I’m sure we were all thinking something similar. As the final pass of the national championship game fell into cornerback Eli Apple’s hands, ESPN announcer Chris Fowler remarked how it was not a fitting (presumptive) end to quarterback Marcus Mariota’s career.
A player who has become known for winning and not throwing interceptions watched his career close with that pick on his final throw in a loss to now national champs Ohio State. Mariota, who was attempting to become the ninth Heisman Trophy winner to also win the national title, played a game most would consider spectacular. But with the expectations his previous exploits have created, his play on Monday night was considered subpar.
The social media backlash seemed to be immediate. I was reading how Mariota wasn’t a sure-thing NFL quarterback, that his numbers are merely a byproduct of Oregon’s system and that he hasn’t proven himself in a pro-style offense.
“Mariota’s gonna have a big learning curve in the NFL. Not impressed with his pocket awareness,” tweeted the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin.
“I really like Mariota as a prospect, but you’re lying if you’re not worried about his film/traits translating to the NFL,” tweeted Bleacher Report NFL analyst Matt Miller.
“Mariota will be bust in NFL. Kid cannot throw a lick from pocket into coverage,” tweeted ESPN Insider and sports handicapper Patrick Donovan.
Look, they may all be correct. Nobody is expecting Mariota to walk into the NFL next season and be a dominant quarterback. But would the same sentiments be uttered if Oregon were playing with its top two wide receivers? Would the same statements have been made if receivers had not dropped two huge third-down throws that fell right in their hands?
Before throwing the final interception on a Hail Mary, Mariota was 24 for 36 for 333 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t the best game Mariota played this season, but he was not the reason the Ducks came up short. He wasn’t the one trying to tackle Ezekiel Elliott or contain Cardale Jones. But the burden of the 42-20 loss still fell upon his shoulders and may remain there through draft day.
The idea that a player must come from a pro-style offense to be a successful NFL quarterback is a familiar refrain. Of course, it’s better than not to have that knowledge when entering the league, but it’s not the be all, end all. USC has been winning national titles and running a pro-style offense for over a decade. How would you characterize the professional careers of Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley to this point?
Mariota didn’t make every throw on Monday night, but he sure didn’t miss many. And he’s not the first quarterback to run a system like Oregon uses, so the fact that he is one of the most accurate and winningest QB’s in college football history says what, exactly? That he was lucky? Mariota threw the ball 1,130 times over the last three years. Just 13 (1.15 percent) of those pass attempts were intercepted. Accuracy is not an issue. Neither is intelligence, nor coachability.
Will he be great? Who knows? No, he’s not a sure thing. Do you know how many sure-thing quarterbacks there have been in my lifetime? Two. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. That’s it. Being a great NFL quarterback is extremely rare. Only 32 men each year are deemed capable of starting for an NFL team and we can agree that some of them are pretty terrible. I mean, Ryan Lindley just started a playoff game.
Mariota’s legacy, which he immediately said doesn’t concern him, would have been better served with an Oregon win. But Ohio State was clearly the better team. He only had the ball for 22 of the 60 minutes and still accounted for 372 total yards. Yet, sometimes a player has been built up so much (and for good reason) that they can only trend downward. That seems to be happening to Mariota and while the quick social media backlash isn’t unexpected, it is pretty stupid.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.