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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Even with new coaches and heightened expectations, the Tennessee Titans still revolve around quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Maximizing Mariota has been the Titans’ top goal this offseason, and an inability to do so in 2017 played a role in the firing of former head coach Mike Mularkey last month.

“Marcus is a very football-smart player, tough guy, team is very important to him. I think he has a very high ceiling,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. “He’s done a lot of good things for us. We can put him in a position to be even better.”

Multiple league sources believe that the Titans’ offensive coaching staff was a bigger issue in Mariota’s Year 3 struggles than the QB himself. Tennessee’s move to dump Mularkey and hire first-time head coach Mike Vrabel would indicate that it feels the same. But a coaching change doesn’t solve all of the problems involving Mariota and the Titans’ offense.

Inside the Titans organization, there isn’t much doubt that Mariota, 24, can still be an elite QB and the right man to lead the Titans to a Super Bowl. But entering Year 4, it’s up to Mariota to prove them right.

‘He’s going to be a beast’

Mariota’s trajectory was headed toward top-10 NFL QB to kick off the 2017 season before the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft hit his biggest wall yet. The Titans achieved their most success as a team since 2003, but Mariota rarely appeared comfortable. He was visibly frustrated toward the end of the season, and he often struggled on the field.

He threw for a career-low 13 touchdowns and a career-high 15 interceptions. Mariota’s 79.3 passer rating was 27th in the NFL, below that of Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles.

“Marcus is a really good football player. I think if you just look at the statistics, it doesn’t quite say that,” Robinson said. “I think Marcus made a lot of really good plays for us this year.”

Mariota did make a ton of eye-popping plays, such as the TD throw to himself that launched an 18-point comeback victory in the playoffs against the Chiefs or the stiff-arm delivered to Jaguars safety Barry Church in Week 17 to essentially clinch a playoff berth or the beautiful, 37-yard, drop-in-the-bucket pass to Delanie Walker in Week 12 despite triple coverage from the Indianapolis Colts.

“I don’t give two f—s what people think about Marcus,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “I’ve seen what he can do. I’ve seen how hard he works. I’m with that guy 110 percent.”

Late in the season, the typically understated Mariota began to express more emotion and body language after big plays. It was another example of Mariota’s unspoken leadership that gave his team a jolt.

“When you got a quarterback that got swag like that, it’s everything. He’s going to bounce back and wake up. And when he wakes up, he’s going to be a beast,” Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said. “Just waiting for him to let that explode constantly.”

Inconsistency was the story of the season, capped off by a comeback road playoff victory over the Chiefs followed by what Mariota called an “embarrassing” loss to the New England Patriots in the divisional round.

It has been well-documented that the previous staff could have done more to cater the scheme to Mariota. Casey said he wants to see Mariota run more of the scheme he ran in college at Oregon. Multiple player sources say the 2017 offense was too predictable and limited Mariota’s playmaking ability.

All of this could be true. But how the Titans address the other issues that held back the offense will determine whether this team continues to ascend. Mularkey and former offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie aren’t around to be anybody’s punching bag anymore.

Receiver routes didn’t help

Walker still gets mesmerized by Mariota’s serene demeanor on and off the field. But it was some of the late-season fire he saw from his QB that took his respect for Mariota to another level.

Walker couldn’t stop smiling when he saw Mariota selflessly make a great lead block for Derrick Henry on a third-and-10 rushing conversion to clinch the Titans’ playoff win over the Chiefs. It was a play that quarterbacks don’t usually make. It was just another example of why Walker and the rest of the Titans are unwavering in their confidence of how good Mariota can be.

Several Titans players have said that passion lifts everyone’s game to another level, and they hope they’ll see more of it to start the 2018 season.

One NFL defensive assistant who is familiar with Mariota said he is still sometimes too nice to mistake-prone players. That source thought it wasn’t natural for Mariota to acknowledge and attempt to correct his teammates’ mistakes.

Multiple sources told ESPN that they felt poor route design, precision and splits made windows far more difficult for Mariota to throw into throughout the season. A lack of overall speed on offense didn’t help either.

Former NFL QB and ESPN NFL analyst Matt Hasselback agreed with the receiver issues, citing multiple instances of poor route running and drops by rookie receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, along with veteran Rishard Matthews.

