Wednesday | September 20, 2017
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NFL: Mariota’s rare red zone mistake underscores his blue chip accuracy

By FERD LEWIS

Tribune News Service

One way to gauge how remarkable quarterback Marcus Mariota has been is that even his rare imperfections serve to underline the impressiveness of the body of work.

Take Monday, on the third day of the Tennessee Titans’ training camp in Nashville, for instance. Mariota was intercepted at the end zone — and it was breaking news of sorts.

Normally that wouldn’t send social media, well, a twitter, and this isn’t Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles, who was picked off five times Saturday night.

This is Mariota, who has yet to be intercepted in the red zone through his first two years of NFL regular-season play.

The headline could have been: “Maybe Mariota human, after all.”

Mariota’s accuracy has been so uncanny that oddsmakers this season are offering prop bets on whether he will throw an interception during the entire 2017 campaign as well.

So far, in 94 career red-zone pass attempts in the regular season, Mariota has authored 33 touchdowns without an interception. Among 52 quarterbacks with more than 10 red-zone passes attempted, that is the best touchdown/interception ratio for the two-year period, ESPN said.

Ponder that for a moment.

In the condensed area of the field within the 20-yard line, with a team that hasn’t exactly been known for great receivers, here is a quarterback new to the league who hasn’t been picked off.

That takes some coolness under pressure, precise decision-making, patience and, of course, a quick release. And Mariota has had that from Day 1.

In his rookie season (2015), Mariota completed 26-for-42 (61.9 percent) for 195 yards, 15 TDs in the red zone. Then, in 2016, he completed 34-for-54 (63 percent) for 251 yards and 18 TDs. Overall, Mariota has completed 60 of his 94 pass attempts (64 percent).

Pro Football Focus lists the leader in completion percentage in red-zone passing over the previous 10 seasons (minimum 150 pass attempts) as Kurt Warner at 65 percent.

So when safety Da’Norris Searcy cut in front of receiver Eric Decker near the end zone Monday and pulled in a Mariota pass it was grounds for considerable celebration by the Titans’ defense, which was rewarded with a shortened meeting period by coaches.

Afterward, Titans head coach Mike Mularkey, asked whether Mariota was forcing passes, held open the possibility to reporters that the interception wasn’t the quarterback’s fault. “The one thing he does, he can throw it into tight windows,” Mularkey said. “He’ll continue to do that. I didn’t feel like he forced it at all. He’s trusting guys to be where they are supposed to be. That’s how he makes a lot of these completions. That’s why he’s tough to defend. You can’t defend an anticipated throw, which is impossible.”

Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton (37) and Los Angeles’ Philip Rivers (36) are the only active quarterbacks who have started their NFL careers with more red-zone touchdowns without an interception than Mariota (33), according to the Elias News Bureau. And, he’s gaining on them.

History suggests that, perhaps, we shouldn’t be too surprised by Mariota’s accuracy. After all, while at Oregon, he set the Pac-12 record with 343 consecutive passes (over two seasons) without an interception. And, he was the only QB in conference history to have multiple interception-free streaks of 200 attempts or more.

If you are Mariota, even a slight blemish can burnish your successes.

GOLDEN IN RED ZONE

NFL streaks without an interception to begin a career

Seasons Player TDS

2011-13 Andy Dalton 37

2004-08 Philip Rivers 36

2015-16 Marcus Mariota* 33

2012-15 Kirk Cousins 32

* Streak still active

 

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