It was last Friday afternoon and the Tennessee Titans' first practice of training camp was complete. Meeting with the media after that workout, quarterback Marcus Mariota was asked what head coach Mike Vrabel had requested of him during the offseason.
"He wanted me to pick up a little bit of weight," Mariota replied, confirming what Vrabel had said a few moments earlier. "We talked about being able to be durable during those moments. For the most part I just took it and ran with it and did my best to do what he asked."
The fifth-year quarterback always has done his best to do what is asked of him. It's one reason why the Titans used the second overall pick in the 2015 draft to secure the former Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner.
As so many of us tied to this newspaper's Best of Preps Banquet were fortunate enough to witness two springs ago when Mariota was the featured speaker, he is earnest, honorable, disciplined, thoughtful and generous.
In other words, for all but 16 autumn Sundays, no National Football League franchise could ask for more from its quarterback than Mariota gives both the Titans and the Nashville community.
But it's those Sunday performances that sometimes have left the Titans brass less than overwhelmed with the face of their franchise.
Especially the last two seasons, when the 45 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions he threw over the combined seasons of 2015 and 2016 have been replaced by 24 TD throws and 23 picks over the course of the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Yes, Mariota is about to work for his fifth offensive coordinator in five years with the promotion of former tight ends coach Arthur Smith to OC following Matt LeFleur's move to Green Bay as the Packers' head coach. There are also all those injuries he's endured — ranging from a broken leg to nerve damage in his right arm — injuries that let him play in the final game of the year just once in his four seasons with the club.
Of course, that one year (2017) was also the season the Titans not only reached the playoffs but advanced to the second round.
It was also because of those injuries that Vrabel asked Mariota to put on 10 pounds during the offseason to better handle the physical toll of not only being an NFL quarterback but also being one who loves to scramble on occasion.
"You give them your perspective," Vrabel said Friday of his offseason conversation with Mariota. "He did everything that we asked him to do, and then was a presence in the building and obviously came back much stronger and what we believe to be hopefully durable."
Even now, with his current height and weight listed at 6-foot-4, 222 pounds, Mariota is hardly the imposing physical specimen that is Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (6-5, 245), Dallas QB Dak Prescott (6-2, 235) or Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston (6-4, 228), players as likely to break down a defense with their legs as their arms.
But that doesn't mean he's not tough enough. Anyone recalling the block he made in the first round of the 2017 playoffs against Kansas City to deliver a first down for running back Derrick Henry on a third-and-10 — a block that sealed that victory — knows Mariota always will sacrifice for the team.
But the Titans have registered enough victories to reach the postseason only once in his first four years. Nor is Mariota putting up playoff-like numbers while everyone else on the team struggles. The Titans defense was one of the league's 10 best last season and ranked third in scoring. Conversely, the offense failed to score more than 17 points on seven different occasions, though the team actually won two of those games.
Those continuing to believe in Mariota will point quite fairly to all those different coordinators, his own injuries and the loss of favorite target Delanie Walker a year ago due to injury and argue that no quarterback save Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers or Peyton Manning might have thrived under similar duress.
But the NFL is filled with obstacles. This year's Titans already are faced with three-time All-Pro offensive tackle Taylor Lewan serving a four-game suspension for a banned substance. Without him, it's fair to wonder if the Titans can open big enough holes for Henry to run through or give Mariota the time he needs to throw.
Also, can Smith be a creative enough play-caller to utilize his quarterback's strengths and hide his occasional weaknesses as a passer?
"He wants us to play fast, play aggressive," Mariota said, which certainly sounds like a system built to embrace his skill set.
What Titans fans most want is to become a playoff regular in an AFC South that is quickly becoming one of the strongest divisions in the NFL. With former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles now with Jacksonville, Andrew Luck — who's never lost to the Titans — still holding forth at Indy and Deshaun Watson at Houston, it could be argued that Mariota just might be regarded as the weakest QB in the division.
"Each of our guys brings something important to the table," Mariota said of his teammates last week.
But as he enters his fifth season, does Mariota bring enough to the table to lead his guys into the playoffs more than once every four years? And if not, at what point does the franchise accept the fact that its quarterback doing his best to do what is asked of him isn't good enough to make the Titans one of the NFL's best?
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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