“You’re not running those routes for Tom Brady. No way. He’ll get in your face, or he’ll make sure your coach gets in your face,” Hasselback said. “To play QB with the level of anticipation you play with, you need the guys around you to help you out.”

But it’s not all on Mariota’s supporting cast. On film, it’s common to see Mariota become impatient in the pocket even when pressure is not near. His footwork regressed throughout the season, and he often threw primarily with his arm, not bringing his lower body with him.

Mariota has an admitted habit of not pushing off his back foot on some throws. He also has a tendency to be inconsistent with his dropbacks, often drifting left or right of the center without rhyme or reason. He has worked to break it over his three NFL seasons, but there were at least five interceptions this season that could be directly attributed to his falling back into those habits and delivering inaccurate throws.

“He’s going to bounce back and wake up. And when he wakes up, he’s going to be a beast. … Just waiting for him to let that explode constantly.”

Jurrell Casey on Mariota

On a macro level, there might not be five other NFL quarterbacks who can match Mariota’s athleticism and overall talent. He became the fifth quarterback in NFL history with at least 9,000 passing yards (9,476) and 900 rushing yards (913) in his first three seasons.

There is optimism within the Titans organization that Mariota’s throwing and pocket-feel issues are fixable.

New Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara are expected to spend significant time with Mariota this offseason, reworking some of his throwing mechanics and instilling the consistent discipline that can elevate his game as a passer.

“We’re going to be extremely detailed with his fundamentals and his footwork because that leads to more consistent quarterback play,” LaFleur said. “There are going to be some different techniques that we are going to implement with him.”

Balance between unleashing, keeping him healthy

This will be Mariota’s third NFL head coach as he enters his all-important fourth season. Robinson said he has no concerns about the instability. A procedural move to exercise Mariota’s fifth-year option is coming this spring, but the more important decision on a long-term contract might take more time to figure out.

The Titans haven’t had a QB as good as Mariota since Steve McNair, so it’s unlikely they’ll let him leave. But how Mariota performs in 2018, under the highly touted LaFleur, will give the Titans a grasp on whether he’ll ever reach his tantalizing potential.

One key question remains, even with a new coaching staff: How do you balance unleashing Mariota with keeping him healthy?

One coach who was on the Titans’ 2017 staff told ESPN that there was an edict to dial back some of Mariota’s running last season in order to protect him from himself. That coach also felt that Mariota’s running restrictions, particularly in the first three months of the season, significantly limited the offense.

Mariota missed just one game in 2017, but he battled an assortment of hamstring, shoulder, knee and ankle injuries that limited him for much of the season. There were several games last season in which the coaching staff didn’t know until Friday if he’d be able to play. He also suffered multiple MCL sprains and a fractured fibula in his first two NFL seasons.

“The first thing we’re going to be is very concise [with] how we can protect the QB. That is the foundation,” LaFleur said. “He’s such a competitor. You can see it on the tape where he’s fighting for extra yards, where I’d rather him preserve himself and get down.”

Most of Mariota’s major injuries occurred while he was in the pocket, but his 2017 injuries typically happened while he was attempting to run. It’s also noteworthy that this was the first NFL season Mariota has finished, and he’ll have an entire offseason to focus on improving his game rather than rehabbing.

“It’s hard for guys that are good runners. If you want to be consistent over the long haul, it’s easier to win from the pocket. He has shown the ability to be a difference-maker,” said Hasselback, who noted that he could tell Mariota was hurting late last season. “I would say what is the defensive coordinator on the other team afraid of? He’s afraid of you throwing on time and getting the ball out quickly.

“But then, when they have that perfect coverage, I don’t want my defender in space with Mariota. And this is sort of a [Brett] Favre thing, but I don’t want you to inspire the entire sideline and stadium by your body language. Mariota’s teammates love him. That’s more than half the battle.”

LaFleur’s plan is to tailor his scheme around Mariota and what makes the young quarterback comfortable. Mariota has succeeded when throwing off play-action, running an up-tempo offense and having run-pass option plays. Mariota is a better passer than many realize, but consistency is the key.

