College football finds itself in a perilous position on the eve of the 2020 season.
The 2018-19 season ended for the Tennessee Titans as so many have before; prematurely, without a playoff berth to look forward to, and endless questions lurking on the horizon.
To many aficionados, this campaign will go down as one of the most frustrating in the franchise’s history. At times, the Titans showed the capability to hang with the league’s best, dispatching of both competitors from the previous Super Bowl in the Eagles and the Patriots, and claiming victories over playoff teams like Houston and Dallas.
For every stellar showing, however, they were equally prone to disaster, looking completely outmatched against Baltimore and Indianapolis, the latter sealing their fate in Week 17.
Much will be spoken of that final loss against the Colts, their despised division rival who booked their ticket to the postseason in a contest that was competitive, without ever really feeling close.
The major narrative, however, will continue to be the absence of Marcus Mariota, the talented yet wildly inconsistent Titans quarterback. The morose look on his face as he stood on the sideline in street clothes, unable to marshal his teammates and prevent elimination, was chilling.
The questions behind Mariota’s viability as a true NFL quarterback have been cropping up every year after a promising rookie campaign. Does he have the arm strength to succeed? The durability to stay in the game when he’s needed most? The hyper-American theoretical quality known as ‘winningness’, reserved for only the NFL’s most elite talents?
After missing this decider against Indy, however, Mariota has been questioned as a leader, and from some segments of society, questioned as a man. The former is excessively harsh and easily disproven, but a reasonable judgement, particularly when living legends like Tom Brady are defying age and logic by returning to the field year after year.
The latter criticism, however, is dangerous, and should be put to rest immediately.
The injury in question was a stinger suffered in a crucial Week 16 win over Washington. It happened late in the first half, during one of Mariota’s many sacks (42 for the season, which approaches David Carr levels of woe). He exited the game, relieved capably yet unspectacularly by journeyman backup Blaine Gabbert, a man who deserves a lot of credit for the Titans’ sustained dancing on the playoff bubble.
On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much. A stinger comes as the result of a pinched or acutely stretched nerve, and though it can be painful, it doesn’t usually linger for much longer than a few days.
For Mariota to exit a key game against Washington was unfortunate, but understandable, especially as the injury occurred to his neck, and on his dominant side (to the point where his entire right side briefly “went numb”, according to the QB himself).
Most expected him to return for the season finale, particularly as he practiced throughout the week, most notably without the glove that has characterised his preexisting ulnar nerve injury.
As the decider approached the next week, however, concerns grew greater, until at last his status was confirmed a few hours before the game.
Now, Mariota is seeing his name unfavourably compared to some of the NFL’s most bitter punchlines, such as Chad ‘the egg’ Pennington and Jay Cutler, infamously derided for remaining on the sidelines following an injury in the 2011 NFC Championship game.
This level of vitriol is not uncommon from sports fans, particularly if they feel personally offended when a player costs them the opportunity to see their team in the playoffs. But we need to dispel this idea that Mariota “should have been there, no matter what”.
For starters, it’s unfair to assume the triviality of the injury itself. Mariota consulted with a spine specialist twice throughout the year, with an MRI exam leading to a professional diagnosis that he should not play.
The term ‘potential long-term damage’ has been attached to the injury, and should it have been aggravated during a tackle or the rigours that naturally occur from throwing a football, Mariota would run the risk of suffering dire, life-altering consequences.
Next, consider who gives you the best chance to win. Blaine Gabbert is certainly no Marcus Mariota at full capacity, but he was 2-0 in the starts prior to week 17, and probably a great deal more capable of making passes than an ailing Mariota. It was unlikely that he was going to pull a miracle out against the Colts, but to assume that Mariota would have somehow dragged the team to victory is a definite stretch.
Finally, and nobody likes to ask this question, but really, what were the Titans playing for? A playoff berth, sure, but what else beyond that?
The playoffs are treated as the golden ticket, your invitation to glory, a whimsical opportunity where even the lowliest fringe teams could somehow put it together and win it all.
Last year, the Titans upset the Chiefs in the wild card round before being obliterated by the New England Patriots. It was a nice story and a cause for optimism, but it really proved the divide between the rising squad and the NFL’s true contenders.
If they were to limp into the playoffs this time, it would be without Delanie Walker, their star tight end who has been out since Week 1, Jurrell Casey, the heart and soul of their defence, and a laundry list of other injuries, including Mariota. Is it worth risking your quarterback, the man who you expect to be the face of this franchise for years to come, for a cheap shot at a near-impossible pipe dream?
Mariota is unfortunate to play in a city where the quarterback position was once personified by toughness. The gritty, rough-and-tumble heroics of Steve McNair still remain fresh in the memories of Titans fans, convincing them that “Steve would have suited up”. True or not, McNair also comes from the tail end of an era where professional athletes routinely abused their bodies, hiding injuries and loading themselves up with pills to help dull their agony.
There is a long list of NFL players who have suffered greatly for their efforts; from the tragic suicides of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson to another franchise legend, Earl Campbell — a man who can no longer walk in his sixties, and has had to overcome an addiction to the painkillers that flowed so freely during his career.
We live in an era where that sort of thing is looked back on with horror and sadness, yet as soon as a playoff berth is on the line, we demand that a player’s wellbeing be shoved aside? Against a division rival with everything to lose, who know exactly where to target a quarterback who has already been sacked almost fifty times?
It’s archaic and it’s ignorant. Just another lingering effect of this mindset that persevering through pain somehow validates a person’s manhood. It blindly casts aside the support Mariota has from his teammates and the coaching staff as a leader and a fighter.
Decorated left tackle Taylor Lewan is one of Mariota’s most vociferous advocates, and has been seen more than once getting into physical altercations if he feels like someone is taking liberties with his quarterback’s safety. Does he seem like the kind of person to sugarcoat how he feels about someone?
Whether or not you choose to believe that Mariota wanted to be in there, there is no particular reason to think otherwise.
He has come back multiple times from a myriad of injuries in the past, and his spritely playstyle makes him an easy target for punishing blows. Despite this, he finished every run barrelling forward to get the most yards, putting his body on the line and putting the team on his shoulders.
Let that tell you the story of Marcus Mariota, a player that so many have been quick to give up on. His success with the Tennessee Titans, or in the NFL as a whole, is in no way assured. Maybe he will just end up another tantalising taste of unrealised potential in the same vein as Vince Young or Jake Locker.
But before you begin to question his manhood, maybe you should take a damned hard look and second-guess your own.