Marcus Mariota is eager to revive his career with the Atlanta Falcons after being chosen to replace Matt Ryan as the team’s quarterback for 2022.
It’s going to be a challenge for Mariota, who signed a two-year contract with the Falcons on Monday, March 21, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The deal was struck within hours of Ryan being traded to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-round pick this year, a swap reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Quickly turning to Mariota may look like desperation from the Falcons, but the former No. 2 pick in the 2015 NFL draft chose Atlanta for a smart reason. Namely, the chance to reunite with a coach Mariota says has always had his back.
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This coach and quarterback reunion can form a highly effective scheme fit this season, according to one former NFL general manager.
Mariota Identifies Key Reason for Choosing the Falcons
Speaking to Rob DeMello of KHON2 News, Hawaii native Mariota explained his reasons for choosing to move to Atlanta in free agency. Specifically, the 28-year-old named the presence of Falcons’ head coach Arthur Smith as “very important.”
Mariota described his relationship with Smith, who served as the quarterback’s offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans in 2019: “Art has been somebody that’s been in my corner for a long time, and I appreciate everything he’s done for me.”
The signature moment of the working relationship between Mariota and Smith came when the latter called the plays. It’s not necessarily the strongest endorsement for Mariota’s chances of making the grade in Atlanta.
He lost his job to Ryan Tannehill on Smith’s watch. Yet, the relationship runs deeper, deep enough for Smith and Mariota’s second act to redefine the Falcons’ offense.
Smith Has the Right QB for His System
Trading Ryan and rescuing Mariota from warming the bench for the Las Vegas Raiders might make it look like the Falcons are mailing in the ’22 season. The short-term appearance of the move was underscored by the low-risk, prove-it contract the Falcons handed Mariota.
Those terms were spelled out by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero:
Things could work out better than expected, though, especially now Smith has a better fit operating his offense. That’s the view of Heavy’s NFL front office insider Randy Mueller, who served as GM of the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins.
Mueller described how Mariota fits what Smith wants to call: “With the run-oriented play-action, with some RPOs mixed in, this is the offense that Falcons coach Arthur Smith wants to run.”
All of the schematic wrinkles Mueller mentioned are in play now Mariota has brought his dual-threat talents to the Falcons. Mariota’s rushing threat skills add a new dimension after often static pocket-passer Ryan.
Ironically, heavy running, play-action strikes and moving pockets were all part of the offense when Ryan was named NFL MVP in 2016. He took the Falcons to Super Bowl LI executing plays called by Kyle Shanahan.
Replacing Ryan with the more mobile Mariota should make this offense something akin to what Shanahan and his Dad Mike ran with Robert Griffin III in Washington in 2012. The option-based offense worked, albeit briefly, because Shanahan fully committed to the scheme.
Smith needs to do the same thing with Mariota. He knows the full range of Mariota’s athleticism, having been on the Titans’ staff as tight ends coach when Mariota was drafted.
The Titans emphasized the run and put Mariota in positions to make simple throws into space, usually to tight end Delanie Walker. Problems started when opponents weren’t fooled and Mariota had to throw against covering defenders lying in wait, per numbers from NFL Research in 2017:
Smith can replicate a similar Mariota-friendly formula in Atlanta. Having Kyle Pitts in the lineup gives this offense the roving tight end it needs, while Cordarrelle Patterson and new addition Damien Williams will handle the rushing chores but are also versatile enough to move around and give Mariota some easy check-downs.
There are still missing pieces from the supporting cast, namely a burner to stretch the field at wide receiver and a few mobile maulers to take care of the blocking. A paucity of talent is far from ideal for Mariota, who has a lot to prove after starting six games in the last three seasons.
Fortunately, Smith ought to know the best and quickest ways to get the former Heisman Trophy winner back on track.