Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy in 2014, and among the rewards he reaped for that was being picked second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft … by the 2-14 Tennessee Titans.
Against the Chiefs on Friday at Arrowhead Stadium, you could see glimpses of a bright future.
But mostly you saw growing pains radiating from him — whether on a misfired pass or when a miscommunication led to a delay-of-game penalty or when he got up to charge toward Justin Houston after the star linebacker body-slammed him and stood over him in a taunting manner.
Meanwhile, his composed Chiefs counterpart, Alex Smith, was dissecting the Titans with 16 completions in 18 passing attempts for 171 yards and two touchdowns behind a makeshift offensive line.
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For good measure, Smith completed a 34-yard pass to Travis Kelce (hey, it counted, even if Kelce sure appeared to step out of bounds about halfway through it) and seven passes for 65 yards to Jeremy Maclin, who navigated the sideline for a 29-yard touchdown.
This nifty performance in the Chiefs’ 34-10 preseason victory will do little to convert those who are adamant that Smith is a mere caretaker.
It won’t appease those who see him as an unspectacular, risk-averse game manager who doesn’t have what it takes to lead the Chiefs to their first playoff win since the 1993 season.
“That’s everybody who doesn’t know him,” Maclin said. “We have everything we need to do the things we want to achieve this year, and it all starts with the guy behind the center.”
That’s because there is more to Smith’s persona on the field than skeptics want to acknowledge, and one prism to see that through is Mariota.
Ten years ago, Smith was in an uncannily similar position to Mariota after he had finished fourth in Heisman voting and was drafted first overall by a 49ers organization that had gone 2-14 the year before.
Smith and Mariota, each about 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds now, had remarkably similar profiles as pass-run threats in college.
In his final season at Utah, Smith completed 67.5 percent of his passes for an average of 246 yards a game while averaging 53 yards rushing. In those 12 games, he threw 32 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
In Mariota’s final season at Oregon, he completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 296 yards while averaging 51 yards. In those 15 games, he threw 42 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
As it will for Mariota, who has yet to throw a touchdown pass in three preseason games, everything changed for Smith as an NFL rookie on a rebuilding team.
Caught in the flux of his own adjustments to the NFL, injuries and turbulence around him, Smith threw one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions in 2005.
Though Smith politely shrugged off the comparison (“He did a lot more in college than I did,” he said), as he reflected late Friday on that time of his career, he thought about similar complications that Mariota must be facing: adjusting to the speed of the game, the volume of new information and the transition to a pro-style offense.
His greatest challenge, though, was purely psychological.
“For me, it was always just battling the anxiety of being the top pick and trying to justify that,” he said. “That’s what I fought for so long, and it took me a while.”
Even as Smith startrf to even out in the next few years, he was hamstrung by a variety of injuries and an even greater variety of offensive coordinators: six in his first six seasons.
Maturity ultimately was the key to becoming who he is now: a cool, shrewd leader who, yes, favors stability over recklessness and calculated risk over gambling but can throw the deep ball better than most believe.
Improved line play willing, we’ll see that more this season with the addition of the legitimate deep threat of Maclin.
That will reveal an extra dimension to Smith, but it won’t change the fact that he came to recognize that the best version of himself is this one: the guy who has thrown 71 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions the last four season after throwing 53 interceptions and 51 touchdown passes his first five seasons.
He did this by learning he doesn’t have to do it all, doesn’t have to justify where he was picked in the draft. He just has to be Alex Smith, the guy whose most spectacular trait might be his consistency and stability — which can’t be taken for granted.