Titans Taking Poor Approach with Marcus Mariota’s Contract

An offset has Tennessee Titans fans becoming very upset as negotiations drag on with the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the presumptive future of the franchise, quarterback Marcus Mariota.

The former University of Oregon star remains unsigned as training camp looms with so-called offset language being the main sticking point.

“We’ve always had offset language in our player contracts. It’s nothing new,” Titans interim CEO and president Steve Underwood said this week. “I think it is important where a high first-round draft pick is concerned, because it’s the precedent. Everything that we do is precedential for the next round of contracts.”

That view is about as penny wise and dollar foolish as it gets, however.

For those of you who don’t know, offset language in an NFL contract allows teams to gain back some guaranteed money on a deal if the player is released and eventually signs with another organization.

Here’s the skinny: let’s say Mariota implodes in Nashville and the Titans decide to move on before his fourth NFL season. If the Heisman Trophy winner signs with a new team and doesn’t have offset language in his deal with Tennessee, he will essentially get to double dip–take what’s still owed to him from the Titans as well as whatever the new club decides to pay him.

Conversely, if Mariota signs a deal with offset language in it and the same scenario unfolds, the size of new deal will counteract whatever the Titans are left on the hook for.

From a purely business perspective, Underwood’s position is concrete. But professional football isn’t exactly a run-of-the-mill enterprise.

The last thing you want creeping into Mariota’s mind is doubt and the Titans’ hardball act here is basically a safety net for failure, hardly a narrative you want to play up for a guy you expect to be the Week 1 starter as a rookie.

And remember plenty of observers already believe that Tennessee’s selection of Mariota was hardly the best fit.

Mariota is a polarizing prospect, a smart kid with all the intangibles you need to play the game’s most important position but little training in a pro- style offense. In fact some scouts have told me that Mariota was never really tested with the Ducks in what is, at least in the NFL’s eyes, a dumbed-down offense.

The spread system that Chip Kelly ran at Oregon and Mark Helfrich has continued is based on tempo and doesn’t require the QB to make NFL-level progressions from receiver to receiver. It’s often been described as quarterback-proof, in which the pilot is told what to do pre-snap and expected to make his one read and go.

Over recent years, the spread-offense phenomenon has been compared to baseball where there was once a strong belief that college programs did more harm than good when it came to getting pitchers ready for the major leagues. And that thought process was probably correct, at least in the days before anyone cared about things like pitch counts. Most college coaches weren’t about to try to serve two masters — winning while at the same time getting their prospects ready for the next step.

The similar dynamic in football at the college level right now is the spread offenses which are all the rage on campus. Although there is more read-option than ever in the professional ranks, most organizations just aren’t all that comfortable with signal callers who have spent their entire college experience in the pistol or shotgun.

In fact, if anything the pendulum is swinging back and most teams are more enamored with the old-school, pocket-style passer who is comfortable with a three-, five- or seven-step drops and capable of planting his foot in the
ground before letting it rip.

All that said, a quarterback with mobility who can throw it from the pocket is now the prototype (think Aaron Rodgers) and Mariota has the skill set to join a rather exclusive group. But, as far as plug-and-play in ’15, he probably fit exactly one team — Kelly and his Philadelphia Eagles.

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 12 College Football Playoff National Championship - Oregon v Ohio State

Will Marcus Mariota be able to work in the Titans’ system?

Which brings us back to Nashville where the conventional wisdom was that Tennessee, which finished 2-14 under first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt last season, wanted out of the No. 2 slot because the team obviously needs multiple
assets in order to get better and Mariota seems nothing like a Whisenhunt-type quarterback (think Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers).

Moreover, this is not the old NFL where five-year plans are acceptable. After that 2-14 campaign, Whisenhunt is already on the clock and he probably can’t afford another disastrous win-loss season while waiting for a young QB to

So why in the world is Underwood playing the precedent card rather than the pragmatic one and giving Mariota every chance to hit the ground running?

“Keeping the offset in place is something we want to be able to do going forward,” Underwood said. “And the minute you back away from the contract principle then you no longer are able to assert it going forward.”

Look, there is no question agents will try to take advantage of the Titans in the future if they give in to Mariota here, but so what?

Most were already going to make that play anyway, and everyone in the NFL knows quarterbacks are different.

Most first-round picks do have offset language in their deals but recent high-profile signal callers like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Blake Bortles were able to avoid it. And those franchises haven’t exactly been forced to avoid offset language in their deals because of an exception for the perceived face of the franchise.

And all of that makes Underwood’s take both shortsighted and disingenuous.

“Whatever you do echoes into eternity with player contracts,” Underwood countered before backtracking a bit. “We just can’t afford to take a step back, at least this early in the process. We’re still a couple of weeks away from training camp.”

That sounds like a guy planning to take a step back when it becomes necessary, so what exactly are the Titans trying to accomplish?

“Getting a first-round draft pick, a quarterback, signed and in camp on time, it’s a big deal,” Underwood admitted. “It’s something we need to be focused on. But using that or any other excuse to subvert the negotiating process, that’s faulty logic.

“You still need to stick to your guns about what it is you’re trying to achieve in the contract negotiation. You may need to use some fallback position. But getting your first-round draft pick to camp on time is important. Sticking to your guns about what you need to get in a contract is also important.”

What’s most important is this — if you swing and miss with the No. 2 overall selection at the quarterback position, you are going to have far bigger problems than worrying about a disappointment double dipping years down the road at your expense.

-You can reach JF McMullen at jmcmullen@phanaticmag.com or on Twitter @jfmcmullen — Also listen to John weekly on YAHOO! Sports Radio, YSR Indianapolis, ESPN Atlantic City, ESPN Lexington, Omaha’s The Zone and ESPN Southwest Florida.

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