Marcus Mariota Has Been at His Best in Late-Game Situations
Marcus Mariota is having a down season. In a way that’s surprising because Mariota is an extremely talented young quarterback. But in another way, we could kind of see this coming because the Tennessee Titans' offensive philosophy -- exotic smashmouth -- doesn't seem like the ideal fit for a quarterback like Mariota.
Regardless, that’s the current reality in Tennessee, and that current reality puts Mariota 30th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.03) among 40 quarterbacks who have dropped back at least 15 times this season. The Tennessee offense as a whole ranks 22nd in Adjusted NEP per play, and the Titans have run the fewest offensive plays in the league while holding a lead.
One thing almost always playing from behind does is set up drives late in the fourth quarter when the offense will have to hurry to try to score points as quickly as possible. For Mariota and the Titans, this is where there’s hope as the second-year signal caller has seen a boost in his numbers when the Titans' are in comeback mode late in the game.
A Place of Comfort
Overall, the Titans offense hasn’t been good. There’s been some very good production by DeMarco Murray on the ground -- he ranks 6th in Rushing NEP per attempt among the 21 running backs with 50 or more carries -- but there’s been little of note outside of that.
However, there is one place where the Titans look like a real, productive NFL offense, and that comes in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter. In three of their four games, Tennessee had chances to tie or go ahead in the final minutes. They only pulled out one win, but in the process, Mariota has looked like the quarterback many expected.
In those final four minutes of each game this season, Mariota has completed 21-of-30 passes for 239 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions -- he has four touchdowns and five interceptions overall on the season. He has a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.35 in these situations, which would be third among quarterbacks for overall production.
Sure, 30 passes is a small sample -- and Mariota is likely facing more prevent-type defenses -- but it shows us that Tennessee has found success when they've been forced to open up the offense. Within those final four minutes, Mariota has often been left to sit in shotgun, find an open receiver and make plays. You know, the things you’d expect to let Mariota do in an offense. There are no heavy sets or two fullbacks on the field at the same time. It’s an offense run through the skills of the quarterback, and it’s one that succeeds.
Mariota’s Success Rate in these situations -- the percentage of plays the positively impact NEP -- is 66.7%. That's significantly better that his overall 46.9% Success Rate, most of which is accrued when Mariota is running the base offense of Titans coach Mike Mularkey. Mariota has accumulated more Passing NEP in the final four minutes of each game (10.49) than he has in total all season (3.59).
This isn’t the case for all quarterbacks, either -- performing better in a hurry-up offense with the game on the line. Let’s take a look at Jameis Winston, who has been fairly similar overall to Mariota with similar team performance, as well. WInston is also struggling in his second season, and he currently ranks 34th among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back (-0.03) with an overall Success Rate of 46.3%.
However, Winston’s performance has dropped off significantly in the final four minutes of games. In those situations, Winston is 13-of-29 for 125 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. His Passing NEP per drop back falls to -0.10, and he has just a 34.4% Success Rate. Some struggling quarterbacks just struggle regardless of the situation.
Hope for the Future
This isn’t an argument for “clutch” or which quarterback is better with the game on the line -- or anything like that. It’s more about these late-game, hurry-up situations calling for an offensive philosophy that appears -- at least through the early part of this season -- as if it better suits Mariota.
Mariota led an impressive drive to win the game against the Detroit Lions in Week 2 and could have tied the game against the Oakland Raiders in Week 3. But the Titans' aversion to an all-out pass-heavy approach even creeped into the final offensive play against the Raiders. After a timeout, on 4th and 4 from Oakland’s 12-yard line with 16 seconds left, Tennessee ran a play that left seven players in to block while only three players ran routes, which is the type of play call that happens with regularity in the other 56 minutes of the game. Before that play, the offense drove 68 yards down the field in 1:36 with just that one timeout -- all on Mariota passes.
Maybe this doesn’t mean much for the Titans in 2016. It’s unlikely Mularkey and those making the decisions will make any drastic changes midseason, but it could help them keep faith in Mariota for the future instead of getting overly concerned about his struggles. Mariota has shown the ability to put up good numbers in the NFL, but for the most part, that success has only come when he's being deployed in a certain way.
For now, the best the Titans can hope for is to hang around in games long enough that their quarterback can give them a chance to win with a late, up-against-the-clock drive. It’s not ideal, but so far, it’s the best the offense -- and Mariota -- has performed.