NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For new Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, getting more explosive plays from Marcus Mariota and the offense is a priority this season, and he is encouraging his young quarterback to take shots down the field.
Last season Mariota completed six passes of 40 yards or more, tied for 19th in the NFL. He had seven such passes in 2016, tied for 22nd. Vrabel wants more.
"'It's OK. Let it rip!' I am telling him to throw it deep," Vrabel said. "'Launch it. Let it go!' If it gets intercepted, I have to be able to say, 'I told him to throw it deep.' Cut it loose, let your God-given ability take over."
ESPN NFL analyst and former quarterback Matt Hasselbeck feels Mariota has done a good job of playing within the system in the past. He cautions against telling Mariota to be more aggressive and suggests it might take time for the young quarterback to find his way in Tennessee's new scheme.
"I've had coaches that told me to play that way, and it didn't help me play my best," Hasselbeck said. "There's a psychology that goes with how you handle those split-second decisions on the football field. Sometimes you don't figure it out the right away. I am curious to see when it clicks for Marcus and this offense and how they put it all together."
Mariota has the talent to be one of the NFL's most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks. He has shown the ability to destroy defenses with his legs, and can be just as devastating when he extends plays and finds open receivers. That is the "God-given ability" Vrabel was referring to, and he wants Mariota to start making things happen on unscripted plays and taking over games.
"We have to make that a strength, so when other teams look at us, it's like when they look at Aaron Rodgers," Vrabel said. "We have to make teams feel like, 'If this guy can get out of the pocket, it can be lights out, a big play,' better yet, it can be a touchdown."
Hasselbeck says there's a reason some quarterbacks make improvising look so effortless.
"Look at the chemistry that guys like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers have with their receivers, tight ends, and running backs; it feels like they practice that part of their game," Hasselbeck said. "That's part of the reason Aaron Rodgers is so great. They practice it. Jordy Nelson and Rodgers, they always seemed to know what each other is thinking."
Those unscripted plays can be tough on a defense. In essence, it becomes a more rehearsed version of backyard football when a quarterback extends the play, buying time for receivers to alter their routes. There are rules that apply, one of which is maintaining proper spacing.
"When things go off schedule it's important to find a way to get open," quarterbacks coach Pat O'Hara said. "You need a blueprint of how you work with the quarterback. The key is spacing and proper route distribution. It doesn't always work perfectly, but if you have a general idea and blueprint for when things go off schedule, you'll be successful."
Mariota is confident the Titans will develop the chemistry to make magic out of broken plays.
"It starts on the practice field, being able to create those situations in practice on scramble drills during team periods," he said. "To do that is the best way to practice it and to just have conversations. We have to create separation and space. It almost becomes like a basketball game. You have to figure out how to get open. As we continue to do it out here on the practice field, it will get that much easier."
Wide receivers coach Rob Moore wants his players to always know where Mariota is when he extends plays, and to act accordingly.
"A lot of times it's a matter of playing with eyes," Moore said. "You have to see where the quarterback is. You can't lose sight of him and think he's running one way and you're running the opposite direction. You have to be disciplined with your eyes and our rules."
The return of wideout Rishard Matthews and Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker will help Mariota find big plays. Matthews and Walker are the pass-catchers that Mariota has spent the most time with since being selected No. 2 overall by the Titans in 2015.
Although they go through scramble drills during practice, chemistry and body language allow them to be on the same page on game day when Mariota can freelance.
"With Marcus, he's always looking to extend the play," Walker said. "When he runs, I try to stay with him as much as possible. You can kind of tell from his body language if he is going to take off running or if he is going to look to pass it. So far we have good chemistry. It's just the feel of the play and knowing each other, having an understanding of the down and distance. It's more body language. We read each other's body language pretty well. You have to understand what type of player he is."
Said Matthews: "For me, it's just making sure I communicate. Like during certain plays I will tell him I'm thinking this, or ask him what he was thinking on that. That's the biggest thing, communication. If I know what he's thinking and he has an idea of what I am thinking, most likely we'll be able to make plays on game day."
Mariota adds an extra element for defenses to consider. If the Titans can take advantage, he will have plenty of opportunities to follow Vrabel's suggestion and "let it rip."