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Regardless of critics and uncertain future, Marcus Mariota is making his mark in Atlanta

After what seemed destined to be a short-term stint as the Falcons’ starting quarterback, the former number two overall pick has responded to recent adversity and has become a capable playmaker and influential leader.

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Being in the position of being a bridge quarterback is always tricky for a player. While earning the opportunity to start for an NFL team should never be taken for granted, this is still not an ideal place to be in, knowing it’s only a matter of time before the young quarterback takes over behind center. Marcus Mariota found himself in that position as soon as the Falcons selected Desmond Ridder in the third round of this year’s draft. Following the rookie’s outstanding preseason, the calls to start him over Mariota grew loud and persistent.

Although Arthur Smith often spoke highly of Ridder, he stayed committed to the quarterback he was calling plays for three years ago in Tennessee. That decision has helped manufacture one of the league’s most efficient offenses. For all his limitations as a passer and frustrating tendencies when under duress, Mariota’s resilience and versatility must be acknowledged.

His ability to evade pressure and make gutsy plays outside the pocket gives the offense an edge where broken-down plays can be kept alive. His expertise in running the option puts edge defenders in a frenzy. Most importantly, his leadership qualities inspire his teammates to elevate their play. The way the former number two overall pick responded from early-season adversity to put the Falcons in a position to compete with any team in the league is something few could have foreseen.

A new dimension

Given the state of the roster and lack of stability across the board, it seemed like a foregone conclusion the Falcons would be chasing games from behind for most of the season. The notion of the offense establishing a consistent ground game and punishing opposing defenses looked hard to believe on a TV screen playing Madden, let alone in real life. Yet as teams rely on passing more than ever, the Falcons are on their own wave of being successful. They only throw the ball a league-low 48% of the time after six games.

While Smith’s transformative system using a variety of different personnel groupings and heavy sets is making the biggest difference on a once-fragmented offensive line, Mariota’s influence has played a significant role in their tremendous rushing production. The way in which he consistently baits edge defenders out of position on option plays gives the Falcons a distinctive edge on the ground. From using his eyes to deceive them to holding onto the ball for as long as possible to gauge the play in front of him, there are crucial technical skills Mariota uses to help create space on the ground.

On multiple occasions against a stout 49ers defense, the resurgent quarterback left them completely off balance with his expertise. Edge defenders like Samson Ebukam were completely taken out of plays because of Mariota’s option mastery. Deception isn’t the only asset Mariota brings to the running game. He can use his speed to turn the corner and accelerate past defenders. His crucial rushing touchdown before halftime showed how lethal he could be when deciding to run keepers.

There was some intrigue about what the Falcons’ offense would look like with a multi-dimensional quarterback. The hopes of being a potentially entertaining offense have converted into the reality of this being a legitimate, efficient offense. Mariota can make defenses suffer with his legs. His knack for escaping collapsed pockets and picking up timely first downs helps a slowly-improving offensive line and forces defenses to play less man coverage. It also makes up for his shortcomings as a passer.

Overcoming flaws

Mariota has never been a particularly accurate passer. Heading into the game against San Francisco, he ranked second in the highest rate of off-target throws in the league. Not being able to connect with Kyle Pitts and Drake London on explosive plays has been frustrating, especially when Smith has aligned them together in stacked formations. When also dealing with fumbling issues and taking unnecessary sacks, there have been moments where Mariota’s status as the starting quarterback has been questioned.

After an abysmal game against the Browns, he responded with a valiant effort against Tampa Bay. His impressive moments turned into a completely flawless performance facing San Francisco. Mariota showed consistent poise in the pocket and touch on his biggest throws. The touchdown to MyCole Pruitt was an astute throw on Mariota’s part by lofting it up there for only the experienced tight end to go get it. By having Pitts and London on the left side stacked together, the one-on-one opportunity was there for Mariota to pounce on.

Capitalizing on one-on-one opportunities is something Mariota needs to do more often. That is something he did with the two enormous rising stars on the outside. A nifty back-shoulder throw to London sparked the late-first half touchdown scoring drive. One of London’s biggest strengths is his ability to make contested catches over corners. Identifying those isolated matchups and throwing the ball to him is a dependable way to create those much-needed explosive plays in the air.

