Former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has one year to prove his worth or his career in Tennessee could come to an end next offseason.
It's as simple as that. His response to the situation: “I just try to be the best I can be for this team, and let it ride,” he told reporters during organized team activities this week.
The gambling analogy fits. The Titans wagered $20.9 million on Mariota in 2019 that he could still develop into a franchise quarterback by picking up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract signed as the No. 2-overall selection in 2015. Tennessee also hedged that bet by trading for Ryan Tannehill, a 2012 first-round pick by Miami that didn't materialize into the franchise quarterback the Dolphins hoped they were getting.
For now, Tennessee has made it clear that Mariota is the starter.
“His job is not in jeopardy,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel told reporters. “I don’t think that’s something we’re even here to talk about."
Sure thing. But that stance could change in a nanosecond. See last year's situation in Tampa Bay between Jameis Winston, the No. 1-overall pick in 2015, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Winston, suspended to start the season, lost his job, then got it back, then lost it again, and now is once again the starter. In between, Fitzpatrick was both brilliant and dreadful.
The same juggling act could happen in Tennessee if Mariota isn't careful. Should a juggling act transpire, Mariota could be looking for work next offseason.
Mariota has had an up-and-down career. At times he has looked brilliant. Other times, very ordinary. Meanwhile, other young quarterbacks have passed him by. Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes II, Houston's Deshaun Watson, Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas' Dak Prescott and San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo would not be traded straight up for Mariota. All were drafted after 2015 with the exception of Garoppolo, taken by New England in 2014 before being traded to the 49ers midway through the 2017 season when he became a starter.
If you're the Titans and your once promising franchise star has been surpassed by six younger quarterbacks, it doesn't make much sense to give him a $100 million contract extension. You would, instead, do what Miami did by moving on from the failed experiment and going down another path.
The irony in all of this is that Mariota might be better off elsewhere. Vrabel is his third head coach in four years and he's working with his fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons. One must wonder if Mariota would be in a different place in his career had he landed on a team with more stability at the top and a better supporting cast.
Mariota is smart, accurate, takes good care of the ball from a passing standpoint (just like at Oregon he can become careless with ball security while avoiding pressure) and he still has wide receiver speed to make things happen with his legs.
Mariota had several outstanding games last season when not bothered by injuries that impacted his passing abilities.
The Titans have plenty of reasons to gamble on Mariota. The Titans narrowly missed the playoffs last season with their starting quarterback battling injuries and producing just 11 touchdown passes. If he comes near the 26 touchdown passes he threw in 2016, Tennessee could very well make the postseason and extend Mariota.
That all said, Tennessee also has legitimate reasons to prepare for the worst-cased scenario that could see the two parties part ways less than a year from now.