FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Nate Costa heard the whispers seven years ago — Marcus Mariota, his team’s quarterback, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and one of the top prospects entering the 2015 NFL Draft might not have what it takes to lead an NFL locker room.
“There were always those red flags coming out of college,” Costa said. “It was all about him not being a vocal leader and all that type of stuff. In the end, that was just fodder for the media. I just don’t think people got to see it like I got to see it.”
After Mariota succeeded him at quarterback at Oregon, Costa returned to the school as a graduate assistant coach in 2013. By that time Mariota already was a star. Costa had heard the buzz before he ever saw Mariota on the practice field. Then he saw it with his own eyes.
“I never got a grasp on it until I got back to the program,” Costa said.
He saw intelligence, intangibles, athleticism, the total package, he said. Still, he heard those whispers. It was never “this guy can’t” lead an NFL team. It was “maybe this guy can’t” lead an NFL team.
“As a college prospect, Mariota was praised by coaches for his preparation, intelligence, grounded character, but there were concerns from some around the league about how his reserved personality would play in an NFL locker room,” said Dane Brugler, The Athletic’s NFL Draft analyst. “His leadership showed with his toughness and work ethic more than being overly vocal.”
Mariota’s coaches and teammates then would have told you — just like his coaches and teammates now will tell you — it wasn’t true. Still, it lingered. Five months into Mariota’s tenure as the Falcons’ new quarterback, it seems the root of the issue is this — Marcus Mariota might be the nicest player in the NFL. When the Falcons’ social media team put a microphone on Mariota during practice last week, half the video was him thanking teammates for good plays and the other half was coaches and teammates teasing him about being recorded.
Everyone in Atlanta already has something nice to say about Mariota, but first they want to clear up any notion he might not have enough bite in the bark of his cadence to really get the attention of an NFL team.
“He does have an edge,” Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London said. “He’s a really nice guy, but he does have an edge, and guys notice it. When his edge comes out, guys stand up and take notice.”
Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith pushes back on the entire idea that “edge” is a real trait that plays any role in NFL quarterbacking.
“That’s such a ridiculous surface personality thing,” Smith said. “That’s just ridiculous. What kind of edge? You want some fake bravado?”
“I’ve seen plenty of times where Marcus was the guy providing positive feedback for guys to get better,” Costa said. “He was also the guy on the other side of it who could rip someone’s butt when he needed to.”
Mariota is replacing Matt Ryan, who spent 14 years in Atlanta, winning league MVP honors and leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl. Along the way, Ryan acknowledged that he could be hard on his teammates in practices. Ryan’s most famous hot mic moment in Atlanta is a clip of him screaming at his teammates to “get (bleeping) set,” and that three-word exhortation became a cult favorite among the team’s most ardent fans.
Mariota, though, is not trying to be Ryan, and his coaches appreciate that.
“Each guy is kind of different, but you have to figure out how each guy does it,” London said. “Matt had his way of getting people’s attention, and Marcus has his own way of doing it. I think each guy has got to be himself, got to be authentic, has to be genuine, but Marcus has that about him where guys will follow him.”
“There’s nothing more fraudulent,” Smith said, “than when a quarterback goes out there and tries to act like something he’s not. Everybody who has played with Marcus loves him. You’ve got these quarterback gurus out there and they may try to tell a quarterback he has to act a certain way and tell them as a little kid to do this and do that, but when guys try to act like something they’re not, they’re frauds, they get out of here. You have to let them do it their own way.”
Mariota, in the eighth year of his NFL career, has been the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, started 61 games, been benched (by Smith in Tennessee in 2019), not re-signed by the Titans and spent two years as a backup in Las Vegas. He said he’s comfortable with who he is.
“I don’t feel like I’m saying more than I need to or if there is any weirdness or awkwardness for me,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with where I’m at and just trying to make these guys feel comfortable so we can go out there and play well.”
If that means helping the player who wants to take his job, rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder, Mariota is happy to do it. Literally, happy.
“I learned a long time ago, I left my ego at the door,” he said. “I really try to help wherever I can even if it’s Desmond, if it’s Drake (London), if it’s a younger guy like KP (Kyle Pitts), I just try to do and give whatever I can. I’ve been in so many different scenarios in my career. I’ve been a starter. I’ve been benched. I’ve been a backup. I’ve been hurt. All of these different things, so I want to take those experiences and try to help wherever I can. I think it will also make our team better. So that’s really what I’m focused on. I just try to help.”
First-year Falcons tight end Anthony Firkser, signed as a free agent in the offseason, played in Tennessee when Mariota lost his starting job in 2019 and marveled at how he handled the situation.
“It never felt like he took a back seat,” Firkser said. “He was still involved and pushing guys and doing whatever he could to help the team. He has a lot of confidence in himself and understands the nature of the game. He doesn’t worry about the past.”
Mariota does “a great job leading,” Firkser said.
“He does a great job understanding the offense and putting guys where they need to be,” Firkser said. “Just his demeanor is great. You never see him go up or down, get too high, get too low. He does a good job of being a guy you can trust out there on the field.”
Mariota’s former teammates who remain in Tennessee still remember him fondly. On an episode of his podcast “Bussin’ with the Boys,” Titans lineman Taylor Lewan called Mariota an “all-time dude.”
“I don’t think nobody can say one bad thing about Marcus,” Titans running back Derrick Henry said on that show. “You could go on and on about Marcus and how he is as a human being. He’s just a great dude. A lot of people wouldn’t have handled the situation very well. He helped (his replacement Ryan) Tannehill when he needed help. He accepted the role. That’s my brother, man. Me and Marcus will be friends forever.”
Mariota is quickly making the same kind of impact on his new teammates.
“Part of the wonderful thing about Marcus is he’s worked really hard on his side to make sure there is plenty of communication between him and us and trying to figure out what’s the best way to do everything cadence-wise, with tempo, everything,” right tackle Kaleb McGary said. “He’s one of you. He doesn’t act like he’s better than you or more important. He’s one of the guys who shows up and works every day and he wants you to feel like he’s part of the team, part of the collective.”
Center Drew Dalman called Mariota a “cool, calm, collected gunslinger type of guy.”
“He’s an excellent guy to play with because you know what you’re getting out of him,” Dalman said.
On Friday, Mariota gave backpacks to a youth flag football team visiting practice as part of an initiative of his Motiv8 Foundation. (Mariota wore No. 8 early in his career, but he is wearing No. 1 in Atlanta.)
“He’s a good human with a good heart and he cares,” Costa said. “If you have an interaction with Marcus Mariota, he wants it to be a positive interaction. He knows that can have an effect on you and the rest of your day and for some of the fans and some of the youth, that can affect the rest of their life. Marcus probably understands that better than anyone I have ever met.”
(Photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today)