Tennessee Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota has endured the toughest calendar year of his football career, and maybe even his life.
This time a year ago he was preparing for a long and grueling recovery after breaking his fibula the week before. The Titans were eliminated by the Jacksonville Jaguars that day to add insult to injury.
Mariota returned for the start of the 2017 season with high expectations placed on him after a stellar 2016 campaign.
The organization invested heavily on offense to upgrade the talent around him, and the national media pegged Tennessee as the trendy breakthrough team because of it.
But for most of the season the Titans’ offense failed to live up to those expectations, for a variety of reasons. Play calling, a rushing attack that dropped to the middle of the pack after finishing third overall the year before, and Mariota himself was not blameless.
After throwing for more interceptions than touchdowns this season, and the team on the verge of an epic collapse after squandering an 8-4 record and comfortable lead in the wild-card race, Mariota now faced a win-and-in scenario against the toughest defense in the league.
With vultures disguised as naysayers hovering above his head in anticipation of feasting on his carcass, Mariota put the offense on his shoulders and legs to save the team’s season, and his legacy to some degree.
And he did it with the most gritty performance of his young career.
The Titans earned their first playoff berth in nearly a decade with a hard-fought 15-10 victory over a game Jacksonville team that played their starters the entire game.
With little help from the run game (Derrick Henry averaged just 1.8 yards per carry), and no help from his receivers (several critical dropped passes), Mariota took it upon himself to do just enough on offense to seal the deal.
The former Heisman Trophy winner put on a collegiate-type performance, leading the team in passing and rushing like he was back at Oregon. He was smart with the ball, he didn’t force things, and the lone turnover that was committed was not his fault.
Mariota’s 66 yard touchdown pass put the Titans ahead and they never relinquished the lead. When the Jags threatened to change the momentum, he made huge plays with his legs to extend drives.
On third and five, and Tennessee clinging to a five point lead late in the fourth quarter, Mariota dropped back to pass, rolled to his left, evaded a couple of Jags defenders, and stiff-armed the last to move the chains.
He smartly slid in bounds, causing Jacksonville to eventually burn their final timeouts. A play that will be a part of his playoff legacy.
Key word being playoff. Because fair or not, franchise quarterbacks are ultimately judged by wins, playoff appearances, and championships.
Three short weeks ago Mariota was accused of being timid outside of the pocket, scared to use his ultimate weapons for fear of another injury.
Today Mariota was fearless, and he did what he was drafted to do when he was selected by a then 2-14 team. He led them to the playoffs.
Had the Titans lost and missed the playoffs, and Mariota played another bad game, then one could only guess what the narrative about him would be tomorrow.
Thankfully for Tennessee, they don’t have to find out. They will be busy preparing for a wild-card matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Happy New Years Titans fans. The drought is finally over. Your team is playoff bound!