Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston: A Duel For the Ages
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are an unprecedented pair of young stars. Since 1990, quarterbacks have been selected back-to-back with the first two picks on six occasions, including Winston and Mariota in 2015.
There's been five 1-2 QB pick combos since 1990. I dont see Goff/Wentz outdoing any of these. pic.twitter.com/naQmsY5v2K
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) April 21, 2016
Of those six instances, there hasn’t been one good pair of starting quarterbacks produced from the same class. These pairings tend to produce one bonafide star, while the other flames out after a couple seasons; a Tim Couch for every Donovan McNabb. Winston and Mariota may be the first pairing to both have long, impressive careers. Let’s dive into how we got here and dissect their careers to date…
NFL Draft Profiles
Winston vs Mariota made for one of the most fascinating quarterback prospect debates in recent memory. They were polar opposites, yet both had equally as legitimate arguments to be the top quarterback. In addition to both putting out excellent film, Winston and Mariota won Heisman trophies in back-to-back seasons and they both made national championship appearances. Winston’s Florida State squad won their trip to the national title in 2013, while Mariota’s Oregon team did not win their matchup versus Ohio State in 2015. Regardless of the outcome, both were the lifeblood for their teams along the way, and neither team would have been in that position without them.
Throughout their draft process, it came to the forefront that their class would be a micro-study for determining one’s stylistic preference at quarterback. Winston, a daring and cunning quarterback from a more traditional drop-back offense, was the perfect antithesis to Mariota, a mobile and highly efficient spread quarterback.
Jameis Winston: the college quarterback
The flood of spread quarterbacks entering the NFL has lead to a hunger for quarterbacks who come from a more traditional offense. In 2012, Andrew Luck was a sort of Messiah. He came from a traditional, under-center heavy offense that operated on a number of play action and West Coast concepts. The NFL transition was easy to project for Luck. Though Winston was not the same caliber of prospect as Luck, Winston had the same dynamic to his evaluation.
Y-Cross is a staple for plenty of professional offenses. On this particular play, Winston has to account for the safeties swapping responsibilities. As Florida State motions a tight end from left to right, the field safety drops down to cover the tight end and the boundary safety rotates up to play the middle of the field. The safety in the middle becomes the ‘conflict’ player. That safety has to either backpedal to protect from a deep route over the top or he has to bite down on the crossing route.
As Winston hits the end of his drop, he peeks at the receiver running vertical, but doesn’t appear to trust that his man has enough separation, even with the safety not playing over the top. Winston then checks the position of the safety, sees that safety put himself behind the crossing route, and fires to the slot receiver crossing the field, just as he is about to reach the boundary. Plays like this, where Winston is dropping from under center and executing a standard NFL intermediate concept, played a part in Winston’s appeal as an immediate impact player and team building cornerstone.
Winston also proved he could make full field reads at the collegiate level. In this instance, the play call is split into two separate route combinations. The running back and lone receiver split left work in tandem on a swing-corner combination, a variation of ‘smash’. To the trips (right) side, the two outside receivers work a ‘levels’ concept, where they both run in-breaking routes at different depths, while the inner most receiver runs a corner route.
North Carolina State’s defense lines up four defenders directly over the trips side and leaves the left side of the field 1-on-1. Winston opens up to his right following the snap. He is primarily checking to see if the route combination confuses the defense and frees up a defender, but secondarily, Winston checking the safety. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has said that the backside safety will tell a quarterback all he needs to know about attacking a defense out of a trips formation. This safety rotates toward the trips side right off the snap, so Winston turns to work the left side of the field and finds his man for a touchdown.
Winston wasn’t always so clinical, though. He had a gunslinger’s itch. Winston wanted to score on every play and if he thought there was even a slight chance of that happening, he would try it. Winston always trusted his top targets to make plays and consistently gave them chances. Granted, that mentality got him in plenty of trouble, but it also spurred a number of scores and explosive plays for Florida State.
