FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It was late in Saturday practice, and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota didn’t seem to be throwing anywhere. Coverage was good but this was a red zone game so he flew to the end zone.
And when he scored, Mariota celebrated by starting the football more than halfway up the hill where the fans sit and watch the practice. It was both a moment of exhilaration in the midst of one of the most competitive practice sessions of coach Arthur Smith’s tenure and perhaps a redemption for the quarterback himself.
“It’s probably a little more emotion than I’ve seen from him in a while,” Smith said. “Probably a little bit of that is a little bit cathartic.”
It’s been a few years since Mariota, the 2015 draft pick, held that position — she went into a season as a team’s starting quarterback pick. It was part of the appeal of coming to Atlanta, along with being reunited with Smith, his former offensive coordinator. After two years with the Las Vegas Raiders as a backup for Derek Carr, this was a chance to be the main man again.
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When Mariota signed in March after Atlanta traded franchise icon Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts, he knew he would be in a difficult position replacing the best quarterback in team history. But he’d been through so much – injuries, lost his job, just watched for two years – that this could be the best opportunity he’s had.
It would make sense for Mariota to feel that way, and it showed at camp.
He’s been consistent and has scored the vast majority of reps with the first unit — at least with the offensive line, as pass catchers have run through with both Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder. Mariota is comfortable with offense and is comfortable with what’s being asked of him – even with a bunch of new players playing alongside him. He moves well and seems to have a rhythm.
Offensive coordinator Dave Ragone praised Mariota for not pushing the ball into points and finding the open receiver. It sounds easy, but often quarterbacks don’t do that. Up to the third day of training, Mariota did not throw any incompletion errors in a team phase – at least in the parts open for observation.
“Certainly his experiences brought him to this place,” Smith said. “And he’s in a good rhythm. He’s in a good flow out there.”
From all appearances, Mariota has worked as if he would be the starter early in the season, although Smith will likely approach quarterback as he would any other position: Plays the best. But when it comes to third-seeded Ridder, it’s important to remember that over the past six years, the only rookie quarterbacks who didn’t make the first round and started Week 1 were Deshone Kizer for the Cleveland Browns in 2017 and Dak Prescott for the Dallas Cowboys in 2016.
Quarterbacks coach Charles London told Mariota and Ridder they needed to come back from their six-week summer break ready to play. It was obvious they were sticking with how they played padless for the first week.
Mariota was the snappier, more accurate quarterback. Ridder showed signs of progress working behind Mariota.
Mariota was aided by good receiver play as there were some less than spot on shots and he threw a lot of short passes – but that’s part of taking what’s available. A key for Mariota will be its accuracy. A starter for the Tennessee Titans from 2015-19, he had a 62.9 graduation rating, ranked 25th in the NFL for that span.
He started 61 of a possible 80 games with the Titans, though he only missed eight games in seasons when he was the clear starter. Only twice did Mariota miss consecutive games – both in his rookie year.
Mariota also rushed for 1,399 yards and 11 touchdowns in his five seasons as a Titan, despite being benched for Ryan Tannehill in 2019. But the quarterback and his new head coach have grown since their Titans days, and the reunion offers Mariota a chance to rediscover what worked for him early in his career, with the benefit of more experience.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to prove it not only to myself but to those who believed in me,” Mariota said. “Well, I’m excited. The last few years have been a great reset. I learned a lot from Derek. I learned a lot while I was there. I feel ready to go.”
In Tennessee he learned that he had to constantly prove himself. Then, in Vegas, his preparation has stayed the same for the past few seasons. Only Sundays were different. Instead of being under center, he passed what he saw to Carr and tried to help the Raiders win games from the sidelines instead of with his arms and legs.
But he kept building for another shot. Atlanta called and gave him the opportunity. And now he’s running an NFL team again — as long as he plays well enough to keep it.
https://www.espn.com/blog/atlanta-falcons/post/_/id/37176/marcus-mariota-proving-hes-atlanta-falcons-top-option-at-quarterback Marcus Mariota proving he’s Atlanta Falcons’ top option at quarterback – Atlanta Falcons Blog