Titans GM stressing QB Marcus Mariota avoid big hits

The Tennessee Titans and Marcus Mariota approach two roads diverging. One path leads to a long journey together, holding hands. The other includes the sides parting ways.

With Mariota set to play on his fifth-year option, the Titans must decide whether Mariota is the future, or whether it's time to move on. That Tennessee hasn't locked down the signal-caller already underscores the belief that the decision won't be cut-and-dry. Playing out the season and utilizing the franchise tag remains a viable option for a team not quite sure they can trust their QB to stay healthy.

While Mariota has missed only four total games the past three seasons, he's consistently dealt with nagging issues that have curtailed his production and induced the organization to pump the breaks thus far on handing him a lot of guaranteed money on a new long-term deal. Last season a nerve issue caused him to miss two tilts.

Mariota spent his offseason bulking up in hopes of being able to absorb more hits. The team, for its part, has stressed that they want their QB to avoid big hits. General manager Jon Robinson told Albert Breer of The MMQB recently that he'd like to see Mariota throw the ball away more.

"The thing I've stressed to him, and I know our coaches have stressed to him is, 'Let's live to play another play,'" Robinson said. "Don't take that hit. If you feel the pocket coming down on you and you take off running, and the 'backer is coming off of coverage and he's coming screaming at you, throw the ball away. It's OK to punt, we'll get another crack at it. That's the main thing, it's stressing to him to try as best as possible, like all quarterbacks do, to avoid getting hit."

Robinson's point underscores the balance NFL teams have for years tried to strike with mobile QBs: How much running is too much?

Some of the most dynamic plays from scampering QBs come after making a hitter miss in space. Should a signal-caller eschew those few opportunities to make big plays and take a conservative route? Can an athlete, amid the chaos of a play, ignore his instinct to run to open grass?

The answers are not easy. Mariota's dual-threat ability is what makes him an enticing talent. When healthy, the QB has flashed the ability to be a precision passer who can escape trouble and make defenses pay with his legs.

Robinson noted asking a player to ignore the tendency to take off and run is "a hard habit to break."

"(W)e just have to keep him out there," Robinson said of his QB avoiding injury.

If Mariota proves he can evolve and stay healthy in 2019, the Titans still believe he can be the long-term answer to a position the franchise has been searching more than a decade to find. A city that watched Jake Locker's career sink before it found footing hopes it can avoid watching another QB experiment fail.

"That's certainly our hope," Robinson said of Mariota becoming the long-term answer. "Everybody in this city, they love him. His teammates, I know they love him. We love him. And I'm proud of him, I'm proud of him for what he was able to do in the two or three months he was off. He came back, he was bulked up, and watching him on the practice field, he's having fun with his teammates, he's fist-pumping when there's a big play, he's kicking the dirt when he has a bad play. He wants to be great."

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