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NFL Draft

Is Issue From Titans Era Still Lingering For Marcus Mariota?

  • The Draft Network
  • August 18, 2020
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It’s been a rollercoaster few days for Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Marcus Mariota. Two days ago during availability after the Raiders’ first practice open to the media, head coach Jon Gruden had good things to say about Mariota’s early performance in the new offense. Gruden told reporters: "He took off a couple times today and it really fired me up. He's been hurt, but looks like the ankle really turned a corner. He's a dazzling playmaker with his feet, and that's the key to his game.”

Hold that there, and push the clock forward 24 hours. Off of the Raiders’ second day of practice, Mariota reportedly struggled throwing the football. On his day: “The former Tennessee Titans starter struggled throughout the morning practice, overthrowing one open receiver, throwing at the feet of another and then taking too long to get rid of the ball during a red-zone drill in which he finally had to take off running.”

But, from that same day of practice, came this beaut to rookie wide receiver Bryan Edwards.

Of course, that’s just one throw—and according to Vic Tafur’s report from Wednesday’s practices, Mariota’s elbow injury has affected him significantly as a thrower. “Mariota looks a little stiff throwing the ball. Gruden mentioned how he was back from an elbow injury, but Mariota doesn’t look that comfortable and isn’t getting the ball out very smoothly.”

The mention of the elbow injury is an important one. Mariota’s elbow injury first occurred during Week 1 of the 2018 season and held him out of two games before he returned following a Blaine Gabbert concussion. Given the drop off in Mariota’s play following the injury, many believed that he never really recovered from the initial injury. Nerve damage as a result of the injury was leading to tingling and general weakness that was not leaving Mariota’s throwing hand.

But it’s the preseason of 2020, and Mariota wasn’t listed on a single injury report for 2019 for the elbow issue. However, the play was almost unrecognizable: Mariota’s rate of on-target passes in 2019 dropped significantly from 2018 (76.3%) to 2019 (63.0%), per Sports Info Solutions. His completion percentage dropped off to a similar degree—from 68.9 to 59.4%—without a change in his depth of target (7.5 Intended Air Yards, per Next Gen Stats).

If he never did see his throwing elbow recover, that would help explain his poor 2019 performance—though it doesn’t particularly explain why his 2018 performance remained competitive, even through a knee injury and stinger that would keep him out of a must-win Week 17 playoff qualifier against the Indianapolis Colts. His long-time quarterback mentor, Vinny Passas, theorized that the cumulative damage of the 2018 campaign prevented Mariota from preparing adequately for yet another new offense with the Titans, which ultimately led to his benching in favor of 2019 Comeback Player of the Year Ryan Tannehill.

In a previous look at Mariota and Carr’s relative strengths and weaknesses, I found myself wholly unconvinced that Mariota offers anything that Carr doesn’t under the helm. Of course, that which Gruden himself has highlighted is the one thing that stands out as uniquely Mariota’s: the running threat. If Mariota was added to a quarterback room of Derek Carr and Nate Peterman with the intent to provide some mobility, then that was a win. But the Gruden West Coast offense rewards pocket passers more than it does scramblers, and while Mariota’s ability to create with his legs is impressive, the Raiders’ supporting cast of offensive linemen and young receivers shouldn’t force him into those situations often. 

As such, the idea that Mariota would be a threat to Carr’s starting gig at any point in the season seemed conditionally exclusively on an implosion from Carr, who’s coming off of a career season. That seems unlikely, and if Mariota were installed as a breath of fresh air starter, it would be a desperate ploy for a sudden jumpstart. 

With the additional injury-related concerns considered, it does seem advantageous to Mariota long-term that he be given time to recuperate without the pressure to start on any given Sunday—but the only way he’ll be challenging for Carr’s job in the short-term is if that recovery is all but completed. Given the practice reports, it sounds like Mariota’s arm is still affected. Expectations must be tempered for the league’s highest-paid backup, and if the Raiders are looking for a future challenger to Carr at quarterback, it seems they’re still on the hunt.

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