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638 Days Later: The Return of Marcus Mariota

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as mentioned in another thread, I'm trying to write more. Check out my article below!

 

639 days ago, Marcus Mariota broke his fibula during a Week 16 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. His step-forward of a sophomore season, one that saw a confident Mariota throw for 26 touchdowns while leading the Titans to their first winning season since 2011, was cut short in enemy territory. For the next 637 days, Mariota was not the same quarterback. His 2017 season was marred by injury, an ineffective offensive system, and his own poor decision-making. While he ended the season with two moments of greatness and skill -- a stiff-arm of Jaguar safety Barry Church to seal a playoff-clinching win and an 18-point Wild Card game comeback victory in Kansas City -- Mariota’s overall play left fans wondering what happened to their apparent savior.

This 2018 campaign started off with optimism, as new offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur looked to breath life into the offense by installing a new, innovative system that would cater to Mariota’s strengths. With a full offseason of work under his belt and an arsenal including Corey Davis, Dion Lewis, Delanie Walker and Derrick Henry, all signs pointed to Mariota returning to his 2016 form.

Mariota’s home opener in Miami was a familiar sight for Titan fans, but for all the wrong reasons. His play was not detrimental, but frustrating, as he struggled with accuracy and failed to produce a touchdown. More familiar than this, though, was Mariota tending to an injury; this one to his elbow after being hit on an RPO by former Titan William Hayes. Mariota, clearly hurt, threw two interceptions before being replaced by back-up Blaine Gabbert. The Titans would lose to Miami, 27-20.

The aftermath of that game saw the media criticize both Mariota’s play and his inability to stay healthy. Titan fans expressed their dismay with him on social media, questioning his willingness to play through the injury and whether or not he was a true leader of the team. Reports over the next two weeks didn’t help, as the extent of Mariota’s nerve injury was vague and his practice load varied by day. He dressed, but did not play, in a win against the Houston Texans and was named the back-up leading up to a a massive divisional road game against the 2-0 Jacksonville Jaguars, fresh off a dismantling of the New England Patriots a week prior.

On the Titans’ second drive of the game with the score tied 0-0, starting Titan quarterback Blaine Gabbert suffered a concussion after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Jaguar defensive lineman Malik Jackson and was forced to leave the game.

638 days after suffering an injury that changed the trajectory of his career, Marcus Mariota stepped onto the very same field where it occurred. Struggling with numbness in two fingers and facing the best defense in the NFL, he jogged into a huddle of adversity.

For the next three-and-a-half quarters, the impressively relaxed Mariota led the Titans on long, clock-draining offensive possessions. He relied on his intermediate accuracy and legs to complete quick passes and pick up easy yardage, willing the Titans to a gutsy 9-6 lead late in the fourth quarter.

With just 2:31 left in the game and facing a 3rd and 1 from their own 33, Tennessee needed to convert a first down to avoid punting to a Jaguar team desperate to get the ball back. It is moments exactly like these where teams look to put the ball in their franchise quarterback’s hands. From the shotgun and flanked to his left by Dion Lewis, Mariota snapped the ball.

Mariota faked a hand-off to Lewis, tucked the ball and looked to his left. Running behind a Taylor Lewan block on Telvin Smith, he darted upfield for 15 yards, the first down and an eventual victory. With this run, Mariota seemingly exhaled the past 20 months of inconsistency and doubts that have weighed him down.

While his final statistics are far from gaudy -- 12/18 for 100 yards passing and 51 yards on the ground -- his gritty and clutch performance earned him the game ball as the team celebrated in the locker room. In that same locker room, Mariota’s teammates lauded his play, calling him a “warrior,” a “true competitor” and, perhaps most importantly, “our leader.”

In 14 weeks time, we may look back on this game as just one of sixteen, which is exactly what it is. But this feels much more than that. Sometimes individual games transcend the collective sixteen, just as Mariota’s play transcended his injury and an elite defense. With this emotional win over a division rival, the Tennessee Titans also seem to have their franchise quarterback once again.

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