'The Sky's the Limit': Marcus Mariota Is Ready for Superstardom

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistAugust 10, 2017

Oct 9, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) warms up before the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chugging tallboy cans of working-class beer, holding a catfish overhead and removing their shirts, the five starting offensive linemen of the Tennessee Titans fired up the crowd at Bridgestone Arena before Game 3 of the NHL's Western Conference Final between the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks.  

The quarterback waved a rally towel.

You might have assumed Marcus Mariota really wasn't one of the guys—that he was just there because the Predators wanted the sizzle from his big name. You might have remembered NFL scouts had concerns about his leadership ability when they were studying him prior to the 2015 draft. You might wonder how a soft-spoken teetotaler ever could be respected by those burly, tattooed, wild-eyed men.

May 16, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is joined by members of his offensive line to get the crowd cheering before game three of the Western Conference Final of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Anaheim Ducks
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

But if you saw Mariota at a Titans game instead of a Predators game, you would have a different impression.

Down seven to the Raiders with less than two minutes to go in Nashville last September, the Titans were driving. A 19-yard pass from Mariota to Tajae Sharpe put the Titans on the Raiders' 3-yard line, but then left tackle Taylor Lewan was penalized for unnecessary roughness after diving on the pile. The ball was moved back to the 18, the drive petered out and the Titans lost the game.

Fans jeered Lewan. He was savaged on social media. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called Lewan "an absolute fraud" and a fake tough guy on Twitter.

For Lewan, it felt like him against the world. He lost a game, the fans and the trust of his locker room. Then about an hour later, Mariota pulled him aside in a quiet hallway before the players dispersed.

"Don't ever stop being yourself," he told him. "I'm with you."

Now Lewan will follow Mariota anywhere. And he isn't the only one.

"We'll do anything for Marcus," center Ben Jones says.

The invitation to the Predators game was extended only to the offensive linemen. It was their idea to bring Mariota along. They also bring him to their Thursday night dinners every week, and he sometimes serves as designated driver.

"He goes out with us and he doesn't drink, but he's one of the boys," Lewan says. "He doesn't act like he's above us. He's not on a high horse. That's awesome. I'm never going to pass judgment. It's the perfect yin and yang between us."

And not just between him and the offensive line.

In Mariota's third season, the Titans are his team.

Anyone who has seen Mariota's golden eyes flash in a Titans huddle on game day knows.

"He's demanding in the huddle," head coach Mike Mularkey says. "He's vocal in the huddle. He cusses a lot in the huddle. He's as competitive in the huddle as anybody I've been around."

To sum it up, Mularkey declares him "our leader."

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Mariota is detailed, and he expects no less from his receivers. When one of them runs a sloppy route, they hear about it.

"He will get on you if you aren't doing what you are supposed to do," Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews says. "But he does it in a respectful manner."

If being demanding without being abrasive is an art, then Mariota is an artist.

"There is a mindset you have to have when you get out there on Sunday," he says. "Guys understand it's out of love. It's not something where I'm trying to embarrass them. It's trying to get them to be the best they can be."

Mariota has become a veteran and has grown as a leader.

"Some of the best leaders in the world find they learn something every day to be a better leader," he says. "Whether it's developing a relationship, learning what someone likes or doesn't like, putting forth the extra effort so guys understand you do what you preach. The best leaders adapt and are flexible with their situations. I try to be the same."

Mariota leads by knowing how to treat individuals differently. He leads by showing up every morning before his teammates—by 6 or shortly after—and by staying until the players' parking lot is nearly empty. He leads by volunteering to sign autographs every day after practice for a group of 25 kids chosen by team representatives.

His personal goal this season? "To be the best teammate I can be," he says.

Mariota was one of six Titans voted by teammates to be a captain last season. But Mariota and the other captains decided not to wear "Cs" on their jerseys so they didn't stand out from their teammates.

New Titans receiver Eric Decker has found Mariota's demeanor similar to another quarterback he played with.

"I love the even-keel, down to earth, humble approach," Decker says. "Being around Peyton [Manning], he had that as well. Both are guys' guys, and [they're] football junkies as far as the film, studying the game, knowing their craft."

I love the even-keel, down to earth, humble approach. Being around Peyton [Manning], he had that as well. Both are guys' guys, and [they're] football junkies as far as the film, studying the game, knowing their craft. — Eric Decker on Marcus Mariota

Marcus Ardel Taulauniu Mariota grew up on the island of Oahu, the son of a blond German mother and a thick Samoan father. They taught him Fa'asamoa—the ways of Samoa that stress humility and respect.

"I would say that's probably the focal point of my leadership," Mariota says. "Our culture is all about we, never about yourself. I always try to make it a point when I'm talking to guys to say we. It's not you need to do this, it's what can we do better. It makes it more of a family culture."

These Titans are ready to be led. They won nine games last season after winning three in Mariota's first year. They made a number of acclaimed moves last offseason and became the trendy pick to win the AFC South.