This receiver isn’t open by traditional standards, but Winston had a knack for turning 50-50 throws into 70-30 throws. Being in an ’empty’ formation, Winston’s decision had to be speedy, and he wasted no time in exhausting his options and ultimately giving his receiver a chance. Winston knows he’ll have the 1-on-1 if he wants it, but does his best to find an open receiver elsewhere. As soon as he realizes there won’t be anyone open, Winston lofts the ball up into the top shelf and puts the ball in a spot where the defensive back doesn’t have a shot it. The receiver held up his end of the bargain and completed the play with a fantastic grab.
Winston had every trait to be desired of a franchise quarterback. His arm comfortably passed the threshold, he proved he could read the field and do so in a more traditional style offense, and his poise was off the charts. There were concerns about him being hyper-aggressive and a bit erratic with his ball placement, but his “good” looked as good as anyone’s and appeared to far outweigh the flaws in his game. A player like Winston is a top-three pick in any draft class.
Marcus Mariota: the college quarterback
Despite all his accomplishments and quality play, the draft process was an uphill battle for Mariota. Being an exclusively shotgun-spread quarterback, there were concerns about his transition to the league. That wasn’t an entirely outlandish thing to hold against him and it did have some merit, but he consistently showed NFL traits and transcended the system he played in. If there was going to be anyone to rise above the “spread quarterback” stereotype, it was going to be him.
Mariota executed Oregon’s offense to perfection. His understanding of what was and was not open in that offense was impeccable. Seldom was there an errant throw or a poor decision from Mariota. In the play above, Mariota illustrates his ability to go through his progressions, the skill to maintain active feet and a clean throwing area, and that he knew when to take matters into his own hands.
NFL quarterbacks have to be able to multitask. If a quarterback can’t keep himself clean and go through his progressions simultaneously, he’s going to struggle. Mariota continually showed that he could do both and often top it off with an excellent throw.
Mariota isn’t able to get through his progressions this time. Instead, one of the interior pass rushers breaks the pocket and forces Mariota to slide up before he can comfortably make his reads on the left side of the field. Mariota keeps a cool head and moves up in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield in search of an open receiver. As Mariota moves toward the line of scrimmage, he appears to be preparing to sprint and that sucks in the linebackers. One of the linebackers moves away from his assignment and opens up a throwing window that Mariota is able to hit with ease.
Not only does this display the value of Mariota as a rushing threat, but it shows off his composure under pressure and his ability to keep a play on schedule if it goes off the rails. Mariota is in a pass-run conflict, who can lethal with either venture, and he’ll make a defense pay for committing too confidently to either.
In addition to his mobile value and processing ability, Mariota was lauded for his accuracy. Mariota didn’t possess the flashiest arm strength, but his smooth throwing motion aided him in placing passes wherever he pleased. Mariota was incredibly efficient in the quick game and had delicate touch when throwing to the intermediate sections of the field. Deep passing was not his forte, but his shortcomings in that department didn’t necessarily hinder his game, either. If anything, Mariota’s most recurring blemish was his conservative nature. He was not quite Alex Smith, but he didn’t have intimidating confidence to attack tough windows and take chances, which was a magnified issue when juxtaposed by Winston’s hubris.
Mariota was a sound prospect across the board. His versatility, accuracy, and processing speed made a persuasive case for him to be the top quarterback over Winston. Ultimately, the two were split more by their play style than their talent level.
Winston was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the first overall pick and Mariota was selected by the Tennessee Titans with the following pick. Luckily for Winston, the Buccaneers’ draft slot was more a product of poor luck throughout the season than it was a true representation of where the franchise was at. They weren’t a good team by any measure, but they had a competitive roster that just couldn’t finish games. The Titans, however, had a truly desolate roster when they selected Mariota. Aside from a stud tight end in Delanie Walker, Mariota was inserted into a rag-tag offense.
Inferior roster be damned, Mariota refused to play to a lesser standard as a rookie than Winston. Mariota stole the show in their Week 1 matchup, throwing four touchdowns to zero interceptions. Winston, conversely, threw two touchdowns and two interceptions, one of which was a pick-six on his first ever NFL pass attempt.
Throughout the remainder of the season, the two had their ups and downs, but neither truly distanced themselves from the other. Much like they were as prospects, Mariota and Winston were nearly inseparable as rookies..
