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Whether starter or mentor, Mariota ready to help Washington win games

Philadelphia Eagles' Marcus Mariota warms up before a preseason NFL football game, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Philadelphia Eagles' Marcus Mariota warms up before a preseason NFL football game, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Washington Commanders still have no idea what they're going to do with the No. 2 overall pick, and newly-signed veteran Marcus Mariota certainly doesn't know, either.

So, he's bracing for just about anything as he prepares for his ninth season and fifth team.

"If I'm called upon to be ready to play, I'm very confident in that," Mariota said after he officially signed his contract. "And I'm also very confident in my role as a mentor."

Mariota, a former No. 2 overall pick himself, wasn't beguiled about the situation he was walking into when he signed with Washington. He knows that the Commanders are likely to take one of the top quarterbacks in the draft, which would mean that he'll be the primary backup like he was with the Eagles in 2023. There's also a chance, however small, that he sees some action this season, whether that's through injury to the starter or possibly even winning the job outright in training camp.

No matter what his role ends up being with the Burgundy & Gold, he feels that he's suited for both.

"Whatever this staff, whatever this team needs of me, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability and just ultimately win games here," Mariota said.

While Mariota has been a starter for most of his career, the past four seasons have seen him primarily fill the role of backup for various teams. His action in Philadelphia was limited behind Jalen Hurts, appearing in just three games and completing 15-of-23 passes for 164 yards with a touchdown and interception. Prior to that, he was the Raiders' backup from 2020-21, creating a few exciting moments in relief for Derek Carr.

Mariota has had a winding career for someone who was drafted by the Titans to help turn around their roster. Although he put up some of the best passing numbers in franchise history, a mixture of injuries, including an ulnar nerve issue that lingered throughout the 2018 season, and performance to his time in Tennessee generating mixed reactions. He was later benched in favor of Ryan Tannehill, who took the Titans to the AFC Championship.

The same could be said of his season in Atlanta, where he reunited with former Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, who was also the Titans' offensive coordinator from 2019-20. A decent start to the 2022 campaign, during which Mariota accounted for 13 total touchdowns compared to six interceptions and led the Falcons to a 4-4 record, was followed by a 1-4 stretch in Weeks 9-13, which led to him being replaced by Desmond Ridder for the rest of the season.

As Marcus Mariota gets ready for the 2024 season, take a look back at some of the previous stops in his career. (Photos via The Associated Press)

At the same time, Mariota has shown that he can step in as a starter and even succeed in that role. He had the Titans in position for a playoff run in 2016, throwing 26 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, prior to breaking his leg in Week 16; he led his team to the playoffs in 2017, sparking a comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs by scoring a touchdown on a throw he made to himself; he stepped for an injured Carr with the Raiders in 2020 and nearly pulled off a win against the Chargers; and he did have a handful of impressive moments with the Falcons, who found ways to utilize his dual threat skill set.

So, for what it's worth, Mariota is right; he's experienced a lot of what the NFL has to offer, and he's willing to pass that knowledge on to younger players.

"All those experiences create value and create opportunities for me to build relationships with guys," Mariota said. "I can build with the top guy on the roster to the very bottom of the roster. I think that's important. Sometimes you need guys like myself to be able to glue guys together and be an advocate for the guys."

Mariota is also uniquely positioned to help mentor the Commanders' first-round pick, assuming they take a quarterback. The situation they would walk into with the Commanders, who have looked for a long-term answer at the position since Kirk Cousin left in 2017, is similar to the one Mariota was in during his rookie year. Eight quarterbacks started a game for Tennessee between 2010-14, including Vince Young, Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Mariota said there is an expectation for a quarterback taken that high be "the savior," which can be a lot to take on.

"And I think for me now, to be able to have gone through that experience, if that's the way we go, I can provide a little bit of comfort knowing that you [need to] be your best version of yourself," Mariota said. "Don't worry about everything else. Don't worry about the expectations. Just go out there and try to get better every day and the rest of it will fall into place."

There is still a chance that Mariota ends up seeing at least some starting snaps even if the Commanders take a quarterback. General manager Adam Peters said the league's annual meetings last week that having Mariota means that "we don't feel we have to rush anybody," possibly meaning that a rookie quarterback can sit and learn behind an experienced veteran.

As for whether that comes to fruition, Mariota said "we'll have to wait and see." Of course, he would jump on the opportunity if it presented itself; that's why he's in the NFL, and that competitive drive hasn't gone away despite being a backup for the second half of his career.

His goals for the team are bigger than his own interests, though.

"I'll never let my ego get in the way of what's most important for the team," Mariota said. "I really believe if that's my role, if I'm called upon to play, I'll do it to the best of my ability. I'm asked to coach a young guy or whoever is with us in that quarterback room, I'll do it to the best of my ability.

"At the end of the day, I'm here to win games, and I want to be part of a franchise that puts together a good product on the field."

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