The sharp decision-making and crafty plays didn’t stop there. Faced with a third and three at the seven-yard-line, Smith decided to call a pass play after seven rushing attempts. By using pre-snap motion with Damiere Byrd going right, it caught Talanoa Hufanga’s attention in having him shift toward the middle of the field. Once the ball was snapped, a hard pump fake to Byrd helped create space for Pitts over the top. Mariota didn’t hesitate to hit the star tight end in stride to produce his first career touchdown in the United States.

It’s the subtle movements and decisiveness that made Mariota’s performance so memorable. These are valuable traits for any quarterback, especially for one that isn’t necessarily going to be effective as a pure drop-back passer. Asking Mariota to throw the ball more than 30 times isn’t likely going to result in a winning strategy. By being creative with different formations and keeping defenses guessing with a healthy run-pass balance, Smith and company have found a space where he can shine and maximize his skill set as a passer. Despite having clear throwing limitations, there is more to Mariota’s game than what is displayed on the field.

Earning respect as a true leader

What tends to go unnoticed from watching a quarterback perform is the type of impact he has on his teammates. From watching Mariota play, it’s understandable to get frustrated by his inaccuracy, jitteriness in the pocket, and poor decisions at times. To not make plays a starting-caliber quarterback should be making as a veteran will merit questions about why should he be the starter of a team when he is not learning from previous mistakes. In the last two games, Mariota has proven many skeptics, including myself, wrong about his ceiling and ability to be that capable starter.

The overall performance goes beyond his savvy plays and fearless scrambling. It’s evident that the players are truly behind him. From listening to interviews and reading postgame reports, it’s remarkable how much the players love going to battle with him. Caleb Huntley spoke with Tory McElhaney about the calmness he brings to the huddle. That makes a massive difference for a team filled with young players and players that have unfortunately been accustomed to losing games over the past four years. To have the belief your quarterback can stay calm and find ways to win raises the overall self-belief in the locker room for a maturing team.

The coaches fully trust him as well. It would have been easy to insert Ridder into the starting lineup after the loss to Los Angeles in Week 2. That was the second consecutive game where Mariota had ball-security issues and struggled with his ball placement to receivers not named Drake London. As Rashaan Evans said best to Michael Rothstein, the coaches are allowing Mariota to be who he is as a player and allowing him to be the person that he is. Evans is another person with past experience playing with Mariota in Tennessee. Considering how ugly it ended in Tennessee for Mariota, it speaks volumes how the belief remains strong with players like Evans and the coaching staff with strong ties to Tennessee.

I spoke to Olamide Zaccheaus after the preseason game against the Jets. When speaking about his rapport with Mariota following an impressive touchdown in that game, he expressed how great of a communicator he is, and how exciting it is to work with him every day. Mariota’s personality, work ethic, and desire to compete have clearly pushed players to be more accountable and find ways to grow together. Most teams would have folded being down three possessions against the Rams and Bucs. Instead of accepting defeat and going through the motions of playing in garbage time, Mariota played a pivotal role in leading near-extraordinary comebacks on the road in both games.

In order for a team to be resilient, the quarterback must be able to respond to adversity. Mariota has done exactly that to help make the Falcons competitive and exciting. As enticing as it would be to see Ridder get an opportunity, there is no denying this is Mariota’s team for now. It can’t be overlooked what he has done to build a unified culture in Atlanta. I’ve certainly discounted his influence at times in believing Ridder should be the starter before the Thursday night game against Carolina on November 10th. While Ridder could still very well see action and take over the job at some point this season, this is currently Mariota’s time to continue his renaissance and revive a franchise that has been listless for too many years.

On this week three years ago, Mariota was benched for Ryan Tannehill. Tennessee became one of the best teams in the AFC over the next three seasons. While it took some soul-searching and learning on the sidelines as a backup, he took those major setbacks and built himself back up. Some felt he was handed a starting job in Atlanta because of his ties working with Smith. Some felt Ridder should have been the opening-day starter. There are plenty of opinions doubting Mariota’s status as a starting quarterback. Those doubts aren’t going away, as his long-term outlook remains unclear, and every week brings new challenges.

What can’t be doubted is Mariota’s impact on this team. He’s helped to turn what was projected to be the worst team in the league into a Falcons squad everyone has to take seriously when they step on the field. For all the setbacks and imperfections in his style as a passer, Mariota is a certified leader at the forefront of one of the most improved teams in the league.