign in the event the team would select him. Not long after Roger Goodell announced the Titans had selected "Marcus Marioto," Mariota's face lit up 10 electronic billboards around Nashville. He also was featured in local print and radio ads over 10 days. More than $20,000 was spent on the efforts, according to Titans chief revenue officer Stuart Spears. "Aloha, Y'all," is the campaign slogan.
The Titans chose Mariota because they believe he can lift their offense. If he does, he will lift their franchise in the process.
"The biggest hope is he is the player we think he can be, and we win," Webster said. "But he does give us some juice from a perception standpoint in the city and in the league. You can't overlook it. We've been fairly vanilla, so it helps."
Two weeks before the draft, the Titans put in an order for 10,000 leis in Titans colors. They were distributed at their draft party at LP Field after the pick was announced. They also filled their pro shop with Mariota jerseys prior to the draft. More than a thousand were sold the first week, which topped the jersey sales of any other previous Titans player over the last year.
"He is someone the fanbase immediately connected with," Spears said. "We have been able to ride the wave of excitement that came out of the pick."
Mariota knows waves. He never has seen one quite like this, though.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.