FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When Marcus Mariota was making an attempt to determine his rapid future as an NFL quarterback in March, he was intrigued by the Atlanta Falcons.
They provided a familiarity with the employees, going again to Mariota’s days with coach Arthur Smith with the Tennessee Titans. They provided a fairly good contract — two years, $18.75 million with $6.75 million assured. Perhaps extra essential than anything: The Falcons provided an opportunity to begin.
Mariota has had a weaving path as a quarterback, from the Heisman Trophy at Oregon to being the No. 2 choose within the 2015 draft by the Titans.
He began for four-plus seasons in Tennessee earlier than being benched after which going to the Raiders as a backup for 2 seasons. When he reached free company a second time, Mariota knew alternatives to begin within the league are uncommon.
That is what Mariota walked into when he signed with the Falcons in March, a workforce that now has roughly $80 million in lifeless cap cash — cash paid to gamers not on the workforce — and in the meanwhile about $8.6 million in cap area.
Yet the Falcons are tied for first place within the NFC South at 4-5, partially due to the play of Mariota and the way he suits into the offense and locker room. This is the current for Atlanta, because it prepares to play division rival Carolina on Thursday evening (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video). The future for Mariota past this season, that is unknown.
“When I was going into free agency, I kind of understood that if I got a chance to play again, it was really going to be probably my last shot,” Mariota mentioned. “Most guys don’t even really get a second shot.”
That Mariota was in a position to try this in a system he knew, with coaches he was acquainted with, held significance.
It was a brand new metropolis and new personnel and a franchise that, actually hours earlier than Mariota signed with the Falcons, traded its longtime starter, Matt Ryan, to Indianapolis after a failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson.
To Mariota, none of that mattered. He simply knew this was one other shot. For him to have a real future as an NFL starter — with the Falcons or elsewhere — he was going to must play nicely.
“To be able to not only keep this job and maybe have a future here was important to me, and I am glad it is here with these guys, with Coach Smith and this staff,” Mariota mentioned. “Because like I said from before, it was almost a point of, just like, redeeming myself from a previous stint that I wanted to come here and prove that I can do it.”
Whether Mariota has completed sufficient is an open query. He has had video games the place he has seemed just like the participant from Oregon, making on-time throws and utilizing his operating capacity to confound defenses.
For each sport like those towards San Francisco, through which he accomplished 92.9% of his passes, and Carolina, through which he accomplished 71.4%, there have been video games through which the identical problem from Tennessee popped up: inaccuracy. He has had three video games with a completion proportion below 60% and two below 55%.
He’s not being requested to throw usually in a run-heavy offense, making an attempt fewer than 25 passes in 4 video games this season. Interestingly, the Falcons are 3-1 in these video games.
Mariota has been inconsistent, finishing 65% or extra of his passes in back-to-back weeks simply as soon as this season. Not all of that’s his fault. Numbers may be skewed. For instance, a throwaway in Atlanta’s offense will alter Mariota’s statistics greater than different quarterbacks as a result of his 201 cross makes an attempt are second lowest amongst full-time starters — the Falcons are averaging 33.7 rushes and 22.3 cross makes an attempt per sport. Atlanta’s 53.1% fee of designed rushes is the best within the NFL, and its 46.9% fee of designed passes (together with sacks and scrambles) is the bottom within the league, in accordance with ESPN Stats & Information. The solely full-time starters this season with decrease completion percentages than Mariota are Chicago’s Justin Fields, Denver’s Russell Wilson and the Jets’ Zach Wilson.
Completion proportion, although, would not essentially inform the entire story. Mariota is ninth in QBR at 59.9, forward of Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow. He’s being requested to take deeper pictures, too. His 10.09 air yards per try are second within the league — behind solely Jameis Winston.
When Mariota is throwing, it is often deep, which, by logic, would imply a decrease completion proportion contemplating 14.9% of his cross makes an attempt have had 20 or extra air yards, sixth within the league (and fourth amongst full-time starters behind Mac Jones, Fields and Wilson). Mariota has accomplished 23.3% of his throws of 20 or extra air yards, No. 32 within the league, however he additionally has tried 30 of these passes, tied for ninth within the NFL with Herbert.
“Those things are not the highest percentage, right? You’re taking low percentage shots, but you have to be able to do that,” Mariota mentioned. “Especially with the way we run the football because it creates just a little bit of uncertainty on the defense of what you’re trying to do.”
In his profession, Mariota has accomplished 33.2% of his throws of 20 or extra air yard and through his time as a starter in Tennessee accomplished greater than 43% of these passes in 2016 and 2018. So there may be proof he can enhance, and it is an space through which Smith has mentioned Atlanta must get higher.
When the Falcons signed Mariota, they knew the fashion of quarterback they have been getting, and that the offense can be completely different than it was below Ryan.
“When it comes to looking at the quarterback spot, I don’t think it’s one size fits all,” offensive coordinator Dave Ragone mentioned. “And Marcus provided an opportunity for us offensively to go in different directions and expand on different things that we thought best fit us.”
Mariota has a capability few different quarterbacks possess. His actions can typically look extra like a boxer delivering a feint or some extent guard utilizing a jab-step or shoulder-shimmy pretend. It does sufficient to get a defender off stability for a second and creates certainly one of two issues — a crease for Mariota to run via or a passing window the place there wasn’t one.
