The Mariota What-Ifs

No matter how good Nelson Agholor and Eric Rowe turn out to be, the Eagles 2015 draft will always be the “didn’t get Mariota draft.” Now, I am not saying that – historically-speaking – that will always be a bad thing. In fact, we may look back and think, “whew, did we dodge a bullet.” The reported insane package of multiple #1s plus elite-caliber players like Mychal Kendricks and, particularly, Fletcher Cox, that never happened may haunt Tennessee fans down the road a whole lot more than the ghost of Mariota haunts us. However, whether the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner is a boom or bust in Tennessee, we will absolutely never know just what the Chip Kelly-Marcus Mariota marriage would have turned out to be in the NFL. And, by all accounts, we were very close to finding out.

Ahh…what could have been

This happens in sports all the time – particularly in drafts. What if the Phillies took Frank Thomas over Jeff Jackson? What if the Sixers took Paul Pierce over Larry Hughes? What if the Eagles took Earl Thomas instead of Brandon Graham, like everyone thought they were going to? And, while the draft is the most obvious place for this, there are a million others every day in sports. Injuries, play calls, referee decisions, etc. are all easy examples of small occurrences that may lead to monumental events in the sporting world.

But, there is something really interesting about this Mariota-Kelly “what-if” that seems different. Because it was so obvious and because of the potentially historic ramifications, I feel a little robbed, if nothing else, of the immense intrigue that this combination would provide. So, what turned the tide? How did this not happen? There are many factors – obviously – some of which have been talked about ad nauseum, some of which have barely been mentioned, if at all. But, since this seems like an important flagpost moment in Philadelphia sports, I wanted to try and document some of the butterfly wing-flappings that resulted in the hurricane of Mariota ending up a Titan.

Mariota’s Pre-Draft Performance

The bottom line is that, come draft day, the Birds had no chance because the Titans, with the #2-pick, decided that they wanted Mariota to be their quarterback. Whether it was a football decision or an ownership decision (more on that below), they clearly came to that decision late in the process and was almost certainly a result of the pretty incredible performance that Mariota put on – both on the field and in interviews – in the pre-draft process. Teams fell in love with Marcus, himself, and they seemed to see enough about his physical abilities to override the concerns about never taking a ball from center or ever calling a single play in a huddle. When the college football season ended (and meaningful GAMES were finished being played), the experts were united about the football acumen of the two top QBs – Winston was far and away a better on-the-field prospect than Mariota (off-field concerns notwithstanding). But, by the time the draft rolled around, despite no gamefilm being added to either resume, Mariota had earned himself a large portion of the experts’ opinions of who was the best QB on the field. That didn’t exactly help the Eagles chances of either Mariota dropping or Tennessee accepting any deal for him.

Nor did Chip’s incredibly open pining for the guy…

The “Publicness” of the Chase

Personally, I think this is where Chip and the Eagles missed the boat the most. Now, it’s probably unfair to blame Chip for this since the media saw the obvious marriage and would probably have run with it anyway, but I definitely believe that the Eagles could have done a MUCH better job hiding their intentions. Despite never saying anything to the media (which I have no problem with, by the way, but that’s a topic for another post), there was absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Eagles were going all-in for Mariota. They flat-out lost the poker game to Ruston Webster and the Titans front office. While I do believe that all teams do a good job making up their minds in a vacuum, but comments like “this guy’s going to win multiple Super Bowls” probably didn’t hurt the opinion of him in front offices around the league. And, I also think the Eagles refusal to downplay their interest in Mariota also added to the “publicness” of the Bradford camp that they will not sign an extension anywhere else.

