There isn’t usually such hype for a game between, by almost all measurements, the two worst teams in the NFL last year. But their ineptness in 2014 produced the top two picks in the draft and delivered two of the most decorated quarterbacks in recent college football history.
On draft day, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided the kid with an NCAA title who played in their own backyard was the easy choice, selecting Jameis Winston first overall. That allowed the Tennessee Titans to grab Marcus Mariota as their quarterback of the (near) future.
So when the schedule came out pitting the Buccs and Titans against each other in Week 1, it looked like Winston would have a chance to exact some revenge for Mariota’s Rose Bowl domination.
That didn’t exactly happen.
Their professional careers could not have started any more differently. It was essentially a zero-sum game. For as well as things began for Mariota, they went just as horribly for Winston. While the Oahu product was threading four touchdowns in the first half, Winston threw a pick six on his very first NFL pass and saw his team trailing 21-0 just eight minutes into the game.
While Winston will certainly have better days and should improve rapidly once his top target, Mike Evans, returns to action, the question becomes can Mariota really be this good already?
While he walked out of Raymond James Stadium sporting a perfect 158.3 passer rating, he was going against a bad team and had relatively short fields to work with all game. What should we expect from Mariota moving forward?
We should expect him to continue being efficient, but defenses are going to start keying on those quick hitters. Mariota’s first touchdown was a bullet to Kendall Wright, who angled his way through the secondary and took it the distance for 52 yards. He has the arm to do so, but Mariota didn’t really have to go over the top of the Tampa Bay defense. He was mostly getting the ball out quickly on slant routes or using his tight ends and running backs. He did throw a couple lasers down the field and placed the ball in narrow windows, but the game plan seemed to be keeping his throws on the safe side.
He showed great poise in the pocket and had no issues with his footwork. He elected to stay patient and barely used his legs as a weapon. When Tennessee got into the red zone, Mariota was a perfect 4 for 4 passing, three of those going for scores. On his touchdown passes to Delanie Walker and Harry Douglas, he waited just long enough for them to uncover but didn’t give the defenders a chance to make a play on the ball. There was nothing negative an objective observer could say about his performance.
However, things don’t always follow up in such a positive manner. There’s a guy in Washington D.C. who has essentially been placed under house arrest, but who started in a very similar fashion. Robert Griffin III was thought to be the second-best quarterback in his draft class, came into his rookie season as the Redskins’ starter and went 19 of 26 for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his first game, a 40-32 win over the Saints.
There have been myriad circumstances for why RG3 finds himself in the awful situation he currently inhabits and I hope Mariota avoids everything Griffin has gone through. But I don’t think this one game means that Mariota is headed towards a brilliant NFL career any more than it means Winston is the next Jamarcus Russell. The only thing Mariota demonstrated even more clearly is that he handles pressure well. His poise has always been one of his greatest strengths, but he showed absolutely no jitters or any lack of confidence.
But Mariota must expect most defenses to approach him with more aggression. They will probably be pressing their coverage and playing some more bump and run to see if he can go downfield with precision.
He’s answered every question to this point and done so with ease and class. The challenges will continue to mount, but I wouldn’t expect anything different from Mariota.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.