NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The news that former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is moving on to become the head coach of the Green Bay Packers undoubtedly caused "Here we go again" thoughts to pop into quarterback Marcus Mariota's mind. After having four offensive coordinators in four seasons, Mariota was looking forward to finally being in the same offense for consecutive seasons.
"For what it's worth, it will be nice to get back into the building and be familiar with what's going on," Mariota said while cleaning out his locker last week. "Everybody will be able to go out there and get ready to play and not try to engulf a new system."
A second storyline that always seems to follow Mariota into the offseason -- his durability -- also returned. A neck stinger caused him to miss the final game -- a win-or-else matchup with the Indianapolis Colts to determine who would be the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. The decision to hold Mariota out of the game was a "collective effort," according to coach Mike Vrabel. Although Mariota didn't like it, it was done to keep him from suffering a long-term injury.
So Mariota finds himself in a familiar and frustrating spot. He was excited about LaFleur being his offensive coordinator and how the scheme matched his skills. He praised LaFleur for being able to put playmakers in positions to produce. The opportunity to be used on bootlegs and play-action made LaFleur's scheme seem like a great fit.
"It's a part of my game, something I've done since I was a little kid," Mariota said. "Whenever I have an opportunity to do it, I feel comfortable outside the pocket. Big plays happen that way."
Unfortunately, the nerve injuries robbed Mariota and LaFleur of the opportunity to enhance each other's career. Mariota, who has never played a full 16-game season because of various injuries, missed three starts this season and heard criticism for missing the season finale.
"Just with the freak deal with my elbow and other injuries leading up to these multiple stingers, it led to a point where they felt I was susceptible to a bigger injury," Mariota said of the team's decision to sit him in Week 17. "But I am blessed that it's nothing surgically that I will need to do. It's just going to take some time."
He is considered injury-prone by some, with a history that includes two Grade 2 knee sprains, a fractured fibula, thigh/hamstring sprains and three nerve injuries. But he has missed only eight games in his four seasons.
In comparison, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's career was believed to be in jeopardy because of a torn labrum that required surgery on his throwing arm and forced him to miss the 2017 season. So things could be a lot worse for Mariota, who won't require offseason surgery.
It's just unfortunate he won't be able to return with LaFleur as his offensive coordinator. The Titans hoped LaFleur would get the most out of Mariota given the success of other quarterbacks he's worked with, including Jared Goff (Rams, 2017), Matt Ryan (Atlanta, 2016 MVP season) and Robert Griffin III (Redskins, 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year season).
LaFleur's move to Green Bay crushed that optimism. Now Mariota will likely have to learn a new scheme for the fifth year in a row -- a career path that is eerily similar to that of Redskins quarterback Alex Smith.
Both saw the early part of their career hampered by constant turnover at coordinator. After having six different offensive coordinators in his first seven seasons, Smith set career highs in four of the five seasons he was in the same scheme under head coach Andy Reid.
The knock on Smith was that his being overly concerned about taking care of the football caused him to hesitate when asked to make tight-window throws. He'd see a receiver coming open but wouldn't pull the trigger. Does that sound familiar?
Mariota has been guilty of the same thing. Back in September, Vrabel encouraged Mariota to "let it rip." Once Smith got settled in with the Chiefs, he began to take shots that he hadn't in the past. That is the same comfort level the Titans have to establish for Mariota. At times Mariota showed that he was evolving into more of a risk taker this season, but will he regress to being a play-it-safe quarterback in yet another offense?
The 2019 season will carry a lot of weight as the Titans decide whether to move forward with Mariota and at what cost. He's projected to cost them $20.9 million in 2019 after the team picked up his fifth-year option in April.
That's why it's so critical for Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson to make the right hire when they decide on the next coordinator. If Mariota stays healthy and makes strides in the new offense, there's a great chance the relationship will continue -- maybe for a contract similar to Smith's four-year, $94 million deal with Washington.