Jameis Winston: the rookie
Winston’s rookie season was as plagued by his flaws as it was filled with his brilliance. Winston threw fifteen interceptions on 535 attempts, completing just 58.3% of his passes. However, he accounted for 28 total touchdowns (22 through the air, six on the ground), which was tied for the fourth-most all-time among rookies. His 4,042 passing yards were the third-most all-time among rookies. For every head-scratching interception, there was an expertly delivered touchdown strike. He was the most frustrating kind of rookie, but the baseline NFL skill set was as clear as day, and his peaks were reminiscent of some of the best in the league right now.
By and large, Winston’s bad plays came down to poor mechanics, which led to poor accuracy, late decision making, or some combination of both. Winston’s mechanics throughout his rookie season were rough. He often played with his shoulders moving off-kilter and not in harmony with the rest of his body. As a result, Winston’s torso would come around late, and the ball wouldn’t get the ‘pop’ out of his frame that is necessary for velocity and touch. Loose mechanics don’t mesh well with delayed decision making.
The Panthers looked to be in a soft Cover-2 shell on this play. If Winston plans on throwing the quick out versus this coverage, the ball has to be out at the receiver’s route break or it shouldn’t be thrown at all. Winston doesn’t release this throw until the receiver is a couple of steps out of his break, but that isn’t the lone issue. Additionally, Winston doesn’t bring his feet and shoulders all the way around in order to make this throw. He puts himself in a position where he can’t generate power from his lower body, thus he has to use just his arm to complete the throw. The ball ends up flying slow and toward the receiver’s inside shoulder, leaving it in a perfect spot for a Panthers’ pick-six.
Winston had too many plays like this where his game didn’t appear to have any flow or direction. He was playing willy-nilly and putting too much faith in his physical ability alone. Cleaning up his mechanics and shying away from these sorts of mistakes had to be a focal point for Winston in his second season.
Conversely, some of Winston’s best moments happened when he tested his limits. Winston had the talent to make any throw he wanted to in college, but windows are tighter in the NFL and Winston took every opportunity he could to see what he could get away with at the professional level.
Winston had no reservations as a rookie passer. He wasn’t scared to test windows and place passes in between multiple defenders. On both of these plays, Winston has to put the ball inches over a linebacker, while still throwing the ball on enough of a line drive to ensure that a safety can’t get there. Both throws, particularly the throw vs. the Eagles (second gif above), could have easily been interceptions, but Winston shows the arm talent to rip tough throws into the offense’s advantage.
Winston’s comfort in the pocket paralleled his confidence as a passer. At just 21-years-old, Winston proved he could maneuver NFL pockets in a calm and productive manner. Due to his aforementioned mechanical issues, Winston didn’t always complete his passes after evading pass rushers, but he consistently nullified a horrific offensive line.
Winston’s fearlessness and on-the-fly thinking are on full display here. No matter the amount of pressure or situation at hand, Winston found ways to save broken plays and give them a chance at life. The receiver did not end up hanging onto this pass, but for Winston to have evaded the pass rush and throw an accurate pass while being tackled is incredible.
Here is a more ordinary look at Winston’s movement in the pocket. Of course, Winston finished the play with sloppy mechanics and threw a poorly placed ball, but this play could have been a sack had Winston not reacted and adjusted so quickly. Winston hit the top of his drop and, without hesitation, scooted up in the pocket while maintaining proper eye level. Winston was able to evade the pressure and give the play a chance. The Buccaneers offensive line was a mess during Winston’s rookie year, but Winston managed to keep sacks to a minimum and ended the year with one of the better sack percentages in the NFL.
By year’s end, Winston had earned himself strong Rookie of the Year consideration. Rams running back Todd Gurley eked out Winston for the crown, but Winston had an award-worthy rookie year. Winston made it clear he had the baseline intelligence, poise, and confidence to be a proper NFL quarterback. For Winston, the next step was going to be more about cleaning up the inconsistencies in his game rather than a total makeover.
