After signing a two-year $17.6 million deal with the Las Vegas Raiders, Marcus Mariota became the most expensive backup quarterback in the NFL. However, the veteran outcast draws parallels to a couple of head coach Jon Gruden protégés. Specifically, 2002 MVP Rich Gannon, and Super Bowl champion Brad Johnson. Both of them were reclamation projects Gruden picked up and Mariota could be next.
The Raiders could present Marcus Mariota a unique opportunity
Ahead of the 2015 draft, Mike Mayock ranked Mariota ahead of eventual number one draft pick, Jameis Winston. At the time, Gruden wondered why others didn’t have Mariota as the number one overall pick. The Raiders head coach, back then an analyst, loved his playmaking ability and even compared him to Russell Wilson. Mayock was a little more pragmatic with his assessment though.
He reads combination routes, takes tremendous care of the football, and he wins games. He’s not a natural thrower, but in the correct scheme, I think he can be productive. I’ve been fighting this for a long time, and I think that’s what I’ve come down on.
The resurrection of Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson
Gannon spent the first 12 seasons of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, the Washington football team and the Kansas City Chiefs, where he regularly came off the bench only to get sent back. He constantly underperformed and didn’t show starting-caliber quarterback potential early in his career. According to Pro Football Reference, Gannon started in 58 games, threw 66 touchdowns and 54 interceptions during that time.
In Gannon’s first year with Gruden, he immediately improved, throwing for 24 touchdowns and 14 picks. As the years went on, interceptions went down, and his touchdown numbers continued to climb.
Gruden did the same thing with Brad Johnson, who just like Gannon, spent years with the Vikings and the Washington Football Team only to post a career year with Gruden in 2002 on their way to a Super Bowl victory.
How Does Marcus Mariota Compare to Rich Gannon?
Mariota somewhat resembles Gannon. He’s comfortable leaving the pocket and extending plays with his legs. Although Gannon had a cannon for an arm, Mariota can throw on the run and has above-average arm strength.
Numerous coaching and scheme changes have hindered Mariota’s development throughout his young career. Ken Whisenhunt of the Tennessee Titans drafted the Oregon product second overall in 2015 despite being a conservative play-caller. The former head coach tried to force Mariota into a pocket passer role even though he could’ve used him as a dual-threat quarterback.
Six games into the season, the Titans fired Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey took over in spite of having a 16-32 losing record in stints with the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite making the playoffs in 2017, Mularkey’s failure to scheme around Mariota’s strengths ended up being his downfall.
All in all, Mariota had four offensive coordinators and three head coaches in five years with the Titans. In that span, Mariota suffered numerous injuries, including multiple sprains in his knee, shoulder, and elbow. A broken leg and nerve damage to his shoulder that many believe lingered into the 2019 season.
Marcus Mariota Has Gotten Positive Reviews in his short tenure with the Raiders
“I’ve been impressed,” Gruden said on a conference call. “The No. 1 thing with Marcus was to get healthy. He did a great job getting himself healthy and learning our system. That’ll give him a chance to be Marcus Mariota.”
A lack of offseason training camp has limited Mariota’s chances of surpassing Derek Carr for the starting job, but he should push Carr in training camp and be waiting in the wings if he underperforms or gets hurt.
There is no guaranteed money left on Carr’s contract at the end of the 2020 season, so if Mariota shows promise, he could be a cheaper stopgap option. Gruden’s ability to repair veteran quarterbacks and his offensive play calling make this a perfect match to revive Mariota’s career.
“I think Jon Gruden, if he committed to him, could do what he did with Rich Gannon, because I think the guy has some real good ability,” a former head coach said to Mike Sando of The Athletic. “Mariota has issues keeping his eyes up the field, but I think he was in a tough position there in Tennessee with the combination of things they had going on. At some point, you have to overcome whatever it is.”
*Top Photo: Jeb Jacobsohn/Getty Images