The expectations were always low for the former number two overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft in Atlanta. As Marcus Mariota joined the Falcons, it was in the midst of a toxic period where Matt Ryan was traded for a mere third-round pick after the pursuit of Deshaun Watson. The idea of moving forward with a quarterback that lost his starting job in Tennessee and spent the last two years backing up Derek Carr wasn’t exactly ideal. It was something that had to be accepted, given Arthur Smith’s experience working with him in Tennessee.
Despite an encouraging showing in the preseason, where Mariota produced excitement with his fearless scrambling and ability to make plays outside the pocket, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the promising rookie Desmond Ridder would be starting games by October. Mariota didn’t read the script and made his mark as the starter quickly. Outside of a disastrous showing against Cleveland, he played relatively well in five of the first six games of the season.
The early-season fumbles didn’t shatter his confidence or make him hesitant to use his legs and take chances with his arm. The huge deficits against the Rams and Bucs didn’t break his spirit. He stayed competitive and took the initiative in leading near-comebacks.
The resilience to rise above obstacles
Fighting back from adversity and pushing more talented teams to the brink with a limited supporting cast was hugely impressive. Mariota made numerous gutsy plays to put them in a position to win almost every game. He evaded pressure in finding open receivers on broken plays and injected life into an offense during stagnant patches where they couldn’t move the ball. Smith did his due in using heavy play action and putting Mariota in high-percentage looks to manufacture scoring drives. The strong connection pushed opposing defenses, even if it didn’t always include the two recent top-ten picks Kyle Pitts and Drake London.
The initial success culminated in a near-flawless performance against the 49ers. Mariota remained composed and punished one of the best defenses in the league in a variety of ways. Whether using subtle fakes on read option designs or finding Drake London on a back-shoulder concept, he played so well that he deservingly won NFC Offensive Player of the Week. His composure and awareness in a difficult matchup were hugely impressive.
After the major upset victory, Mariota was making his mark in Atlanta. Expectations were elevated as the leader behind one of the most efficient offenses in the league. As those expectations rose, Mariota’s play drastically dipped.
The debacle in Cincinnati
As well as Mariota had been playing, there were doubts over how sustainable his level of play could be. Can a rebuilding team that lacks high-end talent in several vital positional areas continue to win games by throwing the ball less than 25 times a game? The identity to play physical and pound defensive fronts into submission was evident. The confidence in having a plan B with Mariota being able to make throws in the pocket and lead the offense as a drop-back passer was non-existent. It was proven in a lopsided, humbling loss to the Bengals.
Only attempting 13 passes in a blowout loss is an alarming sign of how little faith the coaching staff had in the quarterback’s ability to make the necessary throws to accelerate drives and try to narrow the deficit. There was no other reasoning behind Smith’s decision. It was concerning how they didn’t allow Mariota to drop back to get either Pitts or London more involved. Mariota has never been the most accurate thrower or dependable decision-maker when under duress in the pocket, issues dating back to Tennessee. It started to hinder the offense again.
From struggling to build a rapport with Pitts to getting jittery in the pocket and running into sacks, the veteran quarterback was making mistakes that would be expected from a rookie. The calls for him to be benched started to get louder following a rollercoaster showing against the Panthers, where he was highly fortunate throwing a bad interception in overtime didn’t result in an embarrassing defeat.
The fall doesn’t erase what was helped built
Mariota proceeded to have five consecutive average to underwhelming to horrific performances as the starter. The occasional nice red zone touchdown to London would be followed up with jarring inaccurate throws no starting-caliber NFL quarterback makes. His deep ball accuracy was non-existent, as countless passes were overthrown. A functional passing game became impossible with Mariota under center. They became one of the most one-dimensional units in the league. If the running game can’t impose their will on the ground against opposing fronts, the offense isn’t scoring 20 points. Not being able to reach that point total strongly indicates the current starting quarterback isn’t good enough to lead the offense.
Those shortcomings don’t remove the work and progress the Falcons made with Mariota under center. His presence helped establish one of the more lethal running games in the league. His athleticism allowed Smith to showcase what he could do with a mobile quarterback that can run option plays. His leadership strongly influenced the locker room, as several players spoke highly of how he takes commands and gets everyone dialed in. These are strong qualities that can elevate a team, which is exactly what Mariota did. The Falcons had four wins by the end of October. Remember, some analysts didn’t think they could even win four games this season.
As very intense meetings are currently taking place in Atlanta, Mariota’s days as a starting quarterback are numbered. Ridder will take over and have the opportunity to showcase his capabilities. With the long-expected change likely to transpire, it’s important to be mindful of what Mariota brought to the team.
He helped spark excitement in what was supposed to be a bleak season. He brought respect back to an organization that did significant damage to itself in nearly trading for Watson. After losing such a highly regarded, accomplished quarterback like Ryan, it wasn’t going to be easy to instantly replace him. While Mariota didn’t come close to replacing him as a passer, he did his share of good with his playmaking ability, fortitude, and leadership.