Mariota Mariota: the rookie
The state of Tennesse’s roster during Mariota’s rookie year made his evaluation murkier than it should have been. Mariota wasn’t able to truly explore and utilize his full skill set. Tight end Delanie Walker was far and away Mariota’s best receiving target. After Walker, the Titans had wide receiver Kendall Wright, who was an average or slightly above average slot receiver, and nothing else. The running back position was desolate, too. Antonio Andrews, currently a free agent, was the team’s leading rusher with a whopping 520 yards, leading a backfield that averaged a collective 3.9 yards per carry.
As if the lack of skill position talent wasn’t crippling enough, their offensive line was disjointed. Left tackle Taylor Lewan was a solid bookend, but the rest of the line struggled to play well together. The Titans were dead last in sacks allowed in 2015. Mariota didn’t do the offensive line as many favors as he could have, but the line was truly one of the worst in football and any quarterback would have had trouble staying clean behind that abysmal group.
The concern for Mariota as a pocket manager was not so much his willingness to sit in the pocket, but he hadn’t yet built up a comfort for tight spaces. He looked uncomfortable when the pocket closed around him and he often failed to create time for himself when the pocket broke from outside-in. However, Mariota had no problem making single defenders miss or flushing outside of the pocket to buy time. His instant reaction time and comfort on the move gave him the skill set to extend plays.
Most rookies and veterans alike would either crumble or get caught in this scenario. Mariota doesn’t even notice the pass rusher until he’s a foot away, but that small bubble of space and time is all an athlete like Mariota needs to be able to free himself from danger. After evading the pressure, Mariota was able to collect himself and extend the play beyond the pocket.
Mariota’s quick-twitch reactions came in handy in the red zone, too. Mariota asserted himself as a dominant red zone quarterback from the jump. His combination of processing speed and quick arm action enabled him to fit tight windows and generate near-perfect red zone play.
Before delving into the meat of this play: look at Mariota playing from under center with ease. Now, the truly impressive aspect of this play is how quickly Mariota goes from making his decision to getting the ball out. Throughout his drop, Mariota keys the defender lined up over the tight end. The defender buzzes out toward the flats, leaving a window between the cornerback and the middle linebacker for the slant to be thrown. As soon as Mariota hits the top of his drop, he throws a sudden strike right into his receiver’s chest. Red zone quarterbacking doesn’t get much better than this.
Mariota also flashed daring and impressive ball placement down the seam. While at Oregon, it took until his final season for Mariota to become effective at attacking the seams. His final performance versus the Washington Huskies, in specific, highlighted that ability. Mariota was able to carry over that newfound success down the seam to his rookie season in the NFL.
Once again, Mariota’s transition from decision to throw is fascinating. He goes through his three-step drop with his eyes on the safety in an effort to hold him to that side of the field. Once Mariota hits the end of his drop, he resets and throws in one swift motion. The ball is a line drive left high for his tight end, a perfect spot with the defender draped over him and the safety coming back across from the other side.
When quarterbacks play out of an ’empty’ formation like in the play above, they can’t hesitate. They have to drop back with a definite plan. The ball has to be out immediately or the quarterback should bail. On this play and many others like it, Mariota showed the know-how and poise to handle all the responsibilities that come with playing out of an ’empty’ formation. Rookies don’t normally step onto the field in year one and show Mariota’s level of control in that situation.
In addition to impressing in the more intricate aspects of quarterbacking, Mariota was accurate and efficient. His work in the 1-10 yard range was stunning, both in terms of decision making and in terms of ball placement. Mariota zipped passes out on time and regularly put the ball in an advantageous spot for his receivers. The former Duck was able to provide rare efficiency and consistency for a rookie quarterback.
Mariota wasn’t quite perfect, though. He flashed moments of fitting tight windows and making tough throws, but his willingness to do so was uninspiring. Mariota would freeze if he wasn’t sure he could fit a pass over the middle of the field and fail to move to another option in time, often resulting in a sack. Likewise, Mariota played worse the longer a play continued. He wanted the ball out of his hands and his confidence seemed to dwindle later in plays. To his credit, Mariota didn’t force any ugly passes late into plays, but he also capped the explosive potential of the offense by holding the ball the way he did.
