Marcus and Jameis. A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Ross & Rachel. Lennon & McCartney. Ben & Jerry. Mariota & Winston. What do all of these people have in common?
Well, the answer is nothing. But the narrative surrounding all four duos will forever be inextricably intertwined. It is rare that you will hear one being mentioned without the other following suit shortly after. In the case of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, it all began on 1st May 2015.
The 2015 NFL Draft was a draft just like any other. Teams surprised and delighted their fanbase with their draft haul and others condemned theirs to an off season of anxiety and dread about the season ahead. Proceedings became even more predictable when it was readily apparent that pretty much the entire NFL community knew who the top two teams were going to take. Tampa Bay would take Jameis Winston out of Florida State University and Tennessee would opt for Marcus Mariota out of the University of Oregon. This would be only the sixth time in modern NFL history that Quarterbacks went back-to-back with the top two picks (Carson Wentz and Jared Goff would make it seven a year later).
Neither prospect came into the draft without questions hanging over their heads. Winston – while a stellar athlete and much vaunted locker room leader – had a number of off-field concerns stemming from incidents that occurred during his time at FSU (a list that has only been further added to earlier this season). He was a sure-fire number one pick on almost all draft boards, in large part due to his ability to play Week 1. Mariota, on the other hand, was a model student, with a spotless disciplinary record (his teammates would also stump for his ability to lead a team). However, there were concerns about the system he ran in college and his readiness – and general ability – to transition into an NFL-ready Quarterback from the get-go. In the end, both would start Week 1. And, as if the football gods had heard our prayers, they would line up opposite each other on opening day in Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL.
Both the Buccaneers and Titans were still in rebuilding mode, so not much was expected of either team over the course of the entire season, but this was a chance for their Quarterback to get an edge over their draft compatriot and it was Mariota who struck the first blow. And did so without even throwing a pass.
The stage was set for Winston to announce himself to the wider NFL world, to the couple of millions of people watching on NFL RedZone, and what did he do? He threw a pick-six. In fact, he threw two and was sacked 4 times. At no stage did Winston seem comfortable. Meanwhile, Mariota looked like a venerable veteran under centre, throwing four touchdown passes in a stellar first half showing. The Titans would eventually run out 42-14 winners in a display that showed that Mariota was just as talented and ready to begin his NFL journey as the man drafted one spot ahead of him.
Over the course of the next two seasons, both franchises would work towards building a roster to allow their young, talented Quarterbacks to flourish and, eventually, take them to the playoffs. The Titans would surround Mariota with first-round draft pick Corey Davis, star Running Back Demarco Murray and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Furthermore, they would sure up their O-Line with Tackle Jack Conklin. Tampa Bay would add DeSean Jackson and OJ Howard to an round off an exciting-looking offence that already featured Mike Evans and Doug Martin.
You might expect me to now glowingly praise both players for the obvious strides that they have made over the last 3 seasons, but – if we are looking at things honestly – both men have failed to make the leap into the upper echelons of the NFL Quarterback rankings.
Both the Buccaneers and the Titans would endure losing seasons in Winston and Mariota’s respective rookie seasons, before going 9-7 in 2016. Those figures, however, have masked the issues at hand that are holding both players back.
Winston has failed to make the jump that many anticipated, well before his starring role on HBO’s Hard Knocks sent the hype surrounding him into overdrive. He is now one of the worst QB’s in the league when it comes to protecting the ball and has failed to adhere to Dirk Koetter’s request to be patient, take less risks and win games in the way that Hall of Fame-bound QB’s like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady do; by taking virtually no low percentage risks with the football.
Too often we have seen Winston drop back and throw into double coverage or sail a pass over a receivers head for an interception. While he has thrown 67 TD’s in his young career, he has been accountable for 41 INT’s as well (for context, for every 1.5 TD’s Winston throws, an interception isn’t too far behind). He has been sacked 87 times and has a shocking 26 fumbles – 11 of which have lead to turnovers.
Approximately 700 miles North-West, Mariota has endured his own set of challenges. Injuries aside – Mariota has suffered two MCL sprains and a broken fibula since entering the NFL – he has struggled to take the step that most predicted.
In a passing offence that has failed to ignite for any prolonged period in Mariota’s tenure, the ground game has been the only consistent mode of attack, and Tennessee’s ‘Exotic Smashmouth’ style of attack has lead to a dearth of air yards for Mariota – but it has heralded a more-than-solid stack of rushing TD’s for the 3rd year QB.
However, Tennessee’s lethargic, slow paced offence has failed to take advantage of Mariota’s undoubted talent. When teams sell-out to stop the run, Mariota and his route-runners have more often than not failed to make up for it. This season alone, Mariota is 12-14 when it comes to TD’s vs. INT’s. That, like Winston, shows a worrying lack of regard towards ball-safety. However, unlike Winston, Mariota’s interceptions seem to be more down to accuracy. It is also not helped by the lack of a consistent passing option outside of Delanie Walker, who has accounted for 28% of Mariota’s passing TD’s.
With all of the positives the both Quarterback’s have displayed throughout the opening seasons of their young NFL careers, I find myself still thinking that I would take the likes of Jared Goff, Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott ahead of them – all men who have had a season less to work on their craft in the pros. That alone should be a worrying enough indictment on the work still to to be done by both Winston and Mariota. Perhaps, with both possibly facing a coaching change during the off season, a change isn’t too far over the horizon.
This OTI piece was written by Mark Gordon. Mark is an Arizona Cardinals fan from Dublin with a background in advertising. You can find Mark on Twitter at @MarkGordon__