Falcons’ Marcus Mariota ‘grateful’ for opportunity to revive his career

FLOWERY BRANCH — The one word that rolls off Marcus Mariota’s tongue is “grateful.”

He’s had 2 ½ seasons to contemplate what went wrong in Tennessee.

Why didn’t it work out?

What did he do wrong?

How can he do it better?

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A Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 player selected overall in the 2015 NFL draft, Mariota signed a modest two-year contract in the offseason after the Falcons lost in the Deshaun Watson derby and traded quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts.

A backup the past two seasons with the Raiders, Mariota will get his chance to start for the Falcons, who open the season against the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

He’s reuniting with Falcons coach Arthur Smith, who was the offensive coordinator in Tennessee when the team made the decision to bench Mariota during the 2019 season.

Now, with fences and any hard feelings mended, the two are ready to take the Falcons into the post-Ryan era.

“It’s been awesome,” Mariota told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For me, it’s really exciting. Not many guys get another chance like this. I’m just grateful for it.”

There’s that word − the feeling of showing an appreciation of kindness, of being thankful.

Mariota, who played at Oregon, went 29-32 as a starter with the Titans. He also has a playoff win on his resume.

The Falcons are coming off a 7-10 season and are in the middle of rebuilding the roster.

“When it comes down to this team, it’s a fun group,” Mariota said. “It’s a young team, and I feel ... what I’ve been through in my career has really allowed me to build relationships with guys and kind of learn how to be somebody they can lean on.”

Mariota wants to make the most of the chance the Falcons offered him to revive his career.

“When it comes down to it, I’m very excited,” Mariota said. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity. I’m going to make the most of it.”

Mariota played in four series in the exhibition games, and he guided the Falcons to three scores. He hopes that 75% scoring ratio is sustainable in the regular season.

“It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth when you don’t finish on one of them,” Mariota said. “But I think just (getting) in and out of the huddle, operating, I think all in all, we’ve done a really good job. Now it is carrying that foundation over to the season.”

Former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, an analyst with Fox Sports, visited the Falcons and came away impressed with Mariota and the team.

While most observers have predicted gloom and doom for the Falcons, Vick saw a team that could fly under the NFL’s radar and perhaps shock the league’s vast array of pundits.

“I had a chance to spend some time with Marcus Mariota,” Vick wrote for the 33rdteam.com. “Arthur Smith was gracious enough to let me sit down with him and have a chat. I feel like he’s ready to step into that role of being a leader and taking the next step on the field, which means being a Pro Bowl-caliber player.”

Mariota’s best season came in 2017, when he guided the Titans to a 9-6 mark. They finished 9-7, and he was 1-1 in the playoffs under coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.

But the Titans front office was not pleased with Mariota’s development and fired Mularkey after he guided the team to the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. Much of the disagreement was over how to use the athletic Mariota.

In coach Mike Vrabel’s first season, Mariota went 7-6 under offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.

In 2019, with Smith in his first season as the coordinator, Mariota started the season 2-4 and was benched in favor of Ryan Tannehill.

Mariota’s tenure in Tennessee was marked by ups and downs.

“We expected (Pro Bowls) from Marcus, and we thought he could give us that when he was in Tennessee,” Vick said. “We have seen glimpses of it, and we know he has the potential to do a lot.”

Mariota and Smith both are in different places. Smith, the Falcons’ play-caller, will play to Mariota’s strengths as NFL offenses are evolving with more mobile quarterbacks, spread offenses and run-pass-option concepts.

“I’ve always been a big fan of his,” Vick said. “These guys spent time together in Tennessee. Marcus knows the offense and has a great understanding of it. That means he can coach the guys around him as they go through this process, and it’s not all on Arthur Smith to try to bring each and every player along.”

Mariota is a big fan of Vick’s and likes his critique.

“I love it, and I appreciate,” Mariota said. “It was cool to see him. It was fun to be around him. I grew up idolizing Michael Vick, and for me, it’s just really humbling for somebody to believe in you like that.”

Mariota also has won over the locker room.

“Just being authentically him, just makes it easier to follow him,” wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus said. “You can see the leadership in him.”

Mariota believes the Falcons can fulfill Vick’s lofty expectations.

“It comes down to trusting our preparation,” Mariota said. “I think we’ve had a great training camp. We’ve had great OTAs. Now it’s just putting it all together and believing that when we get out there, step out on the field, we’re going to go out there and make plays.”

Mariota likes the Falcons’ weapons on offense, which include tight end Kyle Pitts, running back/wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and a revamped wide receiving corps.

“I’m looking forward to distributing and giving these guys a chance,” Mariota said.

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