How highly do the Titans think of Marcus Mariota? Consider the suitors for their No. 2 pick—and the riches they turned down for the right to draft the QB. Now it's time for this islander to return the love and revive a once-proud franchise
YOU SAY Mariota, the NFL commissioner says Marioto. Rather than call the whole thing off, let's explore why Roger Goodell might have mangled the surname of the second pick in this year's draft. It's possible that the commish was flustered by the boos raining down on him in Chicago's Auditorium Theatre last Thursday. Or perhaps he was wrong-footed by the absence of both Marcus Mariota and fellow quarterback Jameis Winston, whom the Buccaneers had just taken with the No. 1 pick. Either way, it's O.K. To err is human, as Winston sometimes demonstrated off the field at Florida State—and as Mariota was reminded moments before his selection, when the Titans apparently butt-dialed him.
"They actually hung up on me," he later recounted. "But after that we were able to get hold of each other." Mariota's first rookie mistake was a packing oversight: He arrived in Nashville the next day without a suit. An audible was called, a suit provided, and while the coat fit just fine, the pants were a problem. He could barely button them, threatening to turn his first Tennessee press conference into a revival of Wallace and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers.
It all worked out in the end: Mariota sat while TV cameras rolled. Alongside him were Titans GM Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt, who later explained to SI why they rebuffed the numerous clubs who'd come sniffing around in hopes of trading up for the No. 2 pick. The CliffsNotes version: From their 15-minute speed date with him at the combine to their interactions with him at Oregon's Pro Day to his April visit to Nashville, their comfort level kept climbing. Webster: "The more time you spent with him, the better you felt about" drafting him.
Of course he'll stub numerous toes at first, learning to call plays in the huddle and take snaps from under center. But as the Titans coaches sat in the film room with Mariota, watching him read coverages, identifying players and fronts, seeing him get his offense out of bad plays, their concerns were allayed.
To smooth Mariota's NFL transition—and to defibrillate an offense that scored fewer points than any Titans (or Oilers) team in the past 20 years, Tennessee used six of its eight subsequent draft picks on offensive players. The most notable: 6'5", 237-pound receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, a human red flag who was dismissed by Missouri last spring. The Titans are counting on the virtuous Mariota to be a positive influence.
Suddenly a team that lost 14 games last season, that hasn't been to the postseason since 2008, has a ton of buzz. As the weekend unfolded, it became more and more clear that Mariota and the Titans, unlike Mariota and his pants, were a superb fit.
SOME SIX HOURS before the draft began, Mariota and his girlfriend, former Oregon soccer player Kiyomi Cook, hiked the 1,048 steps—on old railroad ties—to the summit of Koko Head, lording over the southeastern side of Oahu. The views were sweeping, the skies mostly clear. His future: less so. Yes, the Bucs were expected to take Winston, while the Titans had frequently professed their admiration for Mariota. For months, however, a favorite pastime for NFL draftniks had been speculating about which clubs might trade up to snag the No. 2 pick and what bounty they might offer in return. Oft mentioned were the names Philip Rivers, Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler—and Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who led Mariota for two seasons at Oregon.
Those deals all evaporated in the end like the morning mist over Sandy Beach, Mariota's preferred bodysurfing spot. Rivers had never been on the block, the Chargers insisted. Tennessee didn't want Cutler. And the Eagles never could come close to matching the Titans' asking price. As Kelly put it, "We drove into a very nice neighborhood and saw an unbelievable house, but when we found out the price of the house, we never even got out of the car."
Two hours before the draft Mariota and Cook emerged from a car that dropped them at the Saint Louis Alumni Association Clubhouse in Honolulu, a mile west of Mariota's alma mater, Saint Louis High. Out front a sign said, CRUSADER LOUNGE: OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. On this day, not so much. Entrance was granted only to the Mariotas—Marcus; his brother, Matt; his parents, Alana and Toa—and their 300 guests, including relatives from the mainland, high school teachers, teammates and coaches. With a score or so of still-formidable-looking ex-Crusaders on the inside, plus a half-dozen police and another dozen or so Haloti Ngata--sized private security guards outside, the clubhouse on this day was possibly the most secure location in Hawaii.
All that muscle couldn't protect the celebrants from the sting of disappointment when Winston's name was called first. But the discontent was short-lived. Mariota didn't hear Goodell mispronounce his name; he was still on the phone with the Titans. The NFL Network cut to a shot of Eagles fans cursing their luck. Back on the island Alana's smile, in particular, lit up the Crusader Lounge. No Hawaiian had ever been selected so high in the NFL draft. A hugfest commenced, with Marcus intent, it seemed, on embracing everyone in the room.
Among the guests was Mariota's coach at Saint Louis, Darnell Arceneaux, a former Utah quarterback who was pleased to note that this spotlight would uplift other Hawaiian ballers. "Football is a way for us to further our education, to get off the rock and see the world," he said.
In a serendipitous piece of scheduling, the Titans open this season at Tampa Bay. The Bucs, of course, chose Winston over Mariota. Asked if Marcus might use that as motivation in the off-season, Arceneaux (now the QBs coach at Occidental) answered in the affirmative: "He doesn't feel the need to make us aware of it, but he's got this inner fire. With everyone saying he's a system quarterback, I think he's got enough fuel to last him awhile."
