Marcus Mariota Gives Tennessee Titans an Identity After Historic 1st Start

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 14, 2015

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota smiles during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

During the last few seasons, the Tennessee Titans suffered from a case of lost identity. Casual NFL fans more than likely couldn't even name the franchise's best player. The organization completely lacked a dynamic presence at any level. 

With Marcus Mariota leading the offense, these problems no longer exist. Everyone can now point to the quarterback as the team's top player and face of the franchise. 

No quarterback in the NFL's history experienced a better start to his career than Mariota. This isn't an opinion. It's a statistical fact. 

Mariota became the first rookie quarterback to throw four touchdowns in the first half of his first start. The only rookie to previously throw four touchdowns during a season opener was Minnesota Vikings great Fran Tarkenton. 

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner also finished with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. He was 13-of-16 passing for 209 yards and no turnovers as the Titans trounced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 42-14 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. 

Even professional wrestling legend Curt Hennig couldn't imagine a more perfect start to a quarterback's career. 

While Mariota's counterpart and this year's No. 1 overall pick, Jameis Winston, stumbled through his first professional start, the Titans' young quarterback made everything look easy...just like he once did at Oregon as a member of the Ducks. 

Much like his time at Oregon, the young signal-caller didn't need to play in the fourth quarter because of how well he initially performed. 

Mariota suffered from a curious case of wrong narrative during this year's NFL draft process, though—one he unequivocally proved wrong in his very first start. 

The most impressive aspect of his play against Tampa Bay wasn't how well he performed. It's that somehow people slighted him in the first place and never believed he could become an instant success. 

Too many branded the Oregon product as a "system quarterback." Someone who would require plenty of time, if not years, to develop into a competent NFL starter. His footwork, personality, ability to process information and throw into tight windows were questioned every step of the way by those not comfortable with him as a player because of what they saw in Oregon's program.

Mariota was often overlooked, as Winston was regularly described as more "pro-ready." 

Sunday's game plan directly reflected Tennessee's belief in Mariota and presented the right approach to get the most out of him. 

As well as the 21-year-old Hawaiian native played, head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his offensive staff organized a brilliant strategy to incorporate aspects of Oregon's offense into theirs, which will define the team throughout the season.

This became obvious on Mariota's third career pass to wide receiver Kendall Wright, which resulted in a 52-yard touchdown, as seen below: 

Because of the quarterback's ability and comfort level utilizing designed runs, the Titans used the zone read to their advantage by implementing it as a decoy.

The fake handoff immediately got the Buccaneers defense on its heels as each defender attempted to identify the player with the ball. Mariota quickly whipped to his right and threw a laser to Wright on a quick slant, and the receiver didn't have any problem running past the Buccaneers on his way to the end zone. 

The precision with which Mariota operated became surgical. Receivers didn't need to slow down and wait on the football to arrive. The quarterback played at a level usually seen from established veterans at the position. 

But, again, his coaches placed him in a position to succeed. 

The bulk of his attempted passes came out of shotgun formation, where he spent his entire Oregon career. His comfort level in the same formation at the NFL level became obvious, as the NFL on ESPN noted: 

Whisenhunt even used his quarterback's mobility to his advantage by moving the pocket, using designed rollouts and successfully attempting a naked bootleg.

While these particular plays highlighted his natural athleticism, Mariota also operated under center and didn't have any problem dropping from center. His growing proficiency in this area will allow the coaches to expand the playbook each week and make the offense even more dangerous.

It's all pretty amazing considering none of this was supposed to happen so soon, as Rotoworld's Josh Norris wonderfully illustrated: 

The Titans are building Mariota's foundation properly. And the rookie continues to validate their trust in him. Even Mariota's teammates know exactly what to expect of him this early in the process. 

"Marcus was born calm, cool and collected," wide receiver Harry Douglas said about his performance, per the Titans' official Twitter feed. "He stays poised no matter how big the stage."

Being the team-first guy he is, the rookie quarterback deflected all of the credit. 

"The entire offense played well," Mariota said, per the team's Twitter account. "I'm very fortunate to be a part of the group that I am."

The victory became more than just a rookie playing well while under pressure for the first time. The franchise now claims something to build around and look forward to as in sits in first place in the AFC South as the only 1-0 team. 

Mariota's playmaking ability and demeanor in the Titans offense provide hope. 

While the Indianapolis Colts are the clear favorite to eventually emerge as the AFC South champions and no one expects Mariota to outplay Andrew Luck over the course of a season, the Titans are no longer at a distinct disadvantage at the quarterback position—like they have been since Steve McNair left.

The Colts, meanwhile, have major concerns on defense, along their offensive line and in the running game. 

Marcus Mariota's performance vs. AFC South QBs
Marcus MariotaBuccaneers81.320940
Andrew LuckBills53.124322
Blake BortlesPanthers55.018312
Brian HoyerChiefs52.923611

The Jacksonville Jaguars once again struggled to start the season. Last year's No. 3 overall pick, Blake Bortles, still hasn't played with any consistency nor developed into the type of quarterback who can lead the Jags to better days. 

And the Houston Texans know better than any other NFL team right now how a lack of quality quarterback play can keep an entire franchise down despite talent throughout the rest of the roster.

Landing a franchise quarterback can be a legitimate game-changer for any NFL organization. Only one team in the AFC South currently has a top-tier one, but the Titans might not be too far behind anymore.

Many of the best teams, though, brought their franchise quarterbacks along slowly. The Pittsburgh SteelersBen Roethlisberger and Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson weren't asked to shoulder the entire offensive load. Their respective running games and stellar defenses set the tone while the young quarterbacks developed under fire. 

Tennessee ran the ball for 124 yards Sunday against the Buccaneers and only allowed 273 yards. 

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 13: Head coach Ken Whisenhunt of the Tennessee Titans talks with quarterback Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans after he threw a touchdown in the 2nd quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Septemb
Cliff McBride/Getty Images

The Washington Redskins achieved similar success during Robert Griffin III's rookie season, when the team implemented many aspects of his collegiate offense into its scheme. While the plan went downhill quickly for many reasons, Washington's initial approach was stellar. 

Whisenhunt is taking the right path in Mariota's development by using these strategies to develop a young quarterback absolutely overflowing with potential. In doing so, the decorated signal-caller quickly became the focal point for the team's hybrid offense and the entire franchise. 

While Mariota's ultimate career course has yet to be determined, one thing became obvious Sunday: The NFL was never too big for the Oregon product. 

The Titans' faith in his ability to transition quickly to the NFL ranks seemingly never wavered, and that trust in their new quarterback could potentially provide a franchise pillar who can carry the team well into the future. 

Tennessee couldn't have asked for a more perfect start to the season with a blossoming identity built around its shiny new quarterback. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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