Falcons’ Marcus Mariota ready for reunion with Arthur Smith

The last time Marcus Mariota played for Arthur Smith, he was benched.

Mariota, the second player taken in the 2015 NFL draft, signed with the Falcons as part of the team’s succession plan from Matt Ryan, who was traded Monday.

Mariota, who has been a reserve the past two seasons with the Raiders, played his first four seasons in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, where Smith was an assistant coach.

Six games into the 2019 season, Mariota was benched for Ryan Tannehill.

“There’s been a lot of growth from him and myself,” said Smith, who is heading into his second season with the Falcons.

Mariota went 29-32 as a starter for the Titans.

“So, Marcus is a high-end talent just like (Matt) Ryan was,” Smith said. “He was a first-round pick. He’s in a different spot in his career. I trust Marcus. Marcus, he’s going to come in here, and he’s going to give us everything he’s got.”

Mariota looks forward to reuniting with Smith.

“Loyalty is very important to me,” Mariota said in an interview with TV station KHON in Hawaii. “It’s something that we all live off of here in Hawaii. Art has been somebody that has been in my corner for a long time. I appreciate everything that he’s done for me. I’m excited for this opportunity.”

Mariota starred at Oregon and was selected after Jameis Winston. Ryan was selected third in the 2008 draft and was the first quarterback taken.

“He’s got a high-end talent, and he understands what’s happened in the past,” Smith said. “He’s learned from them. I’ve learned from them. We feel excited about the opportunity.”

“He was a first-round pick. He's in a different spot in his career. I trust Marcus. Marcus, he's going to come in here, and he's going to give us everything he's got."

- Falcons coach Arthur Smith, on new Falcons QB Marcus Mariota

After the trade of Ryan, Smith knew there would be questions about the future at the position. Such as, can Mariota succeed here when he failed with a very talented Tennessee team that featured running back Derrick Henry?

“We also understand there’s going to be some questions about our quarterback process, and we respect that,” Smith said. “We explored it, the options. We understand the seriousness of the situations and the concerns from our fan base.”

So, what did Smith learn from his past that makes him so comfortable with Mariota now?

“Yeah, so obviously Marcus and I were together when I was in Tennessee,” Smith said. “There were a few different scheme changes, staff changes. Obviously, I was a coordinator the last year when Marcus was there, and a lot of lessons (were) learned.”

Mariota had some moments in Tennessee.

“Marcus had some terrific runs with us in Tennessee,” Smith said. “He obviously was a starter who won a playoff game with us in the 2017 season.”

No matter who’s at quarterback, the Falcons must fix their offensive line and add some weapons to the offense. Ryan was sacked at least 40 times over the past four seasons.

“He’s at a different point of his career from where he was at then,” Smith said of Mariota. “I’m at a different point in my career. A lot of lessons learned, and we’re excited to work together again. He’s an exciting player. A smart football player. He’s excited about the opportunity to get to Atlanta to prove himself.”

Mariota was 3-9 as a rookie in 2015. (Ryan was 11-5 in 2008).

Mariota was 8-7 his second season and 9-6 in his third. In his third season, the Titans beat the Chiefs 22-21 in the wild-card round of the playoffs before getting blasted 35-14 by the Patriots in the divisional round.

In the win over the Chiefs, Mariota tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker with 6:06 to play to tie the score. The PAT gave them the lead. He completed 19 of 31 passes for 205 yards, two touchdown passes and one interception. Henry chipped in with 156 yards rushing and a touchdown.

Mariota has completed 1,128 of 1,795 passes (62.8%) for 13,437 yards. He has a less than 2-to-1 ratio of touchdowns (77) to interceptions (45). His career passer rating is 89.5.

The Falcons are not locked into drafting a quarterback.

“It depends,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. “If we feel great about a quarterback at whatever pick, then we’re going to take a quarterback, and if we don’t, we’re not going to reach and do something that we’re not excited about.”

AJ McCarron and Josh Rosen are free agents who were with the team last season. Feleipe Franks, who was an undrafted rookie last season, is the only other quarterback on the roster.

The Falcons passed on quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones last year in the draft.

“Obviously, we’re very excited that we took (tight end) Kyle Pitts at four,” Fontenot said. “He’s going to be (a) significant (player) for this organization, this franchise, for a long time. So, we’re going to make a decision at each pick, and we’re never going to feel pressured to reach for a quarterback.”

Smith also was at Tennessee when the Titans drafted former University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick in 2011. He played four seasons and was 9-14 before he retired because he lost his passion for the sport.

Smith plans to keep an open mindset on what style of quarterback he plans to move forward with. Ryan was a classic dropback quarterback. Some believe an athletic quarterback such as Mariota or Liberty’s Malik Willis could help to mask the Falcons’ blocking issues.

“That’s part of coaching,” Smith said. “I don’t have that fixed mindset. It’s just got to be the right guy and the way you want to build this team.”

The Falcons know that picking a quarterback can be tricky.

“Obviously, you can study the last 40 years of team building and when you’ve added quarterbacks and when you haven’t,” Smith said. “We feel like we need to make sure whoever the guy is, that there’s enough around him to be successful.”

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