NASHVILLE, Tenn. –** His lower right leg in an aircast, and the look of disappointment all over his face, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was carted off the field in Jacksonville in December with all kinds of emotions running through his body.
Mariota's season was over because of a fractured fibula, and a week later the 2016 season would be over for the Tennessee Titans. Players packed their bags and went their separate ways following an exhilarating season that ended with a disgusting finish.
It was the start of a long and patience-testing offseason for Mariota, who had to lean on a scooter – along with family and friends – before he was finally able to see the light during some long and dark days.
"It was tough,'' Mariota said. "Those first few months, where I couldn't do anything, it was definitely hard. I couldn't walk around, and the way the season ended, it was tough. But I couldn't get down. I had to focus on getting better, and do everything I could to keep a positive mindset."
Mariota, set to begin his third NFL season on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders at Nissan Stadium, said the city of Nashville, and Titans fans, helped lift him up. He received encouragement as he made his way around town, and he received countless letters.
The mail, Mariota said, was especially uplifting. And it came from everywhere. Mariota put his mother in charge of sorting through it all. She showed many of the letters and well-wishes to her son, which Mariota said helped during the difficult days of rehab, and soul searching.
"The support I received, it was incredible, really," Mariota said. "The people in Nashville were awesome. The support that I received, the fan letters, the fan mail, or just seeing people out in the streets, it was special. My mom is still going through some stuff. And all of it really helped me, and helped motivate me to get out there as soon as I could. I appreciate all the support. It means the world to me."
Yes, Mariota is back.
After months of rehab, Mariota returned in time to take part in all 10 of the team's OTAs, the June minicamp, and all of training camp. He continued making strides throughout the preseason. Now he aims to make his 2017 season the best one yet, following an offseason when he overcame adversity to put himself in position to pick up where he left off on the football field. Mariota also bought his first house in Nashville during the offseason. After previously living in a condo in the Gulch, he's a homeowner now. Mariota, who was born and raised in Hawaii and played college ball at Oregon, said Nashville's been a good fit.
"It's a special place,'' he said. "Everyone has made me feel at home."
Mariota and the Titans want to reward the city with a memorable season this fall. Those who've seen him up close, along with others from afar, believe he's ready to take the next step.
"That guy is ready to be at the top of his game," Titans tackle Taylor Lewan said. "I think he is capable of being the best quarterback in this league. That's up to him. He is one of the hardest workers on this team."
In his second NFL season, Mariota completed 276-of-451 passes for 3,426 yards, 26 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 95.6 passer in 2016 before suffering the fractured fibula in a Week 16 against the Jaguars. Mariota added 60 rushing attempts for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
Mariota's 95.6 passer rating ranks third in franchise history for a single season, behind only Warren Moon's 96.8 in 1990, when he was the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year, and Steve McNair's 100.4 in 2003, when he was the NFL's Co-MVP.
Mariota would've played in the Pro Bowl if he hadn't suffered the injury. From 2015-16, Mariota has thrown for 6,244 yards and 45 touchdowns, while throwing only 19 interceptions. His 93.6 passer rating during that time period ranks sixth in NFL history.
"The only thing [Mariota] hasn't been able to do, in my opinion, is stay healthy, and that is a challenge he has to meet, and I hope he does that,'' said ESPN's Jon Gruden, a Super Bowl-winning NFL coach. "But as they continue to improve that roster I suspect he will continue to improve.
"I think he can be a great front-line Pro Bowl quarterback in the league. I don't have any doubts about that if he can stay healthy. He just has all the intangibles and all the qualities I am looking for personally."
Moon, who threw for 49,325 yards in 17 NFL seasons with the Oilers, Vikings, Seahawks and Chiefs, agrees.
"His future is really bright, because I know how he works on and off the field, putting the time in," Moon said. "And I've heard about how he is in the meeting rooms, and working on his body. He'll continue to do that, and that will help him take the pounding NFL quarterbacks take.
"But he has a great temperament, he doesn't get too high or too low. And I always look at that in quarterbacks, just to see how they handle themselves, whether they are having prosperity or dealing with tough times. And you really can't tell the difference with him, and that is a great sign not only for him, but also for his teammates. They don't need to see a guy who is going to be erratic. You want your quarterback to be a steady influence, and that's what Marcus is.
"So he has everything to be a great one in this league, and he has progressed even faster than I thought he would."
At the Pro Bowl in Orlando, Titans Online talked to three different quarterbacks about Mariota, and where he's headed. All three said they believe big things are ahead.
"He's impressive,'' Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Mariota. "And the way he's kept improving, I think he has a really bright future. From all accounts, he's a guy who loves football, he's a great competitor, and he is extremely talented, both running and throwing the football.
"And I think they are building a really good team around him as well."
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said Mariota has all the skills to be successful.
"He is a talented player,'' Dalton said. "He's a guy that can run, that can throw, and can really do it all. And I have talked to some of the other Titans about him, guys like Delanie Walker, and asking him about what he is like as a teammate, and he said what I thought: Marcus carries himself like a professional and works hard, and is a great teammate.
"The more you play, the more comfortable you get."
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said he saw a lot of growth from Mariota in 2016.
"He is such a unique talent,'' Smith said of Mariota. "I think this past year he really took a step in the right direction. Just playing quarterback, so many games are different. Some games you throw it 18 times, other games you throw it 40 times, and being able to handle everything in between is a part of it. You have to find a way to right the ship on days when maybe the running game isn't working as well as it does some days. Just looking from afar, it seems like he balanced all of that really well. He put the team in a position to win a lot more games."
On Sunday, Mariota's comeback will be complete. Everything he did from Dec. 24, 2016 – from the rehab to each practice and preseason game – helped pave the way for his return.
Looking back, Mariota said the reward outweighs the pain. He went on and on about the help he received from his family, and his girlfriend. His old college teammate, Hroniss Grasu, was a godsend when the two rehabbed injuries in Oregon. And all the support he received from fans, on the streets and via mail, was huge, he said.
Mariota hated the scooter because it meant he had to lean on something to get around.
Well, he's rolling on his own now.
"A lot of hard work,'' Mariota said. "A lot of hard work, and a lot of love and support from people around me. I appreciate it, and I'll never forget it."
TitansOnline.com looks back at Marcus Mariota's second NFL season in 2016. (AP Photos)