When the Las Vegas Raiders signed Marcus Mariota this offseason, General Manager Mike Mayock was the first person to remind reporters he graded the former Oregon Duck as the top quarterback in the 2015 class.
"The more taped I watched, the more I appreciated what he was asked to do in the Oregon version of the spread offense," Mayock said back in 2015. "He reads combination routes, he takes tremendous care of the football, and he wins games."
Mariota's Heisman-trophy season at Oregon was special and many hoped he would bring that same level of flare and speed to the NFL, including Mayock. After being selected No. 2 overall by the Tennessee Titans, the "Flyin' Hawaiian" led his team to the playoffs and had several notable highlights, but with several coaching changes and injuries, Mariota seemed to lose his magic somewhere along the way, and eventually lost the starting job to Ryan Tannehill in 2019. All athletes experience their share of highs and lows, but Mariota entered the free agency pool dejected, looking for a fresh start elsewhere.
Not soon after the free agency window opened, Mayock saw an opportunity to sign the quarterback he labeled as the No. 1 signal-caller in the 2015 NFL Draft. Recognizing that Mariota still possessed simply unteachable skills, Mayock and Head Coach Jon Gruden signed the then-26-year-old, determined to rebuild his confidence.
"He's got to get healthy," Mayock said before the start of the season. "We've got to rebuild him a little bit, get his confidence back, build him up from the ground up. It's going to take a little while, I think, just to get him healthy and where he wants to be, but we're excited about the quarterback room."
After being placed on the Injured Reserve and rehabbing a strained pectoral for nine to 10 weeks, Mariota was eventually activated and slowly began working his way back on the field. Day after day, No. 8 went about his business, being the consummate professional that he is, preparing for his moment in a game, whether it came or not.
Thursday night against the Los Angeles Chargers, he got his chance.
Early in the game, Derek Carr scrambled right in the red zone, looking to make a play with his feet toward the pylon, or make something happen with his arm, but neither occurred. Carr pulled up and immediately grabbed at his groin, and subsequently hobbled out of bounds, writhing in pain. While Carr limped to the locker room, Mariota jogged on to the field the next drive, ready to play at the level he was once known for.
In his first action since October 13, 2019, Mariota looked incredible.
The former Duck looked elusive and electric running the ball, but more importantly, accurate with passes. Mariota's first touchdown pass came on a 40-yard bomb to tight end Darren Waller — who finished the game with nine receptions and 150 yards, along with the aforementioned touchdown. He finished the game with 226 passing yards, one touchdown pass, one touchdown run — reminiscent of a touchdown during his Heisman season in 2014 — and 88 rushing yards.
Unfortunately, the Raiders were unable to come away with the win in overtime, but Mariota did everything that was asked of him and more, especially with limited practice this offseason.
"It just shows the kind of player and football character he has," Gruden told reporters postgame. "We changed gears offensively and Marcus [Mariota] came in and did a great job. I'm really proud of him and I think it just puts an exclamation point on why we signed him. I just wish we could've won the game for him."
Even though Mariota is the kind of person who would gladly trade his success for the team's success, this was a big moment for him on his journey back to the field, and it shouldn't be overlooked because of the final score.
"You know, to be truthful, it's been a long journey. I've kind of been through everything: from injuries to surgeries to mental kind of lapses, to the confidence thing, and I just truly appreciate the Raiders and the entire organization for helping me through that. I was trying to find my way again and they gave me an opportunity to take some time, they were patient with me, and I just appreciate the fact they were willing to do that.
"It's kind of part of being an athlete, you're going to go through some ups and downs, and I think the staff did a great job of keeping me level headed, and kind of fighting through [the adversity]. When it comes down to it, it's still ball. I just loved being out there again, it was fun to play, but unfortunately, we just didn't make enough plays."
Derek Carr's injury status has yet to be determined, but in the event he's unable to play against the Miami Dolphins next week, Mariota looks more than prepared to fill in once again. It's been a long journey to this point, but it's obvious Mayock and Gruden have accomplished what they set out to do: rebuild Mariota's confidence. On national television, he proved that his NFL journey is far from over, and he's capable of playing at a high level like he used to.
View photos from the Raiders' Week 15 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium on Thursday Night Football.