So, would you make the case that we should have held on to Mr. Foles?  Many have…

The Nick Foles Trade

This is probably the one that is most cited as a potential factor. Would the Eagles have been able to “sell” Nick Foles to Tennessee or someone else in order to get Tennessee value in return for Mariota? It is at least worth a discussion on whether or not Foles was actually more valuable than Bradford on the open market, even though the Foles for Bradford trade actually required the Eagles ponying up a second-round pick in 2016. But, the clear indication of the Bradford camp that he will not be signing an extension with anyone other than the Eagles potentially made him actually harder to move than Foles would have been. Oh, ya, that and the whole $12.5 million MORE owed to Bradford than Foles. I am not saying that Chip was wrong in making the Foles-for-Bradford trade because I think, given the current situation, I think I am happier having Bradford than Foles right now. What I am saying is that there is a good chance that the trade actually negatively affected the Eagles chances of landing Chip’s dream QB.

Bradford > Foles? On the field – yes. In trade talks – probably not.

Then again, maybe Tennessee just wasn’t willing to fall all the way to #20, and the Eagles had no way to getting anything higher…

Eagles-Giants, Week 17

But, what if they had played Matt Barkley and, inevitably, lost that Week 17 against the hated Giants instead of winning a meaningless game? What if they were 9-7 instead of 10-6? They would have been about four spots higher and picking at #16. It is unlikely that #16 would have carried much more weight than #20 with Tennessee, but what about other teams in the top 10? It was widely reported that many GMs (including Tennessee’s Ruston Webster, who flat-out said it) thought there were only about 15 or 16 players with “first round talent” in this year’s draft. So, going to #20 was seen as a move to the second round, by some. But, #16 would have been a first round pick. Who knows how that would have changed things?

Then again, it’s not like any pick is a sure thing. Just ask the Titans about the last QB they took in the first round…

Jake Locker

Jake freaking Locker may have cost the city of Philadelphia Marcus Mariota. Who would have guessed that? But, if Locker was anywhere near what he was supposed to be, the Titans wouldn’t have any need for a QB (and, realistically, probably wouldn’t have been picking #2 in the draft, either, but that’s another discussion). But, Locker stunk…and then “retired”…even after going 8th in the draft just four years ago. You could even argue that Locker showed just enough potential that the Titans passed on other QBs in more recent drafts because they still thought there was hope for Locker. Admittedly, this argument kind of falls a little short when you examine those drafts. They picked Locker at #8 in 2011. The next two QBs off the board were Blaine Gabbert at #10 and Christian Ponder at #12, so it’s not like they missed the boat in that draft. Then, in 2012 the Titans first pick was WR Kendall Wright at #20. The next QB off the board?  Brandon Weeden. In 2013, they used their first pick on G Chance Warmack.  The next QB that they “missed out on” was E.J. Manuel. And, then last year, the Titans took OT Laylor Lewan at #11. Thirteen picks later was the next QB taken, and his name was Johnny Football, or something like that. So, the argument that Tennessee could have drafted someone else to fill the franchise QB role falls a little flat, but we can still blame Jake freaking Locker’s awfulness for us not having Mariota right now. And, in the end, the Titans entered this year with the #2 pick in a 2-QB draft with Zach Mettenberger at the top of their depth chart.

How did this guy have anything to do with MY football team?

And, possibly, for other non-football reasons, that was a big concern…

Bud Adams’ Health/Succession Planning

While this angle has been incredibly underreported, I am of the firm belief that this is the main reason why the Eagles pro shops are not selling #8 Mariota jerseys right now. I believe that it was a management decision in Nashville to draft a franchise quarterback because they are planning on putting the team up for sale in the next year or so. Bud Adams passed away in 2013 just two months shy of his 91st birthday. Adams, a co-founder of the old AFL, and the longest-tenured NFL owner at the time of his death, left rather sparse directions on who would assume ownership of the Titans, leading to a lot of in-fighting and eventually a consortium being created that consisted of Adams’ two living daughters and the only son of his deceased son. It is one of the more precarious ownership situations in the NFL and will almost certainly lead to some sort of sale or buy-out or legal rangling in the coming years, or even months. And, prior to Thursday night, what could a potential buyer see in this franchise that is of any value? Nothing. It is – almost inarguably – the most boring team in the league in a second-rate media market. While Leonard Williams or Dante Fowler may have made the Titans a better football team in the long-run, they sure as hell were not increasing an asking price in the short-term. Nor was Sam Bradford or Fletcher Cox or Mychal Kendricks or the Eagles 2017 first-round pick. BUT…if they had a young, exciting franchise QB right now, then maybe the value of this team goes up. So, the bottom line is that I think that the management overruled the “football” people and told them to take a QB – period. And, because of that, once it was clear that the Bucs and Titans would be the two teams picking at the top of the draft this year, the fate was sealed.

