Former Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington has believed for some time that current UO quarterback Marcus Mariota is not only better than he was, but that he is also the greatest passer to ever don a Ducks uniform.
However, one element was missing from Mariota’s resumé, one that would transform Harrington’s beliefs into 100-percent, rock-solid certainty.
Mariota, despite going 23-3 over his first two seasons, lacked that type of career-defining moment in which he overcame adversity to elevate his team to victory against a formidable opponent.
“The only argument I would listen to was that he didn't have a signature win,” Harrington said.
That changed on Sept. 6 when the Ducks rallied to defeat No. 7 Michigan State, 46-27, at Auzten Stadium.
“It wasn't so much that he hadn't won it, but that when he had the opportunity to deliver a statement game game, it didn't happen,” Harrington said. “It happened against Michigan State…and frankly, that’s all that was missing.”
The debate over who is the greatest quarterback to ever play at Oregon is one that could rage on into eternity for a program that has produced more than its share of great players at the position.
Oregon has put 14 quarterbacks into the NFL, including five who were drafted over the past 15 years. Mariota, a redshirt junior, will become the 15th to play in the NFL as early as next season.
Barring injury, he will leave Oregon owning every meaningful record imaginable for a quarterback. And in many circles, he will e regarded as the greatest of them all.
For two former UO quarterbacks, Mariota’s status already is assured.
Harrington and fellow former UO great Chris Miller both say that Mariota’s elite passing skills matched with wide receiver-like athleticism and a high football IQ form the ingredients of the very best UO fans have ever witnessed.
“I think he’s been the most complete overall quarterback ever to play at Oregon,” Miller said. “He’s going to be very hard to replace when he leaves.”
MARIOTA THE PASSER
Harrington and Miller excelled as pass-first quarterbacks who operated in pro-style, West Coast offenses while becoming first-round draft picks (Miller in 1987, Harrington in 2002).
Neither sees glaring holes in Mariota’s game as a passer. Miller said Mariota has the quickest release in Oregon history, and one of the best going right now at any level. And Mariota’s deliveries, Miller said, are on point.
“He’s really, really accurate,” Miller said.
Mariota was completing 70.4 percent of his passes early this season after completing 65.8 percent of his passes over the previous two. And he’s done that while doing more than simply throwing short passes or screens.
“Some guys, they put up huge numbers and you watch them and wonder how they did it,” Harrington said. “Other guys you watch and you say, ‘Man, that guy’s an athlete. But he can’t throw a square out to save his life.’”
That’s not the case with Mariota.
MARIOTA THE ATHLETE
Miller and Harrington were athletic in their own right. Miller points out that he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, and Harrington is proud of his 18 career rushing touchdowns at Oregon.
But neither came close to matching Mariota in the athleticism department.
Mariota entered the season as the program’s all-time leader in rushing for a quarterback, with 1,467 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“He runs like a gazelle,” Miller said. “He’s that Ferrari. He’s that Lamborghini, that Maserati, who has it all.”
The only quarterback in Oregon history who played similarly to Mariota was Dennis Dixon, who rushed for 1,208 yards and 12 touchdowns during his career.
But Mariota has Dixon beat as a pure passer, Miller and Harrington said.
Mariota’s dual-threat abilities make him the ideal fit for Oregon’s zone-read, no-huddle offense.
“Marcus is the orchestrator,” Miller said.
MARCUS THE LEADER
The only knock on Mariota from Harrington and Miller is that he needs to become a more vocal leader when he enters the NFL.
“He has to,” Harrington said. “You’ll get pushed over.”
Grown men with families, getting paid to play football, need to know that the man who controls the ball is in charge.
In college, a player can get away with leading by example, as Mariota has.
Take away a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown at Stanford in 2013, and the Ducks’ offense scored just 43 points in the three losses (versus 85 points for the victors).
Fair or not, that lack of production falls on Mariota.
Again, Harrington said the question about Mariota being able to lead the team to a tough win was answered by the Michigan State game. That game made Mariota 2-3 in games in which the Ducks trailed in the second half.
Harrington also pointed out that Mariota lacked many comeback wins because he played well enough in the first half to avoid having to come back too often.
Harrington was known as “Captain Comeback.” He continuously led the Ducks to come-from-behind victories, but he said there was a reason for that.
“My response to that is that in probably seven or eight of those, I didn’t play well enough in the first half,” Harrington said. “That’s the difference. There’s no lag in Marcus’ game…I remember walking off the field one time with [coach Mike] Bellotti looking at me and saying, ‘You know, you don’t have to wait to start playing until the fourth quarter,’ and then he just walked up the tunnel.”
Miller said he sees a great leader in Mariota, despite his lack of vocal chops. Miller said Mariota’s calm demeanor and poise stand out.
“He doesn’t get rattled,” Miller said. “He keeps the team together.”
SIMPLY THE BEST
There can be little doubt that Miller, Harrington, and other former great UO quarterbacks like Bill Musgrave, Akili Smith and Dan Fouts, would have put up great numbers in Oregon’s current offensive system.
Maybe 4,000 yards passing with 40 touchdowns from any of them in a given season wouldn’t be too far-fetched.
Each played in offenses that for one, huddled, and secondly, lacked the consistent big-play potency of the modern, no-huddle spread offenses.
“I would have loved the offense, but I loved the offense that I was in, too,” Miller said.
But none of them would have added the running dimension and the ability to escape that Mariota brings to the table, to go along with his great passing skills.
“There are very, very few people in the world who can combine those two the way that he does,” Harrington said.
Harrington chuckled at the irony of his stance on Mariota.
“It’s funny that I’m arguing against myself,” he said.
His assertion is propelled by his conviction.
“Marcus is the perfect combination of everything,” Harrington said.
All of the reasons above spell out why Harrington and Miller believe that Mariota is simply the best Oregon has ever seen.
“I can listen to other arguments and appreciate them,” Harrington said. “But you’ll never convince me.”
PLEASE NOTE: THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE WINTER 2014 ISSUE OF DUCK PLAYBOOK MAGAZINE