NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The last time we saw Marcus Mariota on a national stage — on a cold January night in Foxborough, Mass. — he was admittedly frustrated and embarrassed. Mariota was terse and on the field he looked uncomfortable.
The Tennessee Titans have taken major steps over the past two and a half weeks to ensure that Mariota doesn’t feel like that to end a season ever again. Hiring Matt LaFleur as offensive coordinator might be the biggest move in the right direction and one that should bring excitement to the Titans and its fanbase.
LaFleur can unleash Mariota and help him become the quarterback that many across the NFL believe he still can be. LaFleur, a 38-year-old quarterback specialist who was picked by general manager Jon Robinson to interview for the Titans’ head coach job a couple of weeks ago, will pick from the branches of Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak and others to create his own offense for Mariota and the Titans.
Shortly after Mike Vrabel was announced as the fifth head coach in Titans history, I wrote that his offensive coordinator hire might define his tenure.
LaFleur is the man with the keys to Mariota, the Titans’ most important car. It’ll up to LaFleur to use him like a Ferrari and not a Jeep.
The LaFleur hire feels like it has Robinson’s hands all over it. Robinson spoke at the Senior Bowl about Mariota’s “very high ceiling” and a desire to get him aligned with an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who could utilize him like the playmaker he is.
Vrabel also spoke about his vision to get Mariota playing with more confidence. Innovation and offensive flexibility could be the key to that.
“I believe that players are more important than plays,” Vrabel said.
The 2018 offseason will be the most important of Mariota’s career. It should be focused on growth instead of rehab, while eliminating bad habits and learning a new system that will likely be built around his strengths.
That’s where LaFleur comes in. He’s a strong X’s-and-O’s guy who has gotten success from his starting quarterback in nearly every stop of his coaching career. Here’s a look at some of his success stories:
— Jared Goff made a gigantic Year 2 jump, increasing his completion percentage by 7.5 points, more than doubling his touchdown percentage and cutting his interception percentage by more than half from his rookie year. Sean McVay ran the Rams offense, but LaFleur was instrumental in Goff’s development. LaFleur was McVay’s right-hand man, helping with the game plan and being another set of eyes from the booth on game day.
— Matt Ryan had his best season as a pro with LaFleur as his quarterbacks coach in 2016, winning league MVP and making a Super Bowl appearance. Ryan took a step back in 2017 without LaFleur, turning in his lowest completion percentage and yardage total since 2011.
— Kirk Cousins was also a big fan of LaFleur’s when he was Washington’s QB coach during Cousins’ and Robert Griffin III’s first two seasons.
The biggest remaining question mark with LaFleur is how he will command an offensive room and his lack of experience as a play-caller. He’s a more reserved personality than Vrabel. This will be his first play-calling NFL gig, but he did call plays in the second half of two Rams’ preseason contests.
The Titans are expecting LaFleur to grow in those elements of the job as he uses his scheme knowledge to make the 23rd-ranked Titans offense more explosive.
In L.A., the Rams had a lot of success using play action to get Goff open windows to throw. Goff led the NFL with 1,372 yards off play action, more than 125 yards more than second-place Case Keenum. Goff was sixth in the NFL in play-action usage. They also maximized Todd Gurley in the running and receiving game, offsetting pressure sent toward Goff.
This will likely be a big part of the Titans’ offensive recipe with Mariota under LaFleur.
“We’re not going to run it into eight or nine guys,” Vrabel said. “We’re not going to be silly. I believe in screens. I believe in play-action, things he does well.”
That may not have been a direct shot at the previous regime, but it felt like it was related to it. Mariota was one of the best QBs in the NFL off play-action and led the league with 11.1 yards per attempt off play action. He was 16th in play-action usage.
Play-action Mariota: 68.6-percent completion rate, 11.1 yards per attempt, nine total touchdowns, four interceptions.
Mariota not on play action: 60.1-percent completion rate, 5.98 yards per attempt, nine total touchdowns, 11 interceptions.
The Rams often ran an up-tempo offense, something that Mariota excels in. It would be wise for LaFleur to implement some of that, as well as the quarterback pocket movement and quick strike throws from Shanahan and Kubiak’s offenses.
Many of LaFleur’s coaching tree mentors ran a version of the zone running scheme, so it seems likely we’ll see more of that in Tennessee.
“We’re going to run the football. We’re going to run it from the quarterback being under center. We’re going to run it from the QB being in gun,” Vrabel said. “We’re going to give Marcus some easy access throws, RPOs [run-pass options] or run relief.”
Heading into Year 4, we’re still waiting to see what Mariota can become in Tennessee. The Titans believe he still has elite potential and can be the man to lift them to the Super Bowl. We’ll soon see if LaFleur has what it takes to get that out of him.