Losing the Playoff Does Not Diminish Marcus Mariota

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Marcus Mariota is no less an outstanding player, a consummate team leader or a worthy Heisman Trophy recipient because Oregon failed to win the College Football Playoff.

It’s unfortunate the above has to be stated so bluntly, but that’s just the nature of football conversation. A point I have written before and will continue to hammer as necessary is that when a team’s successful, too much credit’s bestowed on the quarterback. Conversely, too much blame for losses is pinned on the position.

Certainly there are those occasions when a quarterback’s performance is the primary cause in a loss. That’s far from the case with Marcus Mariota and Oregon’s loss Monday to Ohio State.

Mariota passed for over 300 yards, did not shy from the contact of Ohio State’s stout defense and returned quickly from injury.

In other words, the championship was no different than Mariota’s illustrious, three-year career at Oregon.

“There’s that [idea] that you have to win a national championship to [validate] everything, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily true,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said in his postgame press conference, per ASAPSports.com. “I think Dan Marino was a pretty good player and some of these other guys that have legacies and not have a national championship [disprove that].”

As for why Marcus Mariota and the Ducks fell short of their national championship goal, John Canzano may have summarized it best:

Alas, you should probably brace yourself for months of criticism, particularly if Mariota declares for the NFL draft. Hell, it’s already started to a certain degree.

The dismissive way in which some NFL types discuss Marcus Mariota crystallizes why the college game simply appeals more to me. Watching Mariota play for the last three years, and covering him live a few times, was a privilege because he routinely did things that surprised.

In my breakdown of his Heisman win, I recounted the story of an entire press box at Levi’s Stadium letting out murmurs of appreciation during last month’s Pac-12 Championship. That’s the lasting impression Marcus Mariota is going to leave me with: That football, in the hands of a truly special talent, is damn fun.

The dissection of a quarterbacks’ intangibles, or the circumference of his knees, or what-have-you, isn’t fun. It’s business. And that is the single biggest difference between college football and the NFL at their very cores.

Still, that doesn’t mean Mariota is destined to a pro future of holding clipboards or getting gobbled up on games no one sees because of the NFL’s ridiculous partnership with DirecTV.

He’s defied expectations before and excelled.

It doesn’t seem like all that long ago when I was writing a preview of Oregon for the 2012 season and the Ducks were coming off the third of three straight Pac-12 championships under Chip Kelly.

Gone was former Heisman finalist and Pac-12 leading rusher LaMichael James, though the return of Kenjon Barner — a star in James’ brief 2011 absence — left the run game in good hands.

Quarterback was more of a mystery after Darron Thomas’ confounding decision to declare early for the NFL draft.

I’m sure I was not alone when I assumed Bryan Bennett would take over Thomas’ job. After all, Bennett played admirably in place of an injured Thomas midway through the previous campaign.

But it didn’t take long for Marcus Mariota to prove winning the starting role was no miscalculation by Kelly. He threw 32 touchdowns to just six picks, and scored another five times on the ground in his freshman campaign — all the while, leading Oregon to a 12-1 finish and Fiesta Bowl championship.

Were it not for a late-season knee injury in 2013, Mariota may have claimed the Heisman a year earlier. He managed to finish his redshirt sophomore campaign with 31 passing touchdowns and four interceptions, along with nine rushing scores and 11 wins despite being limited.

And yet, he couldn’t get an invite to New York, despite there being roughly 500 Heisman finalists that season.

I asked Helfrich last month about the slight. He said: “It’s been a little weird that there‚Äôs been X number of people quot-unquote better than him.”

Alright, so maybe the impending months of unwarranted and unnecessary critiques sure to come Mariota’s way will roll off the Duck’s back — or, more likely, turn into motivation.

To wit, I asked him last July at Pac-12 media days if there was much room to improve in 2014 from an altogether impressive 2013.

He rattled off a number of areas without hesitation, suggesting he had spent the last several months thinking long and hard about what he could do differently to secure that conference championship that eluded him his first two years.

Among the points he touched on was improved red-zone efficiency: This year the Ducks finished No. 44 nationally in that category, up from 95th the year prior.

Whatever deficiencies he may have in his game now, you can bet Mariota will similarly work to improve as he takes the next step in his career. Just don’t expect him to attribute any of it to a legacy.

“I don’t care about legacies,” he said in Monday’s press conference. “That’s other people’s opinions. My main focus was to be a great teammate. That’s all I hoped to accomplish.”

National championship or no, it’s safe to say Marcus Mariota succeeded.