Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who arrived this year with new head coach Mike Vrabel and started Mariota on a new offense, said one of the problems they had early in the season was that they couldn’t get Mariota to give honest answers when they asked him about plays he liked or didn’t like.
“He’s such a respectful guy, it was tough to get him to say, ‘Nah, I don’t like that play,'” LaFleur said.
But new things take time. The Titans stayed patient, and things started to click last Monday night in a victory over the Cowboys. By that point, Mariota and LaFleur had settled into a two-way playcalling groove.
“After that game, I told him, ‘Dude, I felt like the catcher, giving the pitcher the signals, and you kept shaking me off,'” LaFleur said. “Which is great, because ultimately, they’re the guys out there, and if they don’t have confidence in something, odds are it’s not going to work anyway. We have a ton of plays we can call.”
Whatever they’re doing now is working. Tennessee followed up that Monday night performance on Sunday afternoon with a 34-10 beat-down of the New England Patriots. They rolled out to a 17-3 first-quarter lead and never looked back, as Mariota went 16-of-24 for 228 yards and two touchdown passes. He even caught a 21-yard pass from wide receiver Darius Jennings on a “Philly Special”-style reverse pass. The Patriots had run the play earlier in the game and completed the pass to Tom Brady, who stumbled and fell short of the first-down marker.
“I wanted to see if ours looked any better than theirs,” Vrabel quipped after the game.
Everything the Titans did looked better than what the Patriots did in this game, and as a result they’re 5-4 — one game behind an AFC South-leading Houston team they’ve already beaten once. Of the seven games remaining on Tennessee’s schedule, only two are against teams with winning records — one more against Houston and one against Washington.
But more important than any of that is the fact that the offense is humming. After a tough early-season stretch that saw him have to fight through the loss to injury of tight end Delanie Walker and his own difficult elbow injury, Mariota is on a roll. Over his past three games, he has completed 72 percent of his passes with six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing) and one interception.
“It all starts with our quarterback, man, and Marcus is getting better and better every week,” Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “He’s getting his confidence back.”
Perfect time for it, as the Titans would love to make a playoff push — especially now that they know they can go toe-to-toe with the Patriots and beat them. In order for them to do that, they need Mariota’s confidence to continue to grow in LaFleur’s offense as the weeks go by.
“He really does continue to lead us in his composure,” Vrabel said. “You know, he’s got some lunatics. He’s got me, borderline lunatic LaFleur, and this kid is just, God love him, steady as it gets during the week.”
Mariota was as steady as it gets on Monday, even after two early turnovers put the Titans in a hole. He was steadier still Sunday, seizing control of the game before Brady and Bill Belichick had a chance to settle in. And maybe the best sign of things to come was how unimpressed he was with the whole thing once it was over.
“This was a great win for us, but at the same time, it’s just another step,” Mariota said. “We’re still not where we want to be, and if we get caught up in this, we’re not going to play very well in our next game.”
That’s next Sunday in Indianapolis, against Andrew Luck and the surging division-rival Colts, who’ve won three in a row and would like to get back into this division race themselves. The Patriots vanquished, the Titans’ next mission is to hold serve in the division. Mariota’s steady hand and growing confidence are two of the main reasons they believe they have a chance.