January 10, 2024   6 MIN READ

Quarterback In The Saddle

Deficit, Playoff Fate Gave Mariota Chance To Play


As it turned out, the final Jalen Hurts regular-season pass of 2023 wound up in the hands of Giants safety Xavier McKinney, who made like a rangy baseball center fielder as he secured the nifty sideline interception on a pass intended for wide receiver Julio Jones.

Hurts and the Eagles were blanked on the scoreboard at that point, trailing by 24 points.

The franchise signal-caller was also powering through a gruesome-looking dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand that he sustained earlier in the game.

While that was happening, the Washington Commanders had relinquished their early lead over the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles could’ve jumped into the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs with a win over the Giants and Cowboys loss.

With the Eagles way down, and with Dallas taking command, Hurts retreated to the sideline and never returned.

Instead, backup Marcus Mariota was tasked with piloting an undermanned offense stuck in neutral – or rewarded for his season-long contributions with reps, however you view it.

Operating out of shotgun with just over a minute remaining until the break, Mariota’s menu called for a quick-hitting, easy completion via bubble screen.

The issue?

McKinney read it the whole way, breaking in front of the short toss to wide receiver Quez Watkins and snaring his second interception in five plays to return possession to the Giants at the Philadelphia 12-yard-line.

It had to be all downhill from there, right?

“It was just awesome to get out there and play,” Mariota said after the game. “Unfortunately, we don’t want it to be in the circumstances that it was, but at the same time, to get out there and play with those guys – guys that I’ve been practicing with all year – it was a lot of fun.

“Obviously, would love to take care of the ball a little bit better. Guy made a great play on the screen pass. He jumped it, and just made an unbelievable play. And then, just in the pocket, some of those things where you’re not playing a bunch … you kinda get loose with the ball.

“The guy swiped at it and got it out. At the end of the day, those are things that are easily correctable. I enjoyed just being out there with the guys.”

Marcus Mariota

GETTY IMAGE: Eagles backup QB Marcus Mariota got his first extended action of the year in the season finale.

The nine-year veteran shrugged off the early miscue to somewhat spark a largely hapless offense, completing 13-of-20 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown to go along with that interception.

He also churned out yards with his legs, registering 46 yards on six carries.

Mariota unsurprisingly established an early rapport with Watkins and fellow receiver Britain Covey, players he’s repped quite a bit with in practice.  Both receivers combined for 99 of Mariota’s passing yards.

To illustrate their impact in helping Mariota, look no further than a fourth-quarter sequence that resulted in the Eagles’ lone touchdown drive.

Covey reeled in a career-long 22-yard reception to set the table for Watkins, who skied in traffic to corral a 16-yard touchdown – his first of the season, and Mariota’s first as an Eagle.

“They make it easy for the quarterback,” Mariota said. “Covey is an unbelievable route-runner … creates space, creates separation. For a quarterback, the way that he runs his routes, he gives great indications on where he’s gonna be. He just made some unbelievable plays.

“And then, Quez, man … I got a lot of respect for him. He’s a guy that will go get the ball. On the touchdown, he did an unbelievable job. It’s just fun to play with those guys. It’s fun to get in these situations and scenarios and let those guys do their thing.”

Making his fourth stop on the NFL map since being selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015, Mariota brought with him to Philadelphia 74 games of starting experience and a vast understanding of various offenses.

His dual-threat ability also projected as a logical fit with the Eagles, whose offense wouldn’t need much adjustment if Mariota needed to replace Hurts.

His most recent pit stop – a one-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons – was by all accounts a turbulent one.

Wins were scarce (5-8) and his production was insufficient, prompting a changing of the signal caller.

Coming out of the team’s bye week, Mariota was ultimately benched in favor of rookie Desmond Ridder. Word surfaced of him essentially quitting on the team.

The former Heisman winner from Oregon has explained that he opted to get ahead of an ongoing issue – undergoing a procedure to alleviate a chronic knee injury.

Mariota had also become a first-time father prior to his demotion. All things equal, it became glaringly apparent that a fresh start for him was in the cards in 2024.

Though the opportunity of challenging for a starting job wasn’t reasonable in Philadelphia, the change of scenery afforded Mariota a new perspective and a chance to take a step back and see the game through a different lens.

His year with the Eagles was never going to be measured by stats or production, barring injury. Rather, the impact of Mariota’s value was evident behind the scenes from an experience and preparation standpoint.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say his decision to come to Philadelphia has rekindled his appetite for football, and perhaps even altered his perspective.

“I think, for me, personally, it’s just kinda enjoying the game,” Mariota said. “You know, I’ve kinda had an up-and-down career. I was pretty over it, to be honest with you guys, at the end of my time in Atlanta.

“It’s a great locker room here, it’s a great culture. And to be able to play with these guys, it just kinda lights up the adrenaline a little bit and kinda gets those feelings of passion again for the game. I enjoyed that part of it.”

For Mariota, who’s career has spanned peaks and valleys, this recent 1-5 stretch for the Eagles is just another example of the game’s ebb and flow.

“Football is kind of wild, man,” Mariota said. “You’re gonna have some ups and downs, and I think adversity will make a team stronger. Jalen did a great job at the end of this, in the locker room, talking about, ‘Hey, just dominate your box. Just do what you gotta do. Embrace your role.’

“I think, as a group, we’ll be ready to go. And I’m excited to see what goes on next week.”

– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.

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