“He can tell the right guard we need him to do A, B and C, and that guy will do it. And, he’ll fight for him.”– Coach Helfrich on Mariota
Just a little over a year ago, a young, Hawaiian, quarterback quietly took the field at Autzen for the first time. It took about 2.2 seconds for Duck fans everywhere to recognize his talent and rally behind him whole-hardheartedly- all the way to a 2013 Fiesta Bowl victory.
This year, Marcus Mariota began Spring Practice knowing he was the guy. His position as the Ducks’ leader was secure, thus beginning question after question about his leadership skills. For months now, Coach Helfrich, Mariota and the rest of the Ducks have fielded those questions, revealing little by little just how Mariota leads his flock. While most of the inquiries are part of a natural line of questioning when talking to a top-football program, the almost sudden media obsession with his “shyness” and underlying questions about his leadership ability has finally gotten under my skin.
While the football world is busy putting the ridiculously flashy, Johnny Football, on a pedestal, the Ducks’ calm, humble and very talented, leader is being criticized on national television for his apparent quiet presence on the sideline. ABC even calculated how much time he spent by himself on the sideline rather than talking to teammates. Really? The kid just flew 3,000 miles, leading his team to a 59-10 victory over an ACC school, all while rushing over 100 yards for the 3rd game in a row, and you are analyzing how quiet he is? Then, just this morning, Dan Patrick tried desperately to coax Mariota into yelling an audible on his show, to presumably prove he could. Give me a break. Am I missing something? I don’t think so.
I’ve spent some time talking to Mariota about this topic and as always, he humbly acknowledges the criticism and talks about how he’s trying to change, adding however that he’s never going to be a “ra ra guy”. I’m not sure he needs to be. I agree every athlete probably wants to improve in different ways, but as I humbly told him, he must be doing something right. But what do his coaches and teammates think? After the Virginia game last week, I set out to find out.
Over the course of the Summer, Coach Helfrich had talked about doing some exercises with Mariota to help him be more vocal with his teammates. That being said, he’s given Mariota credit for his development as a leader and for the many strengths he already has. He acknowledges that he isn’t the type of quarterback that’s going to grab a teammate by the helmet and yell at him, but explained “He can tell the right guard we need him to do A, B and C, and that guy will do it. And, he’ll fight for him”. He went on to explain how Oregon’s (no-huddle) system doesn’t exactly allow for those dramatic “look in the eye” moments. “We don’t have that ‘look you in the eye’ in the huddle”, but we need our quarterback to practice great, which Marcus does. We need him to listen great, which he does. He needs to be great in the community and on campus and all that stuff, which he’s great at, as most of our players are. And, because of his kind of credibility so to speak as a player and as a person, he can influence others with his leadership and he’s done a great job”.
Perhaps what matters most, is what his teammates feel about him, and there’s no doubt he’s highly respected among them. As I’ve mentioned before, most use words like “humble”, “calm”, “laid-back”, “consistent”, and “nice”. Just yesterday, I turned to Running Back, Byron Marshall, for a closer look. He was quick to let me know that Mariota isn’t as shy as people would think. “He’s definitely not one of those Cam Newtons or Johnny Manziels, who’s always like saying stuff, but with us, he’s not shy. If we’re having a bad practice, or a bad day, he’ll bring us together and tell everyone to pick it up and if I do something wrong, he’ll come around and say you need to do this or that”. I asked Marshall if he felt the team fed off Mariota’s laid back vibe. His response? “Yes, definitely. Everyone’s just a lot more relaxed this year. It’s just no pressure. You know what I mean. It’s just all going out there and having fun”.
It’s still early in the season, but I’m sensing a theme- relaxed and more fun. Hmm? What a concept. To all you naysayers out there, if the Ducks suddenly start losing game after game, go ahead and criticize. Until then, let Mariota lead in his own way. It’s obviously working.