More Duck, less run: Time to let Mariota loose

Friday, November 25, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 48

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota helped his team nearly overcome a 21-point first half deficit at Indianapolis on Sunday. In the end, the Titans came up a touchdown short.

-- Ap Photo/Darron Cummings

Note to Mike Mularkey: It’s time to let Marcus be Marcus. As we swing toward the final month of the NFL regular season with the Titans at 5-6, it makes sense to take the training wheels off Marcus Mariota. He is your greatest asset, so why not see how far he can take you?

If that means going no-huddle and lining Mariota up in the shotgun, as he prefers, so be it. Make the most of your quarterback’s unique skill set. He was drafted to lead this franchise out of the NFL wilderness. His time has come.

Look, I understand the NFL is no place for the Quack Attack that Mariota ran so beautifully at Oregon. But there are elements of that offense that could and should be incorporated. It’s the only way you’re going to get the most out of Mariota.

Let’s be clear: I’m a fan of how Mularkey has handled things in his first full season as Titans head coach. He has instilled a competitiveness and fight in this team that often was lacking in previous editions.

The Titans are no longer an easy out. The fact that they fought back from a 21-0 first half deficit to threaten Indianapolis last Sunday speaks well of Mularkey and his staff.

Likewise, I see the benefits of Mularkey’s so-called “exotic smashmouth” offense. Establishing a power running game with DeMarco Murray has helped Mariota gain traction in his second NFL season. It helps set up the play-action passes that he throws so well.

But there is a limit to this. Defenses are adjusting. You must develop a counterpunch.

Case in point: The Titans trailed the Colts by seven points and faced fourth-and-1 inside the three-minute mark. They ran Murray off the left side, where he was stuffed for no gain, turning the ball over to Indianapolis.

The Colts squeezed out a first down as Mularkey burned his final two timeouts and that was the game.

Hindsight is always 20/20 but wouldn’t it make more sense to have Mariota roll out with the option of running or throwing? It’s fine to try to make your point about being a power-running offense, but sometimes the path of least resistance is a better way to go on fourth-and-1.

I understand the need for some semblance of balance. It doesn’t make sense to start slinging the ball around 50 times a game. That’s not how the Titans are built. The absence of big-play threats at wide receiver limits things you can do in the passing game.

But as Mariota continues to improve and gain experience, you need to expand the offense. He is a hard worker and a quick study. See how much more he can handle.

The outcome at Indianapolis is a reminder that much work remains for the Titans. After winning four of their previous six games, the Titans couldn’t get out of their own way for much of the first half.

It was only after Mariota began taking matters into his own hands that they made a game of it.

We should’ve seen this coming. In the days leading up to the game, Colts coach Chuck Pagano called the matchup “playoff football” because of its ramifications in the AFC South standings. Maybe that’s why the Titans started the game like they were out of their depth.

This franchise hasn’t been in a playoff game since 2008. They weren’t ready for playoff football. And it showed.

With so much on the line, the Titans reverted to form. The offense opened the game with two straight three-and-outs, gaining a grand total of one yard in the process. The defense gave up touchdowns on the Colts’ first two possessions. It wasn’t the kind of start the Titans wanted. And it wasn’t the kind of finish they needed.

It was ugly on the scoreboard and on the field. At one point in the second quarter, two Titans defensive backs ran into each other, leaving Andrew Luck with his choice of wide-open targets. It was that kind of game.

Indianapolis has their number. The Titans now have lost 11 straight and 16 of the last 17 to the Colts. In many of those games, Indianapolis was clearly the superior team. In others, like the one last Sunday, the Titans were at least equal in terms of talent but still found a way to lose.

The Titans haven’t won at Indianapolis since 2007. That was four head coaches ago.

On that day, Peyton Manning played only the first half for the Colts because the game was meaningless in terms of playoffs seeding. Rob Bironas kicked three second-half field goals as the Titans beat Jim Sorgi and other Colts backups 16-10.

Even with the most recent loss to Indianapolis, the Titans still have a shot in the AFC South because it’s the weakest division in the league. I’m starting to wonder if an 8-8 record might be good enough to win the division. That’s certainly within reach for the Titans.

First, though, there must be some adjustments. When the running game is stifled like it was at Indianapolis, you need to switch to Plan B.

It’s time to let Marcus be Marcus.