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Mariota Makes Best Decision Of His QB Career

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Marcus Mariota accounted for nearly 4,000 yards of total offense and 39 touchdowns in 2013, but he decided his work at the college level was not yet complete. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.
Marcus Mariota accounted for nearly 4,000 yards of total offense and 39 touchdowns in 2013, but he decided his work at the college level was not yet complete. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.

There's so much to like about Marcus Mariota as a quarterback prospect: the size, the mobility, the arm strength. 

But there is plenty of room for legitimate doubt about his readiness for the next level, as I've been contending for months. Simply put, he had yet to show me that he could make the decisions that are required of a quarterback in an NFL offense.

In fairness to Mariota, that's entirely by design. Oregon's offense spreads the field and gives its quarterbacks the chance pre-snap to find the matchup advantage that he likes. And then he throws the ball to that pre-determined receiver, two-thirds of the time either at or just beyond the line of scrimmage. 

In that offense, Plan B isn't a progression to his next read. It's a green light for the Ducks quarterback to take off, to unleash his superior athleticism, speed and running ability -- all of which are Mariota's most impressive attributes -- on an overstretched defense with tremendous areas of vulnerable space.

In that system, Mariota has done the job he's been asked to do in college about as well as it can be done.

But that doesn't make him an NFL-ready quarterback any more than acing Macro 101 makes you ready for Wall Street. 

And so I've questioned his ability to read defenses and make the right decisions about where to go with the football. But I can no longer question his decision-making outright, as his decision to return to Oregon next year was absolutely the right choice.

Was it the right choice from a business perspective? That remains to be seen. It couldn't have been easy for Mariota to ignore all the predictions (written and broadcast elsewhere) that he could be the first quarterback taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, perhaps even the first overall pick. That's a payday not many people could turn down, especially when the shine is starting to come off the promise of this quarterback class.

But Mariota clearly felt that going back to college for another season was the right decision from a professional development perspective. And I agree entirely.

Since he tweaked his knee in Oregon's season-crushing loss to Stanford, Mariota wasn't the same quarterback he'd been through the first eight games of 2013. Presumably, Mariota must have felt hampered somewhat by the knee, though he downplayed it publicly. It would only be natural for the inconceivable to have occurred to him -- What kind of quarterback would I be if I couldn't run?

It's a fair question, one at the core of the identity crisis Robert Griffin III is enduring this season in Washington. 

I am 3,000 miles from Eugene and can claim no telekinetic powers that connect me to the thought process of a college student-athlete I've not yet met or spoken to. Still, I have to believe that he felt like a different quarterback -- an unfamiliar, limited quarterback -- over the final three games of the regular season, during which he threw his only four interceptions of the year and posted his two worst QBRs of the season. 

When he anounced his decision to return, Mariota said all the right things, about getting his degree and having the chance to continue to represent his school and compete alongside his teammates. He never mentioned that he'll be a Heisman frontrunner and likely the first quarterback on everyone's preseason big boards in advance of the 2015 draft.

But I have to believe that the ultimate factor in his decision to forego the NFL this year was a newfound recognition of the reality that, without his legs, he's not yet the NFL quarterback he wants to be. That he has work to do as a passer, as a student of the game and as the decision maker that he can become only through more film study and practice reps.

Marcus Mariota made the right decision (are you listening, Brett Hundley and Johnny Manziel and Braxton Miller?). And whatever NFL team takes him early in the 2015 NFL Draft will wind up with a far more complete quarterback than they would've gotten this year.