Mariota, remember, is the guy who watched Kelly offer an Oregon scholarship to Johnny Manziel—the QBs were schoolboys at the same camp—and then came close to walking on at Washington, just so he could beat the Ducks. Speaking privately to SI, Mariota smiled but denied feeling resentment toward Tampa. "It's something you can't really control," he insisted. "Eventually you end up in the right spot, with the right team. That's all that matters."
BEHIND MARIOTA in the Crusader Lounge was a smiling man, his face creased by the sun. This was Vinny Passas, a legend on the island; an ex-Crusader who's spent the last three decades as Saint Louis's quarterbacks coach. Five days earlier he'd been at Honolulu's Ala Moana Beach Park, coaching up the peewee Marcus-wannabes at the season-ending awards banquet of the Oahu Ducks flag football club. A day later he held his usual clinic for all comers at the high school. And on the day before the draft Passas and the rest of Saint Louis's coaching staff conducted an unofficial off-season practice. Among the 40 or so players in attendance were a half-dozen quarterbacks, all of whose spirals wobbled when thrown into the teeth of that afternoon's brisk trade winds. All of them but one.
Tua Tagovailoa will be a junior next season. As a sophomore he threw for 2,583 yards, with 33 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He rushed for an additional 576 yards and eight TDs. He is a 6'1", 190-pound dual-threat lefty, with a pure and compact throwing motion. The ball hisses as it comes off his hand. He already has a dozen scholarship offers: USC, UCLA, Nebraska....
When he was in fourth grade, Tagovailoa attended a camp with Mariota, who took him under his wing. But the elder QB didn't just offer instruction. If the kid needed a ride, or a burger at McDonald's, Mariota offered.
Now that Tagovailoa is a star, he's modeling the humility and selflessness that Mariota showed him. The high schoolers long gone, Tagovailoa stayed behind, playing catch with Trent Seaborn, a wiry first-grader with a whip of an arm. Tua was, in that moment, embodying the Hawaiian concept of 'ohana, which emphasizes that extended families, and teammates, are bound together. "That's just our culture," Mariota explained an hour after being drafted. "Growing up here, you learn that whatever success you have is through everybody. Together, we are one." As he spoke, he made an inclusive hoop with his arms.
Something else Hawaiians are taught young: "Never forget where you come from, and always represent the island."
IN NASHVILLE they were ready for him. Moments after Mariota was picked, the Titans distributed hundreds of leis to fans at their official draft party at LP Field. It was, in a strange way, like a homecoming. Over the course of his three previous interactions with the Titans' staff, Mariota had let his guard down and started to enjoy their company. "He relaxed," says quarterbacks coach John McNulty, "and we started to see his personality. You could see why people are drawn to him."
He will soon be The Face of a franchise that hasn't really had one of those since Steve McNair left in 2005. There's already some serious buzz, "in the building and around the city," reports McNulty, who was repeatedly stopped by well-meaning neighbors on his way to work Saturday morning. "One guy stopped me before I could get in my car. Another stopped me at the end of my driveway, and somebody else stopped me at the end of the road. Everyone wants to talk about Marcus. I had to tell 'em, 'Look, guys, I still need to get to work.'"
By that time Mariota had flown to Oregon for the Ducks' spring game. "Coming to Eugene is special to me; the culture here, it reminds me a lot of home," he explained after being introduced at halftime, resulting in the most deafening ovation of the day.
Noise at Autzen Stadium is trapped, thus amplified, by the iconic cantilevered roof overhanging the south side of the venue. On Saturday it was possible to see that structure as a springboard, launching Mariota to the next level, his next home, his new family.
"Growing up here, you learn that whatever success you have is through everybody. Together, we are one," said Mariota, making an inclusive hoop with his arms.
WHO WON THE OFF-SEASON?
Take a bow, GMs. With the draft behind us, the NFL's remodeling period has come—minus a few small adjustments—to a close. So which team got the best overhaul? SI's Ben Baskin graded out every franchise and crowned co-winners
Photograph by Kent Nishimura for Sports Illustrated
LET IT LEI Mariota didn't get picked first overall—but he'll have a chance to avenge that snub in Week 1, when his Titans visit Winston's Bucs.
RYAN KANG FOR SI (MARIOTA AT OREGON)
OREGON TRAIL Mariota bookended his Tennessee unveiling with stops in Hawaii and, on Saturday, at the Ducks' spring game in Eugene.
KENT NISHIMURA FOR SI (MARIOTA LEIS)
MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS (WILLIAMS)
MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS (SHELTON)
AL TIELEMANS FOR SI (MCCOY)
AL TIELEMANS FOR SI (COOPER)
KIRBY LEE/USA TODAY SPORTS (DEL RIO)
LEE COLEMAN/ICON SPORTSWIRE (FLOWERS)
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (KELLY)
MITCHELL LAYTON/GETTY IMAGES (BEASLEY)
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM FOR SI (GURLEY)
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (GRAHAM)
GEORGE FREY/GETTY IMAGES (ACTION)
ZIP LINE Mariota's pinpoint passes at Oregon made him Tennessee's highest QB draft choice in franchise history.
KENT NISHIMURA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LEIS)