FLOWERY BRUNCH, Georgia. Saturday practice was late, and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota seemed to have nowhere to throw. The coverage was good, but it was a game in the red zone, so he went out to the end zone.
And when he scored, Mariota celebrated by kicking the ball more than halfway up the hill where fans sit and watch practice. It was both a happy moment in the midst of one of the most competitive workouts of Coach Arthur Smith’s tenure, and perhaps a release for the quarterback himself.
“It’s probably a little more emotion than I’ve ever seen from him,” Smith said. “Probably a little is a little bit of catharsis.”
It’s been a few years since Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, was in that position, starting the season as the team’s presumed starting quarterback. That was part of the attraction of coming to Atlanta, along with being reunited with Smith, his former offensive coordinator. After two years with the Las Vegas Raiders as Derek Carr’s understudy, this was the chance to be the main guy again.
When Mariota signed in March after Atlanta traded franchise icon Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts, he knew he would be in a tough spot replacing the best quarterback in the team’s history. But he’d been through so much—injury, job loss, essentially two years of observation—that this might have been the best opportunity he had.
It would be logical if Mariota thought so, and it manifested itself in the camp.
He was consistent and got the vast majority of reps with the first line—at least with the offensive line, as the pass catchers alternated with both Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder. Mariota is comfortable on offense and is familiar with what he is asked to do, even with a bunch of newbies playing around him. He moves well and seems to have a rhythm.
Offensive coordinator Dave Reygon commended Marriott for not pushing the ball to a point or finding an open receiver. Sounds simple, but often quarterbacks don’t. Mariota didn’t give up on the team period—at least in the open areas—until the third day of practice.
“Of course, his experience brought him here,” Smith said. “And he’s in a good rhythm. He’s got a good stream there.”
From the looks of it, Mariota has been working like he’ll be a starter at the start of the season, although Smith will likely approach quarterback like he would any other position: the best guy plays. But when it comes to Ridder’s third round, it’s important to keep in mind that over the past six years, the only rookie quarterbacks who didn’t make it to the first round to start in the first week were Deshawn Kizer of the Cleveland Browns in 2017 and Dak Prescott. from the Cleveland Browns in 2017. Dallas Cowboys in 2016.
Quarterback coach Charles London told Mariota and Ridder that they needed to come back from a six-week summer break ready to go. It was obvious that they complied, judging by how they played without pads the first week.
Mariota was a more precise and accurate quarterback. Ridder showed signs of progress while working for Mariota.
Mariota was helped by good receiver play as there were a few loose shots and a lot of short passes – but that’s part of what can be used. The key to Mariota will be his accuracy. As a starter for the Tennessee Titans from 2015 to 2019, he had a 62.9 completion percentage, 25th in the NFL during that period.
He started 61 of a possible 80 games with the Titans, although he only missed eight games in seasons when he was a clear starter. Only twice did Mariota miss games in a row, both in his rookie year.
Mariota also amassed 1,399 yards and 11 touchdowns in five seasons as a Titan, although he was on the bench in 2019 in place of Ryan Tannehill. But the quarterback and his new head coach have grown up since their Titans days, and the reunion gives Mariota a shot. to rediscover what worked for him early in his career, with the benefit of more experience.
“For me, this is a great opportunity to prove not only to myself, but also to those who believed in me,” Mariota said. “So, I’m excited. The last couple of years have been a great reboot. I learned a lot from Derek. I learned a lot while there. I feel ready to go.”
In Tennessee, he realized that he constantly needed to prove himself. Then, in Vegas for the last couple of seasons, his training remained the same. Sundays were just different. Instead of being at the center, he relayed what he saw to Carr, trying to help the Raiders win games from the side rather than by hand and foot.
But he was always ready for the next shot. Atlanta called and gave him the opportunity. And now he’s leading an NFL team again as long as he’s playing well enough to keep it.