Marc Mariani, Titans' Unknown Rookie, Helping Revive Art of Kick Returns
Marc Mariani says to stop murmuring. He acknowledges that "white guy," "fast'' and "kickoff returns'' may be an uncommon blend in the league.
But this Tennessee Titans rookie brings it.
He is currently the most dynamic, aggressive, intriguing kickoff return specialist in the NFL.
A fresh face, a remarkable spirit, a gotcha-grabbing football player.
"Without a doubt, I get the white-guy-runs-fast thing in the locker room, and I get it other places, and I guess it comes with the territory,'' Mariani said of those now-routine, playful exchanges. "Not only that, but a white guy that runs fast from Montana? We have fun with it. The way I look at it, if I keep doing it well, I'll give them more to talk about. And that's not a bad thing.''
Not for Mariani. Not for the Titans.
Swinging Field Position
One of the league's least emphasized statistical measures is average drive start. It figures that the more advanced point from which an offense starts drives, the better its chances to score. Turnover differential and kickoff/punt returns dramatically affect average drive starts.
NFL kickoff returns are sometimes an afterthought. Several teams simply grab what it considers a sure-handed, fast guy off its roster and toss him back there.
But not the teams that excel at it.
New England leads the league in average drive start (35.4-yard line). No surprise it also ranks sixth in turnover differential (plus-4) and second in kickoff return average (31.6). The Jets rank fourth in average drive start (31.1). They rank first in turnover differential and third in average kickoff returns (29.9).
The Titans rank third in average drive start (32.4). Last season, they ranked 25th (24.9).
Call it a Mariani-effect -- he ranks fourth in NFL kickoff return yards with 537.
Mariani is part of an upswing in kickoff return games around the league. Nine kicks have been returned for touchdowns thus far -- the last time that happened through the NFL's first five weeks was 60 years ago. There have already been scoring kickoff returns of 105, 103, 102 and 101 yards.
When Mariani scored on 98-yard kickoff return two weeks ago against Denver, it was the Titans' first score on a kickoff return since 2001. His 73-yard return on last Sunday at Dallas