NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If there was any real blessing in Tennessee's 27-10 loss to Carolina on Sunday, it's that Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota had a perfect view of a quarterback he should be emulating. Cam Newton controlled that contest from the pocket and with his feet. He played efficiently and effectively. As Mariota said after the game, "He did a good job of just keeping his team moving down the field, building rhythm throughout his drives, and I can do a better job of that."
These are critical times for Mariota. He's about to make his eighth career start -- in a nationally televised "Thursday Night Football" game at Jacksonville on NFL Network -- but the bigger storyline here is how his development evolves from this point on. The Titansrecently fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt, and there is talk that interim coach Mike Mularkey has a decent shot at keeping that job, if he can demonstrate some promise. That would be huge news for Mariota, because he is the key to whatever future this team has in the coming years. The most important thing the Titans can do for him is take note of how Newton has matured in Carolina.
Newton has been with head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula since he entered the league as the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. He's been asked to do many of the same things over five pro seasons, which include using his legs and his arm to make the Panthers' offense go. Newton basically is the most noteworthy element in a successful formula that involves wearing teams out with a dominant run game and a staunch defense.
"Mike Shula does a good job with that offensive scheme," Mularkey said. "That is kind of what we would like to evolve into."
An important step for ownership would be allowing Mularkey to stay in his current role, with quarterbacks coach John McNulty continuing to work with Mariota individually. What makes Shula's tutelage of Newton so impressive is that the coach always has been comfortable enough to play to his star player's strengths. (Shula was Newton's quarterbacks coach for two seasons before becoming Carolina's offensive coordinator in 2013.) Newton has improved largely because he's been allowed to be himself -- and that usually only happens when a coach and a player have forged a strong relationship.
Like Newton, Mariota began his rookie season as the starter. And at times, the results have been sublime. Mariota had a huge debut in a season-opening win over Tampa Bay (completing 13 of 15 passes for 209 yards and four touchdowns) and turned more heads in a 34-28 overtime win over New Orleans in Week 9 (371 yards and four touchdowns). Despite missing two games with a knee injury and struggling in a few others, he's been what the Titans had hoped for thus far. Through seven games, Mariota has completed 65.6 percent of his passes, thrown 13 touchdowns and tossed just six interceptions.
The rookie quarterback also has shown he has the right personality to weather the issues that come with leading a rebuilding franchise.
"The situation that this team is going through -- being 2-7 now -- I think he's done a great job of understanding the game and growing every week," Titans tight end Delanie Walker said. "He makes the right decisions. He finds the open guys. He puts us in positions to make great plays. I think he'll evolve into a great quarterback."
Walker added that Mariota has impressed teammates with his ability to make plays from the pocket, especially since Mariota was known for also being a dynamic runner when he was an All-American at Oregon. McNulty said that Mariota has overcome the criticism that is usually attached to spread quarterbacks coming out of college (that they have little knowledge of how to audible, read coverage and understand pass-protection schemes).
"The system they ran at Oregon was more complex than a lot of spread systems," McNulty said. "Because they ran the ball a lot, Marcus had to know what the linemen were doing up front. It's hard enough to find young quarterbacks who can figure out coverages, but he knew a lot about protection schemes before he got here."
What Mariota will learn in the coming years is how hard it is to go from being a promising quarterback to an established one. Newton blew people away in his first season in the NFL, as he was named the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011. A few years later, critics were blasting him for poor mechanics and ineffective play. Even Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was suggesting that his star quarterback needed to elevate his game. This is what Mariota has to look forward to if he doesn't continually ascend.
Newton battled through issues because he obviously has the requisite mental toughness for the position. He could've landed on the same remote island inhabited by two other stars who are now benched -- Washington's Robert Griffin III and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick -- but he improved his play at the best possible time. It also helped Newton that the same coaches stuck with him throughout that entire process. Even when he was at his worst, he had the benefit of intricately understanding the system he was running and the coaches who had been with him since Day 1.
Mariota needs the same circumstances, which should increase Mularkey's stock as a possible permanent answer at head coach. As good as Mariota has been, the last thing he should want is a new coach coming in with new ideas of how best to utilize him. The Titans had enough positive ideas for their rookie quarterback that they helped him get off to a great start. His production thus far should make ownership want to do more things to keep his momentum going.
What's most impressive about Mariota already is that he's shown ample promise without having much of a supporting cast. The Titans don't have a consistent running game or a dominant receiver to aid his cause. Consider this: The Titans scored a total of 13 points during those two games that Mariota missed (both Tennessee losses). They netted only one offensive touchdown during that stretch of futility, a frustrating period that certainly fueled Whisenhunt's eventual dismissal.
Now the Titans have to start doing more to help the development of their young quarterback. Some of that involves the personnel around him, while even more comes down to the coaches who guide him. Newton has taken his game to the next level by profiting from familiarity and consistency. Mariota can keep his pointed in an upward trajectory if his bosses see the value in those same underrated advantages.