Mariota, meanwhile, is in a good place. His 93.8 career passer rating is third-best in NFL history among quarterbacks who threw at least 600 passes in their first two years—behind only Dan Marino and Russell Wilson—according to Pro Football Reference. He has been his most menacing to defenses when the smell of blood is in the water. In the red zone, Mariota has thrown 33 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

On Saturday, he is scheduled to play his first game since breaking his fibula on Christmas Eve. After an offseason season of rehab, Mariota is moving well.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 24: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans is carted off the field after fracturing his fibula during the second half of the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 24, 2016 in Jacksonville, Flori
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Mariota can become a much better quarterback this season.

"The sky's the limit for him," Matthews says. "I'm expecting big things."

If Mariota has proved anything in his first two seasons with the Titans, it's that he is capable of growth. When he came to the Titans after playing in Oregon's spread offense, he was determined to show he could be a pocket quarterback. He worked at disciplining himself to stay put, even when his instinct was telling him to run. Last season, the emphasis was on getting rid of the football and avoiding the big hit, even if it meant throwing it away.

This year, Mularkey says he is giving Mariota more responsibility at the line of scrimmage. Mariota has been allowed to choose from two plays at the line in the past. Now he will be allowed to call whatever play he wants if he sees a defensive look that can be exploited.

"He's ready for that," Mularkey says of Mariota, who scored a 33 on the Wonderlic prior to the 2015 draft, according to former NFL scout John Middlekauff. "He's pretty sharp, and he works at it. He can do it all the time. He understands everything, what defenses are trying to do. He is amazing with protections, gets us in the right protections."

Empowering Mariota at the line of scrimmage wouldn't mean as much if the Titans had not acquired more players who can exploit advantageous matchups. They revamped their receiving corps, drafting Corey Davis with the fifth pick and Taywan Taylor with the 72nd, and signing free agent Eric Decker.

He understands everything, what defenses are trying to do. He is amazing with protections, gets us in the right protections. — Mike Mularkey on Marcus Mariota

These additions came a year after the team added running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Last season, when defenses ganged up on the run, Mariota didn't have many appealing options. This year, he should.

"To be able to have a bunch of different guys to throw the ball to and get the ball in their hands and let them do their thing, it will really help our offense," Mariota says.

Davis can take a short pass and turn it into a long gain, or snatch a ball over the top of a defender. Taylor's suddenness plays well in the slot. Decker is a veteran with a knack for getting open—and Mariota has acknowledged it with his throws.

A natural chemistry between Mariota and Decker has been evident throughout training camp.

"I feel we've had some plays where we just kind of connected," says Decker, who chose to sign with the Titans in part because of Mariota. "I hope we can keep progressing with that, getting comfortable with each other and trusting one another."

After one sweaty practice ended recently, the large majority of the Titans retreated to the cool of the locker room or the arms of loved ones. Mariota, meanwhile, worked on his drops for nearly 30 minutes.

By trying to improve his footwork, he is hoping for more accurate throws to Decker and the other receivers.

"I got pretty inconsistent with my drops [late last season], and that led to some inaccuracy," he says.

The result was noticeable. Over his first 12 games, Mariota had a completion percentage of 64.29 and a rating of 101.9. In his final three, his completion percentage was 45.21 and he had a 63.0 rating.

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 11:  Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans throws a interception while under pressure from Everson Griffen #97 to Eric Kendricks #54 of the Minnesota Vikings at Nissan Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. Th
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

"If I have my feet under me, I'm a much better passer," Mariota says. "It's getting to that same position every time and making sure I'm consistent."

The second overall pick of the 2015 draft lives in a condominium overlooking the town that could be his. He has come to know what Music City is about, attending CMA Fest and concerts from Florida Georgia Line to Tim McGraw.

But it's not like he's barhopping every night. In fact, don't expect a response if you text him after 9 p.m. Mariota usually turns out the lights by then.

He is more comfortable on a beach than in a honky-tonk saloon. His idea of relaxing is bodyboarding off Oahu's South Shore.

"When I'm at home, that's the first thing I do is get in the water," he says. "I love bodyboarding and bodysurfing. It's a special time for me, kind of my sanctuary when I get in the water."

And what would he do in a saloon anyway?

"For me, I've never been curious about it—drinking," Mariota says. "It's never been something I wanted to do."

After NBCSN broadcast the scene of Mariota and his linemen at the Predators game, Mariota was asked repeatedly about not drinking beer with his teammates. At a banquet in June, he revealed he'd never had a sip of alcohol in his life.

Things have changed since then.

Ardel Deppe was a construction contractor from Kauai who loved to cast a line into the sea and sip a margarita. He passed away in April, and his family celebrated his life in Hawaii in July.

"He was a great man," Mariota says of his grandfather. "So the least I could do was have one of his favorite drinks and pay a little tribute to him."

It does not sound as if Mariota is hooked on margaritas, though.

"Hated it," he says. "Tasted horrible."

Mariota lives cleanly. He tries not to take painkillers, and he has no use for marijuana.

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

"I've never done it and probably never will," he says.

The worst thing he ingests is chocolate—especially Oreos. "My vice," he says.

He dropped about eight pounds in the offseason to get to 218, so he couldn't have eaten too many.

"I'm a big believer your body is capable of taking care of itself," Mariota says. "If you are putting the right foods in, doing the right things and taking care of it, your body will take care of you."

Now, he feels his body is right. He has more command of his offense than ever. He has better players around him.

The Titans are his team, and he could accomplish something special this season.

Even he might grab one of those beers from his linemen and drink to that.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.