Welcome to the latest installment of the “What Went Wrong?” series – the Marcus Mariota edition. Ever since he entered the NFL in 2015, fantasy football owners have been waiting for the breakout from the former Oregon QB. 2018 was no different. Owners kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting some more, but it still hasn’t come to fruition. For Mariota, the answer to “What went wrong?” may seem simple on the surface, but there’s more to the story than just injury. Let’s take a deeper dive into Mariota’s 2018 season and look towards what to expect in 2019.
What Went Wrong
The Titans finished the 2018 season with a record of 9-7, barely missing the playoffs after a Sunday night “win and you’re in” loss to the division rival, Indianapolis Colts. Overall, you could argue it was a successful season for the team after the hire of first year head coach, Mike Vrabel. The same cannot be said for Marcus Mariota when it comes to fantasy football. He was drafted as the QB18 in 2018 drafts and finished as the QB23. Now, it’s unlikely that Mariota ruined your fantasy football season, especially since he was drafted as a QB2 for fantasy football purposes or was utilized as a streaming option week to week, but he was still drafted ahead of guys like Dak Prescott and Mitch Trubisky.
Injuries are a big deal as to why Mariota was irrelevant for fantasy football in 2018, but let’s dive into the numbers first. As a team, the Titans offense was…not good. They ranked 27th in the league in points/game, 25th in yards/game, and 29th in pass yards/game at a shallow 185.9 yards. Where did they excel? In the running game, where they ranked 7th in the NFL in rush yards/game with 126.4 yards. The narrative was there in 2018 – Will Mike Vrabel, who brings a defensive mind to the Titans coaching staff, be more conservative and turn towards a ‘ground and pound’ approach on the offensive side of the ball? It turns out the answer here is a resounding, yes. The trend is not a good one for Mariota or the pass catchers in Tennessee from a fantasy perspective. Since 2016, the team’s total pass attempts continues to decline and the team’s total number of offensive plays run is on the decline.
|Year||Pass Attempts||Rush Attempts||Total Plays|
Okay, now it’s time to talk injuries. I am a physical therapist after all, so it would be out of character for me to not discuss the injuries Mariota suffered in 2018. Mariota played in just 14 games last season, compiling a modest 2,528 passing yards, 11 passing TD, and 8 INT. Here’s the bottom line: Mariota was not healthy in 2018.
After injuring his throwing elbow in Week 1, it was a downward spiral that was worse than we initially thought. Here’s the list of injuries suffered by Mariota in 2018 alone: ulnar nerve contusion, stinger, AC joint sprain, strained oblique, broken rib, and a ruptured plantar fascia. This cocktail of injuries makes it very clear as to why Mariota put up the worst statistical season of his career, and it’s amazing he was even on the field at times. The ulnar nerve issue caused Mariota to struggle to grip the football, which is obviously a huge handcuff on his throwing motion. Combine that with an AC joint sprain, an oblique strain, and a broken rib and it’s no wonder Mariota struggled to find his receivers in 2018. All of these injuries affect the shoulder and power associated with throwing a football.
Key Lessons Learned
1) Head coaching philosophy matters. Mike Vrabel was a defensive coordinator and a linebackers coach prior to becoming the head coach in Tennessee. It makes sense that the team wanted to run more, pass less, and control the clock.
2) Playing through injury will affect a player’s ability to perform at an optimal level, which affects all players around the injured player.
3) Believe the Titans’ coach speak. All offseason, the staff has been hyping up Derrick Henry, stating that they want to build around the run game. At times, we can fall victim to coach speak, but if we go off the numbers alone, it appears they’re telling the truth. Derrick Henry should be a focal point in 2019.
2019 Outlook for Marcus Mariota
Overall, Mariota’s 2018 season should be considered a wash. He wasn’t healthy at all, not even for one entire game. Think about that for one second – he played an entire season injured. Now, the question remains – will Mariota return to full health and play at a higher level? Yes, he certainly should if we go off his injuries and the associated recovery timelines alone.
However, a second question remains – will the team lean so heavily on the ground game that it won’t even matter how well Mariota plays from an efficiency standpoint? The numerical trends suggest that the team will continue to rely on the running game rather than the passing game, and in an offense that runs fewer plays than the majority of the league, Mariota will have to have a very efficient season for him to be relevant in fantasy football. Expect Mariota to improve his on-field performance for the Titans, but don’t expect much when it comes to fantasy football. The emphasis on the rushing attack is likely to make Mariota just a weekly streamer or a backend QB2 in superflex formats.