It’s likely not a coincidence that those were some of the areas in which LaFleur and the Los Angeles Rams excelled during the 2017 season. Vrabel said there will be more spread scheme, easy throws and pocket movement in the Titans’ offense next season. They want to make it more about the team, rather than put it all on Mariota.

“If there’s something we stumble upon from a college system drawing back on Marcus’ background and some of these other guys’ background, then we’ll implement that stuff,” said LaFleur, who has gotten the most out of Jared Goff and Matt Ryan.

“If you can develop some confidence with these guys, the sky is the limit.”



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Buffalo Bills GM — ‘No rush’ on extension for QB Josh Allen despite mutual interest

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane isn’t rushing to get a deal done with quarterback Josh Allen — although he is confident a deal will eventually get done.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Beane said he had spoken with the NFL’s MVP runner-up from a season ago about extending his contract, which is entering the fourth year of Allen’s rookie deal. However, Beane said he doesn’t expect a deal to get done until at least after next week’s draft, and perhaps well into the spring or summer.

“There’s no rush, we’ll have some kind of conversation,” Beane said. “Listen, we would love to get Josh extended. No doubt. It has to be a number that works for him and works for us. That’s been my conversation with them and they know the same. We’re all on the same page. Josh wants to be here.”

Allen emerged as one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks last season, passing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2020, adding eight rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown while leading the Bills to an AFC championship game appearance.

The Wyoming product has made it clear that he wants to play out his career in Buffalo and didn’t seem deterred by

“When it happens, it happens,” Allen told NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt earlier this month. “They will iron out the details and if we can get to something soon, I’d obviously love to be locked down in Buffalo for a very long time. It’s a place that I call home, I love being there.”

Allen would represent Beane’s largest extension of his tenure with the Bills, after successfully extending left tackle Dion Dawkins and cornerback Tre’Davious White last offseason. The former Carolina Panthers assistant GM likened his current situation to the one he faced in Carolina with then-quarterback Cam Newton.

“We tried in Carolina to get Cam Newton done at this time and it didn’t work,” Beane said. “We just weren’t on the same page with his agent on where the value is to where we saw it. So we said, ‘Hey, no hard feelings, we’re all on the same page here.’ We pushed pause. He played that season and then after that season we got it done pretty quick that next offseason.

“We were all on the same page. I guess what I’m saying is you can’t force it. It happens when it happens.”

Spotrac currently lists Allen’s market value at $168,634,492 over 4 years – an average annual value of $42.1 million, which would place him behind only Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Beane previously said Allen’s extension will likely follow the same timeline as White, who was extended in early September 2020. Either way, it appears Allen’s next contract is not a matter of “if” but rather “when.”

“If it happens this year, great,” Beane said. “If it doesn’t, I’ll be very positive that we’ll get it done next year.”

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Jury finds Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter in George Floyd murder

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Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter by a jury Tuesday for his role in the murder of George Floyd last May outside of a local convenience store.

Floyd’s death, and the video which showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes, became a catalyst for the sports world’s racial and social justice movement last summer.

A jury of six white, four Black and two multi-racial jurors deliberated nine hours over two days — five hours on Monday; four hours Tuesday — before rendering a verdict. ABCNews.com has full coverage of the decision.

Chauvin faces a 40-year maximum sentence for the second-degree murder conviction, a 25-year sentence for third-degree murder and a 10-year sentence for second-degree manslaughter.

Floyd’s death led to nationwide protests and prompted athletes throughout the sports world to speak out on social and racial injustice. Former NBA player Stephen Jackson traveled to Minnesota the week Floyd died and said “I’m hurt, I’m angry, but I ain’t scared” in an emotional speech alongside fellow NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics drove 15 hours to march at a protest in Atlanta.

NBA and WNBA players spoke out frequently, and both leagues resumed their seasons with “Black Lives Matter” painted on the court. “Through peaceful protest, we must demand strong leadership at all levels that is equally committed to achieving true social justice,” the Women’s National Basketball Players Association said in a statement the week of Floyd’s death.

As news of Floyd’s death spread, LeBron James posted a Twitter message with a photo of Floyd alongside an image of Colin Kaepernick and wrote “Do you understand NOW!!??!!??” Magic Johnson tweeted “How many times do we have to see Black men killed on national television?” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr tweeted “This is murder. Disgusting. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with US????”