He has completed each usually this yr, together with Sunday towards the Chargers. At the Los Angeles 46-yard line in the course of the third quarter, linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. did not chunk on Mariota’s play-action, which means as Mariota rolled proper, Murray was within the passing lane.
Mariota faked an upfield transfer. Murray lower inside, giving Mariota room to drift a cross to Kyle Pitts for a 9-yard completion and a primary down.
“Certainly he’s got that instinct, and it’s how he’s been successful in this league and certainly coming out of Oregon,” Smith mentioned. “He’s got a great feel in space.”
His capacity to maneuver defenders — to the purpose the place it has develop into virtually fully instinctual — got here from a childhood taking part in soccer. Even now, he’ll return and watch a play and be like, “I did that?” when he sees himself transferring a defender off place or, in his greatest instance from 2022, when he fell down towards the Rams and popped again up.
“Sometimes,” Mariota mentioned, “I really can’t explain it.”
It is that really feel, which in Smith’s offense has designed runs, zone reads and pre-snap motion, that has fueled Atlanta’s success. The Falcons have had pre-snap movement on 329 performs, fifth within the league, and helming that offense is a ability that takes time. Add within the Falcons’ 117 play-action performs (second within the league comprising 48.3% of Atlanta’s dropbacks) and it is loads for a lot of quarterbacks.
But his capacity to run and prolong performs make him harmful. Against Carolina in Week 8, his choice to maintain and run in extra time led to a 30-yard achieve on the eventual successful drive.
Atlanta is utilizing Mariota as a runner greater than some other time in his profession. With 60 carries and 304 yards, he’s 4 carries and 53 yards away from his career-highs — each set in 2018 — and a key a part of the Falcons’ top-five speeding offense.
Cordarrelle Patterson, the Falcons operating again, mentioned watching Mariota run will get him “fired up,” due to how he runs. He says they’ve one thing in frequent: They are OK with being hit.
“I just respect him a lot of ways,” Patterson mentioned.
When Mariota first acquired to the NFL, he was decided to be a pocket passer. His father, Toa, and his brother, Matt, who’s now taking part in quarterback in a league in England, stored reminding him it was OK to run. To use what labored so nicely at Oregon within the professionals, too. Playing that manner now, Mariota mentioned, is taking part in “a little more like myself.”
“To be able to have a mobile quarterback like that, in this type of offense when we run the ball a lot, defenses have to think, ‘Is he going to take off? Is the back going to take off?'” receiver Drake London mentioned. “‘Or is he going to sit back there and throw it to one of us?’ So it gives us a lot of different ways to get the ball and disperse it.”
Mariota additionally has gotten extra settled right into a starter’s function. Early this season, he mentioned he was adjusting to his new outdated function, each operating and passing. For instance, prior to now three weeks, he has slid much more to assist keep away from getting hit when early within the season he didn’t.
He additionally has been extra cautious with the ball. After fumbling seven occasions within the first 5 weeks — shedding three — Mariota has fumbled as soon as over the previous 4 video games. Of his six interceptions, 4 got here within the first month of the season, and he has thrown two — each towards Carolina in Week 8 on deep cross makes an attempt — over the previous 5 video games.
It’s an offense that took Mariota a short while to get used to, however one he believes suits his expertise.
“We do a great job of hiding some of the run stuff that I do, but also allowing me to kind of play free in the pass game, doing some different things, whether it’s play-action stuff, whether it’s keepers, whether it’s dropback,” Mariota mentioned. “So it’s not necessarily one specific thing. I think because we do a whole range of different things, it allows me to just kind of express my talents and do what I do.”
There’s one other a part of this uncalculated by statistics. The calming presence Mariota gives is immeasurable, particularly for a younger workforce. When operating again Caleb Huntley enters a sport, Mariota settles his nerves.
The easygoing fashion endeared Mariota to his teammates. He may get fired up after a play. By the time he returns to the huddle, it is the identical collected participant his teammates noticed the play earlier than.
“With Marcus you’re going to get the truth,” Smith mentioned. “That’s why people like him.”
Mariota’s demeanor permeated the locker room virtually instantly and hasn’t abated since.
“The way he conducts himself on the field is very easygoing, reassuring but also very assertive at the same point,” offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom mentioned. “He’s incredible to play for and play with. You just have a love for him because you love the person and the player he is, you have an appreciation for the way he goes about attacking work.”
It may not appear to be loads, however little issues like that do matter. Coaches and teammates purchase into Mariota and what he has been in a position to do — on the sphere, through the week and between performs.
“We have all the faith in you,” London mentioned. “We have all the trust in you, and we’re gonna ride for you no matter what.”
What this appears like long run is unclear. There’s a half-season to go, and the one factor probably assured for subsequent season — however not now — is a $3 million roster bonus if he is on the workforce the fifth day of the subsequent league yr. Mariota is aware of this. He has lived it — from starter to backup, from a quarterback who took a workforce to the playoffs to shedding his job midseason.
So how is Mariota taking part in this yr? The important decide will probably be Smith, who pointed to at least one factor: the place the Falcons are within the NFC South standings.
“To be right where we are,” Smith mentioned, “in the middle of the race.”