When the Heisman winner is too good for the NFL


The emergence and prevalence of the system quarterback has taken hold in the NFL, albeit with some resistance.

By Andrew Pridgen

Alex Smith, a quick study by all accounts, took eight seasons of fine-tuning to switch from Urban Meyer’s spread option at Utah to the 49ers’ once-signature West Coast offense. Smith never really found his groove until Andy Reid implemented a sort of hybrid West Coast/zone-read playbook featuring familiar receiver sets and screen options for Smith in Kansas City.

Having learned from almost a decade of blown courtship, the 49ers’ current playcaller Colin Kaepernick was given a truncated pro style read-option playbook which is a spruced-up version of the rifle offense he ran at Nevada. Though questions linger around the system’s long-term efficacy, Kaepernick’s stumbles in his third full year as starter are more congruous with an aging and broken offensive line, a concussed running attack and an old, slow and agitative receiving corps.

Heisman winner Marcus Mariota’s effort at Oregon breaks with the prevalent wisdom that eighteen months is about all a college quarterback has to learn and lead ergo, playbooks should be distilled to the size of Tecmo Super Bowl’s. Recent collegiate standouts whose dearth of decision-making abilities under center were exposed as professionals include Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, Vince Young, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn and the irrepressible Jamarcus Russell.

Mariota’s weekly showcase of brain power seems all but guaranteed to steer him clear of the purple drank-coated path of self-destruction at the next level. He’s got a legendary drunk’s ability operate on autopilot while effortlessly making crucial decisions. He is able to manipulate Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost’s zone-read version of the spread from the line of scrimmage as he uncovers plot holes in defenses like a Grisham novel.

Having attained a gamer’s abstraction with the ability to toggle capable skill position set pieces, Mariota runs the Oregon offense more like half-court sets on the hardwood. His play is based on fabricating space from a cluster. It is a seemingly different game to watch Oregon flow on neon green compared to an SEC scrum where touchdowns seem more an accidental byproduct of a gelatinous moving mass. It is football as verse versus football to merely be tolerated.

At Oregon, Mariota’s recruiter Chip Kelly barnstormed his way through the Pac 12 with Popeye’s crooked smile and terse quips to the sideline girls during cutaways. Oregon faithful were wise to the joke, but the rest of the nation rejoiced when Cam Newton’s Auburn put the Ducks in check to take ownership of the giant BCS crystal ashtray in 2011. Kelly was able to thaw the hearts of Philly fans and their East Coast media apologists taking the Eagles from 4-12 to 10-6 his rookie NFL campaign and at 9-5 certainly hopes the division-rival Cowboys don’t stand in his way of another berth.

Cryptological imitators of Kelly’s giant placard play calls have spread throughout the West and into the professional ranks creating a new vernacular of gamesmanship and deception through images. Though this may be at times mere sideline spectacle, the preferred form on field is achieved. Running through four fast-break downs in under a minute is now de rigueur from the region that invented the drive through, the Showtime Lakers and the web browser.

But it has taken a soft-spoken, demure and sincere ambassador like Mariota to get the rest of the country to embrace this speedy ballet over the gridlocked dogpile. His work is beautiful and it was showcased beautifully in a town known for Pinot and track and trail and spring gardens and winter dark brews.

There’s a gray duvet of cloud cover that blankets Eugene eight school months a year, shielding its students and faculty from the rigors of the outside world and at once providing a world-class showcase for their own industriousness. The nearest metro, nesting ground of the horn-rimmed and hapless, is not so much a temptation as it is a living cliché two hours away. Phil and Penny Knight watch over their charges like stubborn helicopter parents providing them with ample resource and creating a pictorial narrative of life.

Mariota is the personification of this lifestyle. Sped up on the field and slow and droll and proud of his roots off it. There is a good chance he’ll end up in New York. Rumors of a brutal media there have shrunk in time to the city’s expectations of a winner (see: Carmelo Anthony). The outsized shadow of Derek Jeter is a crumpled wrapper skipping toward a sewer grate on 5th Avenue and a new aesthetic of what a sportsman can be is needed.

It is unfortunate, Mariota’s choice of football as his sport. It is also too late to revise. Professional football players are now built to more closely resemble last year’s Heisman winner Jameis L. Winston, troubled and talented and plagued by alleged this and thats. It’s a sport you no longer want to raise your child on. Its imminent demise aptly compared to the ubiquity, ruthlessness, hubris and eventual collapse of the tobacco industry.

A true system quarterback who was developed outside the system, perhaps Mariota’s masterful brush can help establish a new tradition of grace over junk in the professional ranks.

My guess is it won’t.