Had Mariota played the full season, he could have had a Rookie of the Year case of his own. On two separate occasions, Mariota suffered minor knee injuries that each sidelined him for two games. When he was healthy, however, Mariota demonstrated the requisite accuracy, decision making, and versatility to be a franchise quarterback.
Year two for Winston and Mariota was like watching Freaky Friday. As rookies, it was Winston who had the strong running game and the (somewhat) better offensive line, while Mariota had to keep a poorly stocked offense afloat. The roles reversed in 2016. The Titans rebuilt their offensive line and ground attack in a single offseason, going from one of the worst teams in the league in those areas to one of the best.
The Titans signed center Ben Jones, drafted right tackle Jack Conklin, and 2015 undrafted guard Quinton Spain flipped a switch and became a quality blocker. In one offseason, the Titans went from having one functional offensive linemen to having four, almost a complete set. Likewise, the Titans signed running back DeMarco Murray and drafted running back Derrick Henry. Both runners played exceptionally well and spearheaded a rushing attack that finished the year with the fourth-best yards per carry average.
The Buccaneers, on the other hand, floundered. With injuries to running back Doug Martin, the Bucs lost the quality run game that they had a year prior. Five running backs ended up getting at least ten carries for the Buccaneers last season, including 129 carries for Falcons castoff Jacquizz Rodgers and 55 carries for undrafted rookie Peyton Barber. Only the Giants, Rams, and Vikings were worse on a per carry basis than the Buccaneers.
In that same vein, the Buccaneers didn’t have receiving weapons for Winston. Much like Mariota having little more than Walker during his rookie season, Winston didn’t have many options beyond wide receiver Mike Evans in 2016. Evans is a star, no doubt, but the next-best thing in that offense was tight end Cameron Brate, who couldn’t separate particularly well, and was more a product of Winston having to force targets to him than him legitimately being a productive player.
Considering their situations, it’s no wonder why Mariota was able to separate himself from Winston. Mariota improved as the Titans roster did, but Winston was forced to drag a crippled and barren Bucs roster nearly to the playoffs. The two played entirely different roles for their offenses.
Jameis Winston: the second-year pro
Winston’s job was a nightmare last season. Having a star in Mike Evans by his side gave the illusion of a quality supporting cast, but the Buccaneers offense was atrocious last season. There was a complete lack of dynamism in the receiving corps. Aside from Evans, nobody served as a deep threat, run-after-catch weapon, or reliable possession receiver. Brate flashed moments of nice contested catch ability, but he couldn’t find space if he worked for NASA. Everyone outside of Evans was a replacement level player.
Additionally, the Bucs lost their prowess on the ground. In 2015, they had the second-most efficient rushing attack, yet had one of the worst yards per carry averages in 2016. Winston was no longer able to coast off the run game for stretches at a time and more easily generate big plays off of play-action. The responsibility to move the offense along fell almost entirely on him, a 22-year-old second-year NFL player. And yet, he found a way to make it work.
The Buccaneers finished the season with league average marks in total yardage, points scored, and passing yards, as well as the 11th-ranked passing offense, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Even on third down, the Bucs were one of the best offenses in the league, finishing with the sixth-best conversion rate. Converting red zone trips into touchdowns was a struggle for the Buccaneers, but Winston didn’t throw a single red zone interception in 2016, and he consistently gave the Bucs chances to score.
The ball placement on both of these passes is perfect. In both examples, Winston has to put enough arc on the ball to get it over the linebacker, but put enough heat on it in order to fit the window between the defensive backs. Winston puts each throw in a place where only Brate can go up and get it. That combination of gusto and delicate touch make for deadly red zone potential. Throws like these comfortably put Winston among quarterbacks who don’t just run their offense, they create for it.
Likewise, Winston continued to take strides as an anticipatory passer. Winston’s play style revolves around timing routes and beating the defense with anticipation. As a rookie, Winston’s feel for those plays were fine, but he had more than his fair share of uncomfortable moments. In 2016, Winston took it upon himself to test his capabilities as an anticipatory passer and fully trust his ability to complete those passes.
