Jesse Pantuosco

Narrative Street

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Doubting Mariota

Saturday, September 15, 2018


Coming out of Oregon, I thought Marcus Mariota had star written all over him. I still felt that way after Mariota’s rookie year, even when the former Heisman Trophy winner missed four games due to injury. My confidence in him spiked the following year when Mariota broke out for 26 touchdown passes, the most by a Titan since Warren Moon finished with 33 in 1990 (that was back when they were still the Houston Oilers).

 

But now I’m not sure what to think of Mariota as he prepares for his second game of 2018. The 24-year-old Hawaiian looked like a deer in the headlights last year, compiling a career-worst 79.3 quarterback rating while racking up the third-most interceptions in the league behind only DeShone Kizer and Cam Newton. Mariota’s down year was somewhat smoothed over by a rare playoff appearance, but the 24-year-old’s endless injuries and the way he squandered a revitalized receiving corps (in retrospect, Eric Decker was closer to the finish line than any of us thought) had many in the football world scratching their heads.

 



It was easy to point a finger at Mike Mularkey, a career coordinator who was out of his depth as a head coach (the Titans should have known better after seeing him fail at previous stops in Buffalo and Jacksonville). Mularkey’s biggest contribution as Tennessee’s head honcho, aside from last year’s playoff win over Kansas City (which was really more of a Chiefs choke job than anything), was bringing Exotic Smashmouth into the football lexicon. But as we move further away from Mularkey’s ill-fated tenure in Nashville, it’s become evident that the Titans’ biggest problem isn’t their head coach—it’s their underachieving quarterback.

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Many were hailing Mariota as a prime bounce-back candidate coming off last year’s career-worst season. All the pieces were in place. A new hot-shot head coach (Mike Vrabel), an up-and-coming offensive coordinator in Matt LaFleur (who spent last year overseeing the league’s highest-scoring offense in Los Angeles), a healthy Corey Davis, ageless tight end Delanie Walker and an offensive line featuring standout tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin.

 

Mariota came at a much-lower draft cost this summer—his ADP was hovering in the 140s—but that doesn’t mean he’ll deliver. It’s early in the year and a lot can change between now and Week 16, which is when most fantasy leagues are decided. Maybe the revival is coming. But if Week 1 is our guiding compass, 2018 could be a long year for Mariota and his dwindling group of fantasy admirers.

 

Mariota should have destroyed his Week 1 matchup against a giving Dolphins secondary. But instead the embattled quarterback stumbled to just 102 yards on 9-of-16 passing (that included a pair of interceptions) before exiting with another one of his patented injuries, this one to his throwing elbow. Now fantasy owners are getting restless and for good reason—Mariota’s only notable highlight over the past year was a touchdown pass—to himself.

 

Patriots legend Bill Belichick has always said that availability is the best ability. Mariota has come up woefully short in that regard. He’s been done in by countless nagging injuries (many of the dreaded soft-tissue variety), to the point where it’s become more of a surprise when Mariota isn’t on the injury report. Mobile quarterbacks are always at greater risk of getting hurt, putting themselves in harm’s way with daring scrambles that less athletic players like Tom Brady or Drew Brees would never dream of. However, that logic doesn’t apply here. Despite his upbringing in Chip Kelly’s (and later Mark Helfrich’s) mile-a-minute offense at Oregon, Mariota has run rather sparingly in the pros, never logging more than 60 rushing attempts in a single season. It’s not an issue of taking unnecessary hits or not sliding, as many young, fleet-of-foot quarterbacks (*cough* Carson Wentz *cough*) struggle with. Mariota just seems genuinely fragile.

 

If you think Mariota is struggling now, wait until you see him without Delanie Walker, who is out for the year with a dislocated/broken ankle. Walker has been the closest thing Mariota has had to a go-to receiver since arriving on the scene in 2015, leading Tennessee in targets two of the last three seasons. Without him, Mariota will have to make do with the receiving trio of Corey Davis (who still has yet to score a regular season touchdown), Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe. That’s not exactly the ’99 Rams. But even if Mariota makes the most of that motley crew, he could have a hard time staying upright while ace tackles Taylor Lewan (concussion) and Jack Conklin (knee) are on the shelf. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, especially with pass-rushing beasts J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney coming to town this weekend. Of course, that’s assuming he suits up. Mariota drew the questionable tag after getting in limited practice this week and Vrabel has suggested that he and backup Blaine Gabbert could both see time in Week 2. Even for the Titans, that would be a pretty bizarre arrangement.

 

At his best, Mariota is one of the league’s most unique talents. But he hasn’t been at his best in a long time. In fact, I’m starting to forget what his best even looks like. I hope he reminds us soon.

 

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Patricia’s Plight

 

Change is good … right? I can think of a few fan bases who might disagree with that hypothesis. Opening week was not kind to the uninitiated. All seven new head coaches—that includes Jon Gruden (well, new for this decade), Matt Nagy, Matt Patricia, Frank Reich, Pat Shurmur, the aforementioned Mike Vrabel and Steve Wilks—lost their debuts in Week 1. It’s too early to speculate on anyone’s job security—even Jim Tomsula lasted a full year in San Francisco. But it has to be at least a little concerning that NONE of this year’s newcomers could nail down a W in the opener.