But, what if that wasn’t the ultimate 2015 draft order…?

The Tiebreaker

Tennessee lost the tiebreaker (strength of schedule) to the Bucs for the #1 pick, and it was awfully close. If a few of those hundreds of other games went the other way, then Tennessee could have taken their franchise QB (Jameis Winston) at #1, and the Eagles could have been dealing with the Bucs instead. Presumably, the Bucs would have just taken Mariota at #2 like the Titans did, but they have a stable ownership group and a coach who has made the Super Bowl with Rex freaking Grossman, so who knows? But, they were both only one game “ahead” of both the Jags and Raiders, who are more than content with their QB situations and clearly would have passed on Mariota at #1 or #2 – or, more likely, taken the king’s ransom that the Eagles were offering.

So, there are any number of games that could have decided this fate – many of which took place in one fateful weekend in December…

Week 16 and The Curse of Jordan Todman

DECEMBER 20, 2014 – The Eagles lost that stomach-punch game against Washington on Saturday night. Not only did it eliminate the Birds from the playoffs, but it gave the Skins (another team who may have passed on Mariota) another W and moved them out of contention for a top-2 pick. But, in the long run, while it cost the Eagles a shot at a 2015 playoff berth, it may not have been the most impactful game that week on the future of our Birds.

DECEMBER 21, 2015 – The Raiders, a team with a decent young QB in place in Derek Carr, beat the Bills for their 3rd win in the past five weeks. They finished the season 3-13 and earned the #4 pick in the draft. But, this team started 0-10. How are they only picking 4th? I firmly believe that if the Raiders held picks #1 or #2, that Marcus Mariota would be an Eagle today. And, this still was not even the most important game of the day for the Eagles future.

DECEMBER 21, 2015 – The Jacksonville Jaguars – the doormat of the league – actually have a QB. #3 overall pick in 2014, Blake Bortles. They have their wagon hitched to Bortles. They have a TON of needs and would be dying for a bowl-them-over package to move down. Well, they had a shot at that in Week 16 last year. Entering the game at 2-12, the Jags got a late incredible TD from Jordan Todman to beat the also 2-12 Tennessee Titans. That “win” by the Jags meant that the Titans would have a top-2 pick and Jacksonville would be picking 3rd. It meant that the 2015 NFL draft would net the Titans Marcus Mariota and the Eagles Nelson Agholor.

How a backup RB ruined my life…

And, it meant that there was no chance for Chip to reunite with his star pupil…in 2015……

Mariota Staying in School

Finally, I have to mention one other thing that is often forgotten in this whole process. Mariota entered the draft this year as a redshirt junior, which means he was eligible for the draft in 2014. And, he actually strongly considered coming out. Now, at the time, it didn’t really hit the radar of the Eagles because their QB had just finished the BEST QUARTERBACK SEASON IN NFL HISTORY, and Mariota had yet to win any Heismans or anything. In fact, before deciding to return to school, Mel Kiper had Mariota at #33 on his “Big Board.” But, do you really think that, even with Foles’ incredible season, that Chip would have passed on a chance to draft Mariota? I sure don’t. So, the Eagles could have just sat at #22, kept their mouths shut, and taken Mariota with their own first round pick last year. And, all it would have cost them was all the air time they will inevitably have to spend explaining the inexplicable Marcus Smith pick. Actually, I wish I had never brought this up…now, I’m depressed again.

…But, It Ain’t Over

In the end, the marriage of Chip and Marcus wasn’t meant to be…yet. Call me crazy, but I still believe that this dream isn’t over quite yet. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this year or next. But, unless Mariota lights the world on fire in Tennessee, he may be available down the road. And, it’s not like we’re tied to anyone under center…ugh.  In Chip We Trust!