When Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were selected back-to-back to start the 2015 NFL Draft, it guaranteed that their names would be forever linked, as Andrew Luck is to Robert Griffin III and Peyton Manning is to Ryan Leaf. That in turn created an instant narrative when Winston's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Mariota's Tennessee Titans were matched up by NFL schedule-makers in Week One.
Tennessee Head coach Ken Whisenhunt understands that the Winston-Mariota hype for Sunday's opener at Raymond James Stadium is unavoidable.
"Do I get it? Yeah, I get it," said Whisenhunt. "They were both very successful college quarterbacks, both won the Heisman, both performed at a high level in big games, so, regardless of where they were drafted, there's a lot of attention that comes with that. And then when you go one and two, that even creates more attention. So I certainly get it. They're both good football players. I know in doing our work on these guys, we liked both of them. It is definitely going to create a lot of interest about this game."
It's a compelling storyline, to be sure, and one that's sure to dominate talk between both fans and broadcasters on Sunday. However, neither Mariota nor Winston needs to devote any of their precious game-prep time to thinking about the other one.
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"I learned a long time ago not to compare myself to anyone else and my Dad always said just to focus on what you're doing, find ways that you can get better and the rest will take care of itself," said Mariota, when inevitably asked about the matchup. "I think Jameis is a great player, I think he'll have a great career, but for us, I think we're just going to focus on what we've got to do within our teams and do our best to be the best players that we can be."
That's obviously what both players have been working hard at since the April 30 evening that sent them to their new NFL homes. In Tampa, coaches are impressed with how well Winston has absorbed the playbook and taken command of the offense. In Nashville, they've seen rapid progress out of Mariota, especially in adjusting to an NFL scheme and taking snaps from under center.
Whisenhunt says the Titans weren't concerned about that issue after studying Mariota's college tape, but they were still surprised at how quickly he has made the transition.
"To say it would have gone as smoothly as it has, [we] probably didn't expect that," said the Tennessee coach. "He's done a good job. He's worked very hard at it. He looks comfortable under the center and has made the transition quite well. So we'll see. It's been preseason, so we'll see how he handles the regular season, but he's worked very hard and we've certainly been excited by what we've seen."
True to form, Mariota spread the credit around for his own quick development.
"It was different," he said of taking snaps from under center. "I was very fortunate to get in a situation where my teammates and these coaches have done a great job of helping my transition, whether it was kind of going over the plays, helping me with speaking the language of the offense. There were a lot of other people involved and I'm very thankful for them."
There are certain adjustments that every rookie has to make upon graduating to the NFL, and those can be magnified at quarterback by the sheer volume of responsibilities heaped on that position. The greater overall speed of the game might be a temporary eye-opener for a running back used to getting the corner ahead of pursuing linebackers. For a quarterback, it's a potential wrecking ball as he tries to stay focused on his route tree while the pocket collapses and defensive backs close his windows of opportunity.
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"I think the speed of the game is a lot different in college," said Mariota. "You've got to be able to think quickly on your feet, get the ball out – defenses are moving quick, there are great athletes all over the place and they'll make plays on the ball. You've just got to be prepared in that standpoint and do your best to adjust to that."
At Oregon, Mariota ran for more than 700 yards in each of his three seasons and scored 29 times on the ground. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he was easily the fastest quarterback in the building. It seems certain that the Titans will take advantage of those skills in some way during his career, but that too is part of the NFL adjustment process. How often should he run, and how will he most effectively use his legs? The Titans didn't do much in that regard during the preseason, but that doesn't likely provide much insight into what they'll do when the games count.
"I think just during the preseason, there weren't opportunities for me to run," said Mariota. "There was a lot more down-the-field throwing, try to stay [in] the pocket and stuff like that. I just try to play instinctively – I just try to play my game. Whatever is asked of me – if there are opportunities to throw down the field, I do my best to do that. If there are times to take off, I'll do that as well. It just kind of depends on the game and what's asked of me."
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What the outside world is surely going to ask of Mariota – this weekend and at times throughout his career – is how he compares to Winston. That's inevitable, but it's not a topic to which he's going to give much thought.
"I think people will continue to debate 'One or Two' [and] if it's really important to Jameis and I," said Mariota. "I think, for us, we're just really focused on doing our best with our teams and focused on what we have to take care of. It doesn't matter who the opponent is, we just want to focus on what our objectives are as an offense and move forward."