Having been in the league since 2010, Chicago Bears returner Marc Mariani's experience in the NFL has served him well during a career that has been both rewarding and, at times, very frustrating.
A capsule of Mariani’s career journey came during last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, as Mariani was booed off the field following two straight muffed punts.
Yet he was able to put his early-game struggles behind him and finished the day with three kickoff returns for 78 yards, two punt returns for 3 yards and a reception for 19 yards. Mariani is the first to admit that his early efforts were not up to his usual standards.
"Bad plays? What bad plays?" Mariani told Bear Report in mock horror. “It wasn’t acceptable but it was something that I recognized and analyzed. I knew I could do better and I did. Now the next step is to come out strong and stay that way.”
Mariani’s never had it easy in the NFL but his energy and optimism have carried him through some rough stretches. A walk-on at Montana in 2005, Mariani didn’t play football at all his freshman year. Yet playing for the Grizzlies the next three years, Mariani’s skills began to shine. He recorded 3,018 career receiving yards, 29 touchdowns and 5,441 all-purpose yards. His ability as a returner drew interest from the Tennessee Titans, who drafted him in the 7th round in 2010. Mariani went to the Pro Bowl his rookie year and played two productive seasons in Tennessee before breaking his leg in the 2012 season opener.
He missed the following two years because of injury and was cut by the Titans following the 2014 preseason. The Bears signed him a few months later and he's been the club's primary kick and punt returner for most of that time since.
Against the Chargers on Monday Night Football, Mariani's role on offense could increase substantially due to Eddie Royal's knee injury.
“I try to be ready all of the time,” Mariani said. "You never know when you’re going to have to come into the game. But this week is somewhat different as I know that Eddie will not be playing. I’ve been working with the first team all week and feel ready to go on Monday night.”
Mariani has been on the field primarily for special teams this season but has also played plenty of snaps as a receiver and feels comfortable in either role.
“Kickoff and punt returns are specialized,” he said. “The timing is different. What you do after you get the ball is slightly different from working as a wide receiver.”
At 6-1, 187, Mariani isn’t exactly petite but he does weigh considerably less than some of the defenders he faces. That said, he feels his size contributes to his agility and speed, which are both important attributes in returning or receiving.
“I look at this guy Eddie, right here in the locker next to me and I see a very accomplished player, somebody I would love to emulate," said Mariani. "But at the same time, I try to provide that experience and perspective for our younger players who might just be starting out in the league at the receiving position. It's all about playing hard but taking the long view. You’ll do some things wrong. That’s bound to happen. But what you do then will determine your ultimate success. Don’t dwell on mistakes. Get out there on the next play and do everything right.”
Mariani is looking forward to starting in prime time with the eyes of the nation on him.
“It's a spotlight that you have to enjoy,” he said. “There is added pressure to do well but that kicks the adrenaline in some. It makes it more enjoyable, or at least that is my opinion.”
And what about the Bears rookies, who were heard in the locker room saying Monday night’s contest would just be another game? Mariani laughed.
“Young guys would say that because they haven’t bee there yet. You get out on the field and you know your family, your friends, other players and a whole lot of fans will have their eyes on you. It's an amazing experience and one I absolutely enjoy.”