A group of NFL players, including Patrick Mahomes, appeared in a Twitter video that started with “It’s been 10 days since George Floyd was brutally murdered. How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players? What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality?” and asking “What if I was George Floyd?”

When the NFL season opened in September, the Minnesota Vikings honored Floyd’s family at their opener with a moment of silence and silencing the team’s signature Gjallarhorn in his honor. The league had every team play “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” often called the Black national anthem, before season openers, and players wore the name of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black men and women killed by police on the back of their helmets.

Tennis player Naomi Osaka wore the names of seven Black people killed by police on her mask at every US Open match. When a reporter asked her what message she wanted to send, she said: “Well, what was the message that you got was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

Floyd was killed on May 25 after Minneapolis police officers responded to a call shortly after 8 p.m. about a possible forgery at a corner grocery. Floyd, saying he was claustrophobic as officers tried to put him in a squad car, ended up handcuffed and face-down in the street.

Chauvin used his knee to pin Floyd’s neck as bystanders shouted at him to stop. Bystander video shows Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” multiple times before going limp. He was pronounced dead at a hospital at age 46.

Police initially issued a statement saying Floyd died of a “medical incident.” Bystander video was posted online the next day, and in the face of growing protests in Minneapolis and nationwide, police said the FBI would investigate. Chauvin and three other officers were eventually fired as Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called for criminal charges against Chauvin.

Chauvin, age 45 and a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis police force, was arrested on May 29 and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. The charges were later upgraded to second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

As protests in Minneapolis and around the country grew, the county medical examiner ruled on June 1 that Floyd’s heart stopped as police restrained him and compressed his neck, noting Floyd had underlying health issue and listing fentanyl and methamphetamine use as “other significant conditions.”

At trial, prosecutors argued that Chauvin was responsible for Floyd’s death by keeping a knee on his neck. The defense argued he died because of drugs in his system and pre-existing health conditions.

Three other officers were also arrested and will stand trial together this summer.

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NFL, Players Association approve first position-specific helmet design for OL, DL

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The NFL and NFL Players Association have approved a position-specific helmet design for the first time since they began regulating equipment for players, representatives for both groups confirmed Tuesday.

The helmet, known as the VICIS ZERO2-R TRENCH, was built for offensive and defensive linemen and is ranked No. 2 on the league’s 2021 safety rankings. The helmets are equipped with bumpers on their front and upper sides, where NFL engineering studies showed are a common point of contact for linemen who absorb concussion-causing contact, according to Dr. Ann Good, a senior engineer at BioCore and a consultant to the NFL.

The league and union have been ranking helmets based on proprietary safety data since 2015, using lab tests designed by BioCore, and began banning the lowest-performing helmets in 2019. The primary goal was to drive down reported concussion totals among players, which peaked at 281 during the 2017 season. The 2021 ratings, distributed to teams Tuesday, added three models to the prohibited list and six to a category called “not recommended.”

Approximately 18% of players finished the 2020 season using one of those nine helmet models. But Dr. Kristy Arbogast, an engineering consultant for the NFLPA, said her expectation is that almost all of them will move to a better-performing helmet in 2021. In each of the past two seasons, 99% of NFL players have used a helmet recommended by the NFL/NFLPA ratings.

The NFL hasn’t publicized its complete concussion data from last season. But Jennifer Langton, the league’s senior vice president of health and safety innovation, said that reported concussion rates over the past three seasons (2018-20) are 25% lower than in the previous three seasons (2015-17).

“With these results,” Arbogast said, “we were able to demonstrate [to players] that the use of a lab test in ranking helmets and prohibiting helmets were relevant to [players’] game experience. We showed that by moving up the [ranking], players could really take an active role in their safety.”

It remains to be seen how many linemen will switch to the model built for them this season, but it is the first step in the NFL’s goal of spurring manufacturers to produce models for each position group. Dr. Jeff Crandall, the chair of the NFL engineering committee and the co-founder of BioCore, said there has been some “baseline testing” of models designed for quarterbacks. A model is likely to be finalized for future seasons, possibly in 2022, once an analysis is done of new technology the NFL is adopting for coach-to-quarterback communications.

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