When Winston is “on,” few quarterbacks in the league make it look as pretty as he does. Winston opens to his right on this play, but as soon as he hits the top of his drop and sees that the curl route isn’t open, he turns and fires at the backside skinny-post without hesitation. Winston didn’t pause to reassess the coverage or shy away because of the linebacker; he trusted where every player on the field would be and took his chances. It’s tough for a defense to defend this without perfect coverage.
Winston’s bad plays are nearly inexcusable, though. Whereas Winston properly took inventory of where defenders were on the previous example, he blanks on the position of the safety on this play. Winston begins the play by looking a double-teamed Evans’ way, but looks elsewhere upon assessing the potentially dangerous situation. Instead of turning and firing to the backside post in one swift action, Winston puts his weight on his back foot and pauses in the pocket for a brief moment. That brief moment was all it took for the safety to realize the backside post was the only other threat in his area, so he pounced on the untimely throw and picked it off.
There is a fine line between when Winston’s aggressive anticipation does or does not work out, and Winston needs to continue building his understanding of where the line is. He orchestrated more perfect throws than he did as a rookie, but also got himself into more trouble than was affordable. In that same vein, Winston was far more aggressive in 2016 than he was as a rookie. Part of that comes down to being more comfortable as an NFL player, but Winston also appeared to feel the pressures that the offense was putting on him.
As mentioned before, the weight of the Tampa Bay offense fell forcefully on Winston’s shoulders in 2016. Winston became antsier and more stubborn because of the overbearing pressure to generate offense for the Bucs. Winston consistently passed up shorter routes that were open for intermediate/deep routes that were 50-50 throws, at best. His belligerence birthed a lucky explosive play every so often, but it tended to do more damage than the risk was worth. Though Winston has always had that element to his play style, it was heightened in an unnatural way in 2016.
Winston’s sophomore NFL season was polarizing as could be. There was an unhealthy marriage between his flaws and his perfections. Like during his rookie season, Winston’s ability to properly quarterback his team came in waves, not in a steady stream. Winston needs to piece together his game or else his ceiling will be limited.
Amidst the chaos, though, there was a silver lining. Winston made NFL history by becoming the first ever quarterback to post back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons to open a career. Furthermore, the only two quarterbacks to score more total touchdowns in their first two seasons are Dan Marino (Hall of Famer) and Cam Newton (2015 MVP, future Hall of Famer). Winston is tied with Russell Wilson for third place at 57 total touchdowns. Blemishes be damned, it’s hard to push back against Winston’s statistical accomplishments and what he can be when he is at his best.
Marcus Mariota: the second-year pro
Mariota took promising strides in 2016. Not only was Mariota able to build on his already impressive accuracy to all levels of the field, but he turned some of his weaknesses into legitimate strengths. Throughout his tenure at Oregon, and his rookie year in the NFL, Mariota showed a resistance to throwing into tight windows. He had the talent to do it, but often chose to dump the ball off or take matters into his own hands rather than test those windows. 2016 spotlighted a new Mariota.
The Titans significantly improved the situation around Mariota in 2016 and that aided the young quarterback’s development. After a bevy of offseason moves, both in free agency and in the draft, the Titans retooled the infrastructure of their offense. Mariota all of a sudden had a top quality offensive line and a running game that could ease the pressure off of him. As the offensive line and rushing attack improved, the Titans had more flexibility to use Mariota as a play-action passer and push the ball downfield.
Mariota took to the new role well and proved he could handle an offense that asked him to be a fairly aggressive passer. In fact, only a handful of quarterbacks in the league consistently tested the depths-of-target that Mariota did.
Mariota always had the talent to make this throw consistently, but he didn’t begin testing it at a high rate until the 2016 season. He seemed to have developed a newfound confidence for what he was capable of within the confines of the offense, as well as a clear understanding of what the offense was opening up for him. On this play, Mariota exhausts all his options to his left, peeks at the vertical receiver on the right-numbers, then launches a beauty to tight end Delanie Walker. A previous incarnation of Mariota would have almost certainly dumped this off to the back leaking out to the right or tucked the ball down to run with it. This Mariota knew he could do more.
