Marcus Mariota: Greatest Duck Quarterback Ever?

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As with any Duck game I watch on television, the usual texts went back and forth between friends during Friday night’s game. The topics were likely the same as they were for many others watching the game: Dwayne Stanford’s breakout first half. Lofty projections of Royce Freeman’s career. (Three Doak Walker awards? Or four?) Byron Marshall’s big game in his hometown. Every text about Charles Nelson ending with multiple exclamation points.

And just like every week, a flurry of texts about Marcus Mariota; who has been so impressive that he threw for 326 yards and five TDs against Cal…and it wasn’t even his best game at Cal. He is so quietly spectacular that it is easy to forget how special of a player he really is. Which is why one text I got stood out amongst the rest.

I’m going to miss Mariota when he’s gone.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon's all-time leader in passing yardage.

Craig Strobeck

Marcus Mariota, Oregon’s all-time leader in passing yardage.

It’s a subject that is always understood but never fully pondered with current college football players: that their time on campus is short, the window to define their careers is limited, and the time to appreciate them is even shorter. While we can witness certain achievements during their playing days that begin to flesh out how they will be remembered, their legacy as college players cannot be fully defined until their eligibility ends.

On Friday night Mariota broke the last remaining school quarterback record, passing Bill Musgrave as the all-time passing yardage leader in Oregon history.  While his legacy at Oregon isn’t yet defined, one distinction has already been cemented: he is statistically the greatest quarterback to ever play for the Ducks.

Of course, the adverb “statistically” is often a left handed compliment, often used to imply that a player’s numbers inflated a player’s status to be greater than he was. This isn’t the case with Mariota, 30-4 in his career with the second-highest career passer rating in NCAA history. An electric talent with both his feet and his arm, Mariota is also not only considered a perfect teammate, he’s often described with highest praise in the coaching lexicon: “I’d let him date my daughter.”

Marcus Mariota in front of the media.

Kevin Cline

Marcus Mariota in front of the media.

Mariota wins 88% of his games while often being the best player and arguably the best human on the field. So why isn’t a quarterback of his talents and achievements more celebrated, why doesn’t he get more consideration for postseason awards?

Two factors are working against Mariota for Heisman Trophy consideration:

1) The Bravado Factor: Mariota by anyone’s definition is a soft-spoken guy. While he asserts himself as the face of the team, it’s evident he does so as a sense of responsibility as leader of the team rather than being self-promoting by nature. While there have been quiet guys who have won the Heisman Trophy and other high-profile awards before, they were rarely quarterbacks.

There’s still an antiquated notion that for a quarterback to be great, he has to be a guy who yells at his teammates in the huddle, then is effortlessly charming when conversing with the media. Sportswriters love charming players, because charming players fill the rigid stereotype of what they think a quarterback should be, regardless of whether that player is actually worthy of the praise he is receiving.

As for that whole “high character” talk that is always bandied about whenever Heisman candidacies are discussed, that’s code for “best four-year starter from a contending historical powerhouse who plays with guile and has never been arrested.”  Voters don’t actually care if a player has high character or not; they just use it as a reason to make sure a good but not great player from a highly visible school makes it into consideration in years when the other Heisman candidates are from less prominent schools. (See: Manti Te’o, 2012.)

Mariota against Michigan State

Kevin Cline

Mariota against Michigan State.

2) The Ascent Factor: It’s not enough to be a great quarterback and have the team do well. For a quarterback to be truly celebrated, his team has to climb significantly while he is the starter, regardless of how much responsibility the quarterback has for that ascent. (See: Robert Griffin, 2011; Johnny Manziel, 2012.)  If Dak Prescott were to win this year, it would be under this corollary.

For a quarterback to be highly regarded he can’t just be great; he has to be great and have his team dramatically improve.  Even if he is the difference between a five-win team and a ten-win team, if the team won 10+ games the year before, it doesn’t matter for the purposes of postseason awards.

The only exception is for quarterbacks who get their teams to national championship games at programs with sustained success. Otherwise, no amount of individual achievement can sway that perception, at least in regards to the Heisman Trophy.

That a lot of luck goes into teams making it to the national championship (for example, injuries) is meaningless to award voters. If a team doesn’t make the national championship, the perception is that the star quarterback can’t be fully praised and celebrated.

Hroniss Grasu and Marcus Mariota.

Kevin Cline

Hroniss Grasu and Marcus Mariota.

On the previously referenced list of top ten college quarterbacks all-time in career passer rating, all but two of the ten players hold one of two distinctions:

  • Heisman Trophy winner, or
  • Played at a WAC school, thereby not meriting serious Heisman consideration (unless their name was Ty Detmer).

One of them, as you may have guessed from being ranked second all-time, is Marcus Mariota. The other is Andrew Luck. The Oregon-Stanford matchup not only decided the Pac-10/12 the past four seasons; it also defined the Heisman race, as all four times the team with the better quarterback lost. Both of those quarterbacks, Luck the number one overall pick, and Mariota projected to be; were such anticipated quarterbacks professionally that they inspired tanking campaigns by NFL fan bases. Yet as of today, their combined college careers have resulted in zero conference or division titles. With Luck in his third season with the Indianapolis Colts, his college career has long since been defined. For Mariota, there’s still time to determine his legacy.

Mariota had a 77 yard run last time Stanford came to Autzen Stadium.

Kevin Cline

Mariota had a 77 yard run last time Stanford came to Autzen Stadium.

Which brings us to Saturday’s game.

Normally, a home game against an unranked opponent in the conference’s bottom half wouldn’t qualify as the defining game of a Heisman candidate’s career. But that’s what this week’s matchup means for Marcus Mariota; a chance to slay the dragon that has held back the full potential of his legacy. Mariota’s not the only one with much at stake. For the Ducks as a team, it’s a state-of-the-program defining game as well.

The last two seasons, Oregon has been held in check by a very good Stanford team.  That description does not fit this year’s version of the Cardinal. While their defense has remained their calling card, this year’s Stanford offense has been mediocre at best. A win against the Cardinal would essentially lock up the North for Oregon, with every North team having three losses and the Civil War as the only division game remaining. Should the Ducks win every remaining game (Watch out for Utah!), the Ducks will almost assuredly make the Playoff.

Amongst Oregon fans, there are plenty of different answers to the question “who is Oregon’s greatest quarterback?” For many fans of my generation, the answer has always been Joey Harrington. Harrington and Mariota have suffered many of the same pains early in their careers: Seeing Stanford win the conference their first year as a starter, having conference championship hopes derailed their second years by unfortunate tipped picks in the final road game of the season, and suffering an excruciating home loss to Stanford.  Yet Harrington is beloved for overcoming those obstacles to finally lead the Ducks to a conference championship in 2001 (just their second one in 44 years, mind you) and the previously unreached heights of a #2 ranking.

Always a crowd favorite.

Andrew Shurtleff

Always a crowd favorite.

Of course, in Mariota’s case, there are only two previously unreached heights left for an Oregon quarterback: the Heisman Trophy and a National Championship. Should he reach either of those accomplishments, the question mark would be dropped. Marcus Mariota: Greatest Duck Quarterback Ever.

Top image by John Giustina

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