 

Not that they had much chance of beating the Rams, even on a good day, but Monday night’s loss in the Black Hole was surely a frustrating one for the Raiders’ faithful. Oakland was hoping for an immediate return on investment after shelling out $100 million just to pry Gruden out of the ESPN broadcast booth. But all Gruden has done since arriving is cut the team’s wildly popular punter (then predictably watch him sign with a division rival), stack the roster with has-beens like Jordy Nelson and Doug Martin, trade the Raiders’ best player for draft capital (which Gruden will probably use on whoever the best fullback is in next year’s draft class) and throw shade at his starting quarterback. He’s also made us write an exhausting number of blurbs on Martavis Bryant who, in a five-month span, has now been traded, waived and re-signed, all while being faced with a potential year-long suspension for yet another (we’ve lost count of how many) violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. This is your team soon, Vegas … how are you feeling?

 

Gruden’s puzzling moves speak for themselves, but he’s not the only new hire catching flak. Far from it. After 14 years spent as Bill Belichick’s right-hand man in New England, Matt Patricia finally left his cushy Foxboro digs to join the Lions this offseason. Patricia’s decision to leave the nest seemed like a good idea at the time but after getting blown out by the Jets, a team he routinely tormented during his Patriots tenure, the first-year head coach might be having second thoughts. Detroit’s opener was an unmitigated disaster with the usually reliable Matthew Stafford self-destructing to the tune of four interceptions. Detroit’s defense wasn’t much better, yielding a pair of touchdowns to 21-year-old Sam Darnold in a comprehensive stomping few Lions fans bothered to stay for. Even Slim Shady couldn’t save them.

 

Looking embarrassingly unprepared against an inferior opponent is an easy way to lose the fan base, but before he can worry about that, Patricia will first have to win back the trust of his own team. Patricia reportedly ruffled feathers this offseason by making players run laps as punishment while antagonizing the local media with his unhelpful responses to even the most basic queries. It’s worrying that Patricia is already having to field questions about losing the locker room (or the Jets knowing every play before it was called) one week into the season, but that’s where we are right now.

 

We’ve seen this before with Patriots assistants branching out on their own. As brilliant as they all were as coordinators, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels never cut it as head coaches. Patricia can try to bring Belichick’s rigid, no-days-off culture to Detroit, but there’s no guarantee that approach will work with this group. When it comes to coaching, one size does not fit all. Leadership takes different forms and players don’t all respond in the same way. The Patriot Way may work in Foxboro, but there’s an equally good chance that it would fail spectacularly if implemented almost anywhere else. Good coaches adjust to their surroundings and the sooner Patricia figures that out, the better off the Lions will be.

 

Charger Woes

 

The football gods giveth and the football gods taketh away. Except when it comes to the Chargers—not a lot of giveth going on there. I always thought the Chargers’ lightning bolt logo looked suspiciously like the zigzag from Charlie Brown’s shirt. I don’t know if that’s copyright infringement or just a weird coincidence, but if Chuck ever ditched baseball for the gridiron, I’m betting he’d be an L.A. Charger.

 

There’s no question the Browns have been a less successful franchise (even Bill Belichick’s devil magic didn’t work on them) but in terms of shear misery, being a Chargers fan must take the cake. Think about it. As perennial punching bags, the Browns are at least considerate enough not to give their fan base any false hope. But the Chargers never let us down easy. They’re the NFL’s eternal snake oil salesman, conning us year after year with delusions of grandeur. Each season the Chargers are sold to us as a new and improved product (this year’s tagline: We have Joey Bosa!) but it’s all just repackaging. Whatever new faces come through L.A., whether it’s Bosa, Derwin James, Mike Williams or Hunter Henry, the story is always the same: heartbreak in a soccer stadium.

 

On paper, the Chargers should be favorites to win the AFC West. Keenan Allen is a twisted, touchdown-scoring freak, Bosa lives off a steady diet of quarterback’s souls and Casey Hayward is Jalen Ramsey without the nauseating trash talk. But as the Bolts often do, they took it on the chin in Week 1, again falling to long-time nemesis Andy Reid and his relentless Kansas City Chiefs. If the Chargers want to make it over the hump this year, finding the antidote for slaying Kansas City might be a good place to start. Including Sunday’s defeat, the Chargers have now lost nine straight at the hands of their division rival.

 

L.A. is still loaded and should have no trouble lapping the hapless Bills in Week 2. That will be a revenge game for Anthony Lynn, a former Buffalo assistant who bolted (no pun intended) to the City of Angels after being passed up for the team’s head-coaching vacancy two years ago (former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was tapped to replace Rex Ryan). But unlike some years when the Chargers wait until the end to pull the rug out from under us, this season they’re expediting the process.

 

Hunter Henry, the supposed heir to Antonio Gates at tight end, was lost to an ACL tear in May. The Chargers stashed him on the reserve/PUP list in hopes of a late-season comeback, but that’s probably just wishful thinking. The carnage continued when Jason Verrett suffered a torn Achilles during a conditioning test at the onset of training camp. Fellow defensive back Jaylen Watkins blew out his knee shortly after. And now Bosa, the crown jewel of L.A.’s esteemed pass-rush, is out indefinitely with a painful bone bruise on his left foot. The injury was serious enough for him to pay renowned foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson a visit earlier this week. Bosa’s absence was felt against Kansas City as gunslinger Patrick Mahomes went off for four touchdowns in his second career start while taking just one sack.

 

The Bolts have favorable draws coming up against the Raiders, Browns, Titans and Seahawks, so perhaps they can tread water for a few weeks without the help of their star pass-rusher. But that’s assuming nothing else goes wrong, which is never a given with this team, the Charlie Brown of NFL franchises.   



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco


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