Mariota can still spark a change in Titans' season

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Marcus Mariota dreamed of nights like tonight, his likely Monday Night Football debut. The low-key quarterback from Hawaii says his mentality won’t change, but he’ll certainly think back to those grade-school days as an eager MNF viewer.

“It was 2:30 in the afternoon, right when school was done, we got to catch the games,” Mariota said with a smile.

Now kids in Hawaii will be rushing home Monday to see Mariota play.

For the Tennessee Titans and Mariota, Monday night will be something of a pendulum game. This year was all about making the big leap and erasing question marks. For Mariota, it was about hopefully becoming an elite young quarterback and staying healthy. For the Titans, it was about notching back-to-back winning seasons and making it to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Through five games, it’s been a disappointment on all accounts.

But Monday night could spark a change.

A week without Mariota because of a hamstring injury reaffirmed just how important he is to the Titans. This team isn’t built to win without Mariota, and it won’t. The good news is he’s likely back just in time to try to end the Titans’ 11-game losing streak against the Colts.

Mariota’s progress from his rookie season to his third year has been gradual yet apparent, even with a lukewarm start to his 2017 season.

Of the 12 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 over the past decade with at least 31 starts, Mariota has the best touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.2-to-1). His completion percentage (61.4 percent) is third best of the group, per ESPN Stats & Info.

It’s clear that Mariota is a franchise quarterback, but can he answer the health concerns and take the next step?

Durability is a skill

Featured prominently on the wall of the Titans’ training room is a well-traveled NFL phrase: “Durability is more important than ability.”

But what happens when your franchise quarterback is the one who can’t find a way to play a full 16-game season?

“Anytime you don’t have your best player, you’re weak,” Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie said.

Of the 10 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 who began their career as a starter, only Mariota and Robert Griffin III have missed a game in each of their first three seasons, per ESPN Stats & Info. The NFL is a “next man up” league, but that rarely works at the quarterback position. Left tackle Taylor Lewan and receiver Rishard Matthews are among many Titans who admit they are a different team without Mariota.

Mariota doesn’t enjoy discussing his injuries. He spent an entire offseason updating the world on how his broken leg, suffered last Christmas Eve, was healing. He finally thought he was past it all before the hamstring injury popped up two weeks ago.

There has been no common theme with Mariota’s injuries (2015 sprained left MCL, 2015 sprained right MCL, 2016 broken leg, 2017 strained hamstring). He is a dual-threat quarterback, but three of Mariota’s four injuries happened during a sack while he was in the pocket.

“No explanation, other than it’s part of the game,” coach Mike Mularkey said. “Unfortunately, it’s been his third year where he’s missed a game. It’s just how it’s unfolded.”

The Titans may have to prepare as if Mariota will miss a game or two every season due to injury.

It was puzzling going into the season, and even more so now, why Tennessee didn’t seek a better backup quarterback, via the draft or free agency, than Matt Cassel. It should certainly be a priority this upcoming offseason. The Titans should target a top-notch backup quarterback regardless of familiarity.

At least for this season, the Titans hope they’ve seen the last of Cassel in an important game.

Reason for optimism

There’s a benefit to playing in the AFC South. The 2-3 Titans will be tied for first place with a win Monday night or alone in last place with a loss. All of the Titans’ preseason aspirations — starting with a playoff berth and AFC South crown — are still within reach if they start turning it around.

The Colts have the third-worst pass defense in the NFL, which could be the perfect recipe for Mariota and the Titans to get their groove back. Even if Mariota is limited to being a pocket passer Monday, his improved passing ability would be an asset and it’s certainly much better than what Cassel provided. Mariota’s 93.8 passer rating through his first two seasons ranked sixth in NFL history.

If the Titans notch a win vs. Indianapolis Monday and next week at Cleveland, they’d move to 4-3 going into their bye week. Heading into the second half of the season with a fully healthy Mariota and rookie receiver Corey Davis seems like a recipe for success.

Down the stretch, the Titans have one of the NFL’s easiest schedules and Mariota typically elevates his game later in the season. The Titans still believe there is plenty of reason for optimism, and it starts with Mariota.

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