Updated December 19, 2020 - 9:29 am
Marcus Mariota stood in the pocket, the August heat bearing down on him.
For the handful of observers watching from the sideline during training camp, it was strange to see the former Tennessee Titans star wearing the silver and black of the Raiders.
What happened next explained why a player of Mariota’s stature was even in Las Vegas as the backup to Derek Carr and not as the starter.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mariota located Darren Waller to his left, about 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. But upon trying to get Waller the ball, the former Heisman Trophy winner and second overall pick in the 2015 draft planted a pass into the turf, right at Waller’s feet.
It was one of a handful of bad throws Mariota would make during camp.
In retrospect, the struggles were the result of a mentally and physically wounded quarterback playing catch-up in a new system with a new team under a new coach. Although at the time, no one knew how far Mariota had fallen.
It would take months before his shoulder and ankle injuries were fully healed and his confidence restored. But all it took was to see Mariota in action Thursday night at Allegiant Stadium in relief of an injured Derek Carr to know that process is now complete.
“To be truthful, it’s been a long journey,” Mariota said after throwing for 226 yards and a touchdown and running for 88 yards and another score in the Raiders’ 30-27 overtime loss to the Chargers.
The journey has been far longer than anyone could have known, although it should have been obvious the toll a series of injuries and a revolving door of head coaches (three) and offensive coordinators (five) were taking on him in Nashville.
By the time he relinquished his starting job to Ryan Tannehill nine games into the 2019 season, Mariota was a shell of his former self.
“I’ve been through kind of everything, from injuries to surgeries, to mental lapses, the confidence thing,” Mariota said.
Outsiders assumed he would come to Las Vegas and immediately push Carr for the starting job after signing with the Raiders as a free agent. The reality was Mariota needed time and space to regain his footing as an NFL quarterback.
Both of which arrived when a pectoral injury landed him on the injured reserve list near the end of training camp.
“We felt the No. 1 thing we had to do with Marcus was get him healthy again,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “That’s what hurt him in Tennessee. We kept him on ice … until he was healthy.”
Far away from the spotlight, Mariota was able to mend his body and master the Raiders’ playbook at a deliberate and tranquil pace. To their credit, the Raiders never rushed Mariota, not even after he came off the injured reserve list in mid-October. In fact, it would take another eight weeks before he even suited up for a game.
“I was trying to kind of find my way again, and they gave me an opportunity to take some time,” Mariota said. “They were patient with me. I just appreciate the fact that they were willing to do that.”
As Mariota would come to understand, what he went through with the Titans wasn’t all that unusual, even for a high draft pick being counted on to be the face of a franchise. The key is knowing when it’s time to take a step back to reassess and heal.
“It’s kind of part of being an athlete; you’re going to go through some ups and downs,” Mariota said. With the Raiders, he said the staff helped him navigate the downs, “keeping me levelheaded and fighting through it.”
All of which made his performance Thursday all the more satisfying. In his first extensive playing time in 14 months, Mariota showed a live arm and the ability to make plays as a passer and runner. He continually kept the Chargers off balance as they attempted to defend the dual-threat quarterback.
“What Marcus did last night was spectacular,” Gruden said.
No, it didn’t result in a victory. But for the first time in a long time, Mariota found joy in football again. “Honestly, it’s fun,” Mariota said. “It’s fun to play.”
In the process, he might have shown the NFL world that his career as a starting quarterback might not be over.
“When this kid is healthy, this guy is a special playmaker,” Gruden said. “I think he proved it last night.”