Win the Fiesta Bowl in your first year as a starter? Check. Rose Bowl? Check. Heisman trophy? Check. Top three draft pick? Mhhhm, that one too. These accomplishments, of course, forget to mention the truck load of hardware won after Marcus Mariota‘s miraculous 2014 season, probably sitting in a corner of his basement in Hawaii. The guy did it all, and for once there was nothing to bash.
He didn’t flash money signs; he didn’t steal, rape or cheat. He didn’t get down on one knee and thank God after every time he scored. Instead he politely handed the ball to the referee and focused on his offense’s next drive. And you know what? That drove people insane. He could do no wrong! His touchdown to interception ratio looked like a Madden video game. He experienced unprecedented success, all while nailing interviews and flashing that knock-dead smile.
So he was drafted second. Wait, what? Second? The guy who was in the middle of a sexual assault legal battle was taken over him?
Absolutely, and it’s because of one glaring issue: Mariota is a “system QB,” or at least, that’s what they called him. He was in an offense that didn’t require him to make advanced reads, and he never had to take a snap under center. Therefore, he will never succeed in the NFL. He doesn’t merit the top draft pick. Or, so they say.
Mariota has been dealing with these issues for years. ESPN personality Skip Bayless was one of his biggest doubters, as seen from this 2013 clip.
Bayless made note of it early. “Is Marcus somewhat a product of that Oregon offense? YES!” Now, granted Bayless is not talented in the art of scouting players. I mean, any one who can stand there and say “As a pro prospect, to me, Marcus Mariota isn’t even close to Johnny Manziel,” shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. But still, this skepticism is deeply rooted in how people feel about Mariota. In fact, it will continue to be until he steps onto the field for his first game. Now, although Mariota only needs to beat this thrilling stat line to outperform Manziel, he’s expected to do much more.
This is where the pressure of being Marcus Mariota comes in. He had one caveat amidst his tidal wave of perfection in 2014, and it was something he didn’t even have any control over. Mariota, in essence, could be the standard to which all “system QBs” are held. If he succeeds, it will open the door for players who were formerly doubted. If he fails, that door will be slammed shut.
In 2012 the NFL went through a similar situation. Andrew Luck looked like the child of Joe Montana, Jon Elway, and Dan Marino‘s love triangle, hand crafted to terrorize NFL DCs in their sleep. But there was this other guy, too. Robert Griffin III, a Baylor QB, lit up college football with his remarkable accuracy, play making ability, and genuine likability.
He was a risky pick, even after winning the Heisman and leading his team to a bowl victory. He was taken anyway, second just like Mariota, and that was that. He excelled in his first year, even winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Since then, he has failed to stay healthy and live up to all the hype. Most analysts would classify him as an average QB, and some could argue he’s below average. He failed to prove that “system QBs” in fact weren’t a risky pick.
Enter Mariota, the second-coming of Griffin except better in every way. More proven, better numbers, more impressive resumé of wins … and the list goes on. Mariota might just be the “system QB’s” last hope, with a shot to completely revolutionize the way NFL teams scout college QBs. He can make or break it as to whether guys like him are taken first, or in the fourth round.
Not only will Mariota’s rookie season need to quiet the doubters, but it will be a microcosm for all prospective NFL players who are just a little bit different. Maybe they might not fit the bill of the prototypical NFL QB, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play. Talent is talent, and for Mariota it’s time to prove it.
Top photo by Craig Strobeck