The second-year Titan also showed more of an affinity for giving his players chances 1-on-1. With the way Mariota can delicately place passes over defenders, it was refreshing to see him call upon that skill more often in 2016.
This defensive back did nothing wrong, but a perfect throw is indefensible. Had Mariota left this throw a mere few inches lower or further inside, this is an incompletion. Instead, Mariota dropped this pass right over the defender’s reach and carefully into his receiver’s bread basket. Mariota tested more throws like this in 2016, and consistently showed he could place the ball well. His feel for how to throw around defenders grew exponentially. At the youthful age of 23, Mariota regularly made throws many NFL veterans couldn’t.
Mariota’s confidence only improved within the constructs of the offense, though. When executing the system and making throws on time, Mariota was as confident and aggressive as ever. When plays ran late, Mariota locked up. Mariota’s confidence in fitting tight windows dwindled the further a play went on. He didn’t seem comfortable forcing passes and testing his limits once plays broke down. There are a few noteworthy splash plays from that department, but Mariota was largely reserved as an improviser and often opted to check down, throwaway, or run the ball in those spots.
It’s entirely possible Mariota simply didn’t trust his receiving corps. None of the receivers the Titans started last year would be more than the third-best receiver on a good roster. Mariota has never been one to push the limits late in plays, though, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. It may limit the offense’s explosive potential to some extent, but the trade off of ball security and efficiency is one any head coach should be willing to live with, considering the rest of Mariota’s skill set.
Mariota’s overall development helped the Titans offense flip a switch. In 2016, the Titans had the most efficient red zone offense (by touchdown %), were one of the best teams at converting on third downs, and jumped from last in offensive DVOA in 2015 to ninth in offensive DVOA in 2016. The Titans were able to control the ball and capitalize on scoring opportunities at a rate that made them one of the most consistent offenses in the NFL.
What the Future Holds
Based purely on their performance last season, Marcus Mariota has the edge over Jameis Winston, but the battle is far from over. Both quarterbacks were given new weapons this year and that should allow them to take their respective games to the next level.
The Buccaneers completely overhauled their receiving corps. After kicking off free agency with the signing of deep threat wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the Buccaneers spent a first-round pick on tight end OJ Howard and a third-round pick on wide receiver Chris Godwin. All the new faces will take time to mesh together, but Winston is now loaded with a full arsenal of versatile weapons. It’s up to him to step up and make the most of these new additions.
Mariota was granted a handful of new cast members, too. With the fifth overall selection, wide receiver Corey Davis was selected by the Titans, a move that was followed up by the selection of another wide receiver, Taywan Taylor, in the third round. Lastly, the Titans added more speed to their tight end corps by drafting Jonnu Smith on the third day of the draft. While the Titans didn’t add a proven veteran like Jackson, they did their best to build the receiving corps with premium draft picks.
Now loaded with fresh weapons, differentiating between the two quarterbacks moving forward comes down to two things: Winston’s consistency and Mariota’s health. Winston won’t have any excuses left to be terribly inconsistent in 2017. The offense will be stacked at the skill positions and the ground game will almost surely rebound. The team around Winston will be plenty effective, but Winston needs to prove for certain he’s the offense’s conductor.
Mariota needs to remain healthy. He missed four games as a rookie and broke his leg in Week 16 last year, an injury that will force him to miss some of the offseason and preseason action. Missing time this offseason, especially when the offense will be largely dependent on rookie receivers, could be a critical disadvantage for the Titans, at least early on in the season. It is a tall order to assume Mariota can come back firing on all cylinders after an injury as severe as a broken leg.
After all this build up, there is no definitive answer in the Mariota vs. Winston debate (yet). While Mariota looked better last season, there is plenty of reason to believe both are budding superstars. The two will be on a more even playing field from a personnel standpoint, which should lend to a clearer picture of where each of them are at and who has the brighter future, even if by a marginal difference. As has been the case to this point, the discourse over these two may always be more about stylistic preference than a true talent disparity. A quarterback “rivalry” between these two has the potential to be one of the most compelling of this generation.