Marcus Mariota is in Atlanta for a few key reasons. Among them: a chance to again be a starting quarterback, and an opportunity to reunite with Arthur Smith.
Smith and Mariota were together in Tennessee in 2019, Mariota's last season with the Titans and his last as a starter. In that year, Mariota struggled significantly and coach Mike Vrabel -- under whom Smith worked as offensive coordinator -- had no choice but to bench him for veteran backup Ryan Tannehill. The rest is history: Tannehill flourished, leading Tennessee to an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, while Mariota was left to find work elsewhere.
He found that work in Las Vegas as a backup who saw occasional snaps. With that tape in hand and an existing relationship with Smith, Mariota is moving to Atlanta to rejoin his former coordinator. But there's a question we must first answer: Why does Mariota want to play for a coach who was part of a staff that once benched him?
"Well, he was always honest," Mariota said of Smith on Friday. "Even to the point where in 2019 when things weren't going well for me, he always shot me straight. I think, for me as a player, I truly appreciate that. He's always been focused on making sure I can get better; in and out of the pocket, how I'm digesting the offense, how I'm seeing defenses, he always made it a point just to find little areas of improvement.
"Art is somebody that's always been there for me, always shot me straight, and I knew what I was getting into, what kind of culture he's building here, so that's why I'm excited to be here because I really do believe in Art and what he's doing."
Thanks to his performance in relief of Derek Carr in one 2020 game, Mariota returned to the quarterbacking consciousness of the football world. An injury kept him from building upon that, but after trading Matt Ryan to Indianapolis, Atlanta needed a quarterback. Mariota needed a legitimate chance to start. Falcons, meet Marcus.
"It really came down to the opportunity. Obviously, he said there's a chance for you to play, a chance for you to start right away," Mariota said. "Really, for me, at this point in time of my career, that's what I was looking for. No matter what the situation is, I have to my best to lead these guys and help these guys become the best of their abilities.
"That doesn't necessarily mean I'm the starter. I can very well be the backup and do those types of things, and that's what I've learned. But I know that with Art, he's always going to be honest with me and I can really put forth my best foot forward and see what I can do."
That one game in 2020 reminded folks of what once made Mariota the second-overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 226 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and in the process he showed off his athleticism, arm talent and accuracy. Perhaps most importantly, he displayed poise, which he'd likely gained from the challenges of recent years.
"I've learned a lot over the course of the last, even really three years going back to that season in 2019," Mariota said. "I was both mentally and physically beat up. I think this is a great opportunity for me to kind of showcase what I've learned over the course of the last couple years. Being around guys like Ryan Tannehill and Derek Carr -- guys that have played at a really high level.
"With Art, I think we've developed a relationship where we can communicate, we can get things off our chest, we can put forth what we think is best for the offense. And then secondly, he's always going to be honest with me, and if there's things I need to improve on, he's going to work on it with me. That's why I think and believe in this situation and I'm excited for this opportunity."
What Mariota received as a backup was a chance to learn from two starters (Tannehill, Carr), and, perhaps most importantly, a legitimate reset. Mariota received time to recover physically and mentally and get himself in a better position to succeed.
"I was at a point in my career where I was just trying to do whatever I could to please the coach and I didn't necessarily communicate some of the things that maybe I didn't like or things I didn't feel like were putting me in the best situation possible," Mariota said as he reflected on his final year in Tennessee. "I've really grown in that aspect. I feel like I learned that a lot with coach (Jon) Gruden and with Derek, to see that type of relationship and how those guys communicated, it's something I want try here with Art.
"Like I said, Art is very willing, he's always been trying to push me and be that guy to communicate more. At this point in time of my career, those experiences have taught me that, so I think we will be good to go."
Now, Mariota hopes to put that reset to use in Atlanta. He'll get an offseason and perhaps an entire season to prove his worth. If it works out, maybe the Falcons won't be shopping for a quarterback in 2023 after all.