Tonight, Marcus Mariota suits up in a Tennessee Titans uniform for the first time. No, the stats won’t count and chances are we won’t remember much from tonight’s game. But it’s the start of a new era for the Titans.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Titans need Mariota to live up to the potential of a No. 2 overall pick and the hype that justifiably comes with it. Why? He just might be the most important player in Titans history.
That’s a lot to put on a 21-year-old rookie who has never taken a snap in the NFL. That’s a lot to put on someone who is 76 wins and 156 touchdowns shy of Steve McNair, the most iconic player in Titans history.
However, that’s part of the Titans’ problem. McNair hasn’t played for the Titans in 10 years and is still considered a face of the franchise. Jurrell Casey, Jason McCourty and Chance Warmack are nice players, but how many other NFL teams would put them on a billboard on their stadium?
Nashville hasn’t been buzzing about the Titans since the 2008 season – and really hasn’t had a reason to. In those seven years, Smashville has taken over as the “place to be” in this city on game nights. Nissan Stadium used to be just that. But over time, the gameday experience across the river has grown staler than a 3-month-old bag of potato chips.
The Predators are the “it” team in the “it” city. The Titans, meanwhile, have an identity crisis. Hell, more fans wear jerseys of former players than those currently on the roster.
Marcus Mariota can help change the attitude of an entire city towards its football team.
On the field, the Titans simply need to start winning games. They’ve had two double-digit-win seasons since 2003 (they would only have one if it weren’t for Jim Sorgi and the Colts in Week 17 of 2007). They’ve been difficult to watch for the last season and a half, suffering numerous pathetic losses en route to a 6-22 record over their last 28 contests.
Not only are the Titans counting on Mariota improving the on-field product, but off the field the franchise needs him to provide a facelift. They are going all-in on Mariota being that guy, as you can’t miss the billboards around town featuring the Heisman Trophy winner. With TV ratings reaching an all-time low last fall, Titans fans finally have a reason to keep the TV on instead of tuning out in the second quarter.
There are other factors at play here. Can Ken Whisenhunt change his stubborn ways? When will the front office field a competitive roster around Mariota? Will that happen this season, unexpectedly? Will we have to wait until 2017?
Five years from now, though, if Mariota has lived up to the No. 2 pick and has steered the ship in the right direction, the Titans will be relevant again in the NFL. The city will be fired up to watch its football team on Sundays.
But what if the story is different on August 14, 2020? What if Mariota’s game doesn’t translate to the NFL once the live action begins? What if we’re mentioning Mariota in the same breath as Vince Young and Jake Locker as opposed to McNair? That means over a decade without a playoff appearance. It would set the Titans back yet another five years, making them this decade’s version of the late-90s Bengals or late-2000s Raiders.
The Titans need Mariota to live up to the billing (in this case, sooner rather than later) to make the franchise more appealing to any prospective owners – if current CEO Steve Underwood decides to sell the team. Who doesn’t want to own an NFL team? But who doesn’t want to own an NFL team with a franchise quarterback and a legitimate NFL star? Teams with a (true) franchise quarterback always feel they have a chance at winning the Super Bowl. Needless to say, teams in that conversation year after year are a lot more attractive than teams that are not.
Another reason why the Titans need Mariota to be the real deal is so the franchise can take advantage of the city’s rapid growth. Nashville’s population could swell by as much as 40-50 percent in the next 10-15 years. With all the transplants moving in from now until then, think of how much the Titans’ fan base could grow if Mariota wins a lot of games, puts the team back on the map, is the NFL’s “it” quarterback in the “it” city. If none of that happens, Nashville becomes even more of a melting pot of various favorite NFL teams. The Titans can’t miss on an opportunity like that.
I hate to put the apple cart before the horse because Mariota hasn’t even thrown a pass in the preseason. The team and fan base needs to have patience. But it’s fun to think what could be if Mariota achieves his best-case scenario. It’s also scary to think what could happen to this franchise if the Flyin’ Hawaiian is a bust.
Mariota’s success – good or bad – could very well be a telling tale for a franchise in a crossroads. And that might make him the most important player in Titans history.