ATLANTA — For Marcus Mariota, the loss of confidence was the biggest blow.
The Saint Louis High School graduate experienced a lot of success, from winning the Heisman Trophy to being the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.
Then, in one of the rare moments of his life, he wasn’t good enough.
“You go through a process of looking inward and reflecting,” Mariota remembered. “Throughout that journey for me, I knew I had to find my confidence in order to play at a high level. When your confidence is taken away, it’s hard as an athlete because I think that’s really the only mental weapon you have.”
No such journey is complete, but Mariota feels that he is heading in the right direction again.
Last Sunday, he completed 13 of 14 passes, including two for touchdowns, and ran for scores as the Atlanta Falcons stunned the San Francisco 49ers 28-14.
The Falcons (3-3), who were supposed to be in for a major rebuilding job, are surprisingly tied with Tampa Bay for atop the NFC South.
And Mariota, who was simply supposed to care about the gap between veteran Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and whatever prospect the team might land in next year’s draft, is showing glimpses of the way he was supposed to. that would lead him to NFL stardom.
He was even voted the NFC Offensive Player of the Week, an honor that was out of his reach the last 2 1/2 years when he was benched by two teams.
Mariota knows how lucky he is to have the opportunity to start over in the NFL.
“I am eternally grateful to this organization for allowing me to have that opportunity,” he said. “All over the league, a lot of guys in my situation don’t really get a second chance.”
After a brilliant career at Oregon, Mariota was selected by the Tennessee Titans with the second pick in the 2015 draft. He was immediately handed the starting job and only raised expectations by throwing four touchdown passes in his first game.
Yet even as he guided Tennessee to three straight winning seasons and a playoff win during the 2017 campaign, his passing numbers were downright average.
Mariota’s running ability gave the offense an extra weapon, but the complaints among Titans fans only grew when their heralded quarterback failed to take the team to the next level.
Then, during a dismal performance in Week 6 of the 2019 season, when he completed just 7 of 18 passes for 63 yards with two interceptions in a 16-0 loss at Denver, Titans coach Mike Vrabel decided he was done. he had seen enough.
Mariota was ripped off. Ryan Tannehill took over, guiding Tennessee from a 2-4 start to an amazing run to the AFC championship game.
Mariota’s career as a Titan was over. He wouldn’t start another NFL game for 1,064 days.
“I felt I was part of a good team, part of a good organization,” Mariota says now. “I thought if we can get the ball rolling, it could be there for a long time.”
Instead, he moved to Las Vegas, where he spent two years backing Derek Carr and playing a short time with the Raiders.
Just when it seemed Mariota’s career was on its last legs, he hooked up with his former offensive coordinator in Tennessee, Arthur Smith.
Heading into his second year as Atlanta’s coach, Smith needed a quarterback. The Falcons decided to trade starter Ryan to ease their salary-cap issues, and they didn’t have anyone ready to take the job right away.
Smith remembered Mariota’s potential and thought he might be just what his rebuilding team needed, at least in the short term.
Mariota got off to a rocky start, with four touchdown passes and four interceptions in his first five games, not to mention some major issues holding onto the ball. He stepped seven times, missing three of them.
Yet through it all, his constant demeanor was winning over his teammates. A quarterback’s job goes beyond numbers. He too must be a leader, and Mariota fits the bill perfectly.
“That’s probably one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met,” security Jaylinn Hawkins said. “He is a very, very humble and sharp person in what he does. He is always ready. There is no panic in the game from him. He has everyone’s back.”
Smith saw Mariota’s confidence grow with each start, especially when the Falcons won a couple of games and kept things close in their losses. The coach saw that Mariota’s behavior had an impact on those around him.
“These guys believe in him. Those are things you can’t put on a stat sheet. Smith said. “He didn’t play for two and a half years, so he took a couple of games. He was a little rusty here and there. But I feel like every game, he’s getting more comfortable.”
There is still a long way to go in the season. If Mariota stumbles again, he could be ready in Atlanta. If that happens, this could be his last chance to prove that he’s capable of starting on an NFL team.
Mariota doesn’t look too far.
After all, it took so long to get back here.