At some point during this fast and furious Philadelphia Eagles offseason, we began to expect – hell, even demand – the crazy. And so at any given juncture on Thursday night, the majority of us presumed, Eagles coach Chip Kelly would mortgage his house, sell off his car, donate a few pints of plasma and promise his liver for the rights to choose Marcus Mariota with the second pick in the NFL Draft.
If NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport is correct, this might not have been far off: If that report is accurate, it would appear that Chip tried his damndest. It would appear that he gave it all he could, offering everything short of a vital organ and an Apple Watch to acquire Mariota. And it might be not be over yet. The team that drafted Mariota, the Tennessee Titans, now have two options at quarterback; if they still believe that last season’s flavor of the moment, Zach Mettenberger, might work out, they could give up Mariota.
But let’s say they keep him: Then the question becomes whether the Titans will do the smart thing and tailor their system to Mariota’s skills, or whether they’ll try to squeeze him into a more traditional offense.
Immediately after Mariota was chosen, Jon Gruden alluded to this on ESPN: Either you recognize that Mariota has unique abilities and you adjust your offense to fit them, or you’re setting yourself up for failure. Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt has a background as an offensive coordinator, so it’s possible he has a vision for Mariota; if he did indeed rebuff Kelly’s kitchen-sink offer, then perhaps he sees in Mariota the sort of groundbreaking talent who could drag the NFL into a more dynamic offensive future.
All of this, of course, gets at the central issue that NFL people have with Kelly: Neither he nor his former protégé, Mariota, do things in the traditional fashion. They buck the ethos of a conservative league. Kelly is the one who formulated the offense that Mariota played in at Oregon; he’s the one who spread the field and developed Mariota into a run-pass threat of an almost unprecedented caliber. It would seem the radical offensive developments in college football have already carried over to the NFL, if only because these spread systems are the kind of offenses that quarterbacks are growing up with; but there’s still an overarching reluctance to admit that this is what the future will become.
“So many times, you’re evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play in the huddle, never used a snap count,” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “They hold up a card on the sideline, he kicks his foot and throws the ball. That ain’t playing quarterback. There’s no leadership involved there. There might be leadership on the bench, but when you get them and they have to use verbiage and they have to spit the verbiage out and change the snap count, they are light-years behind.”
This is a silly and shortsighted viewpoint. This is the reason the NFL remains an incredibly fusty league. And this is why the Titans now have an opportunity that few NFL teams have ever had.
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Maybe Mariota creates a new template for NFL quarterbacks; or maybe, as one draft scout noted to Grantland’s Matt Hinton, the Titans will try to rush Mariota into a system that doesn’t fit him. Either way, this question now forms the central dynamic of the 2015 NFL Draft. This is what we’ll remember, one way or the other: That the Buccaneers chose Jameis Winston ahead of Mariota in large part because he came up in a more pro-style system at Florida State. Maybe one will succeed and one will fail, but they’ll forever be linked to the past and the future of professional football. My only hope is that the Titans, if they keep Mariota, allow him to be himself. My only hope is that Chip Kelly, by embracing the crazy – by creating Marcus Mariota in the first place – might allow the NFL to get a little crazier, as well.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb