Before joining the Raiders in 1999, Rich Gannon had spent the first 10 years of his NFL career bouncing around among three teams and never making more than 12 starts in any season.
Jim Plunkett was essentially a broken quarterback after playing for the hapless New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers in his first seven NFL seasons before joining the Raiders in 1977.
What followed for both were Pro Bowls and an MVP award and three Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl wins.
Their names should be ringing in Marcus Mariota’s ears.
Gannon and Plunkett are the centerpieces of the Raiders’ long history of rescuing flawed or forgotten or no longer appreciated players and turning them into valuable assets on championship teams and memorable faces of their storied franchise.
And for Mariota, they should be the reference points he uses as he goes about rebuilding his career upon agreeing to terms with the Raiders on a free agent contract last week.
Kicked to the curb by the Tennessee Titans after five inconsistent seasons in which a combination of injuries and a revolving door of head coaches and offensive coordinators conspired to stunt his development, the former Heisman Trophy winner and second overall pick in the 2015 draft comes to Las Vegas at a career crossroads.
His arrival on a two-year contract for a reported $17.6 million does not signal the beginning of a quarterback controversy — Derek Carr is the undisputed starter — but rather a chance for two veterans to push each other and form the strongest quarterback room the Raiders have had in years.
Still, expect Mariota to be motivated to re-establish himself in a scheme that fits his strengths as a quick, accurate thrower backed up by a strong offensive line and an emerging running back in Josh Jacobs.
Mariota should be well versed in the possibility. This time last year, the Titans added Miami Dolphins castoff Ryan Tannehill, to hardly anyone’s raised eyebrows. What seemed like a minor move turned out to be a career changer for both. Mariota struggled to start the season, resulting in a quarterback change to Tannehill, who seized his opportunity and led the Titans to the AFC championship game.
Could the Raiders represent the same salvation for Mariota that the Titans did for Tannehill?
A remarkable athlete and accurate passer during a three-year starting career at Oregon, Mariota’s inability to put it all together in the NFL came to splinter a Titans fan base. On one side was a group of staunch supporters that thought he was the victim of his surroundings and circumstance. On the other were a bunch of fans who came to doubt whether Mariota had greatness in him.
The Honolulu native was drafted by then-Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt in 2015, but from the start, the schematic fit never seemed ideal. Running was a staple of Mariota’s brilliance at Oregon, but with Whisenhunt intent on making Mariota more of a pocket passer, it completely negated one of his strengths.
The Titans fired Whisenhunt midway through the season and replaced him with tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, who preferred a smash-mouth run style offense that didn’t take advantage of Mariota’s skill set.
Thus began a coaching merry-go-round in which Mariota played under four offensive coordinators and three head coaches.
Mariota’s second season was his best, as he threw for 3,426 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. But at the height of his success and at the doorstep of the playoffs, he suffered a season-ending broken leg in the second-to-last game of the season. The next year, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns (15 to 13) and was sacked 27 times in 15 games while throwing for 3,232 yards. He has never surpassed 3,000 yards or 13 touchdown passes since.
The sacks, in particular, always have been glaring. And they are equal parts bad offensive line play, scheme and Mariota himself. For all his elusiveness, he too often seems stiff and indecisive in the pocket, and the 155 sacks he’s taken in 63 games points to a lack of pocket awareness.
Now he comes to Las Vegas to potentially remake himself. The initial plan is for Mariota to be a dependable backup and positive influence in the quarterback room.
But Raiders history shows anything is possible — Rich Gannon and Jim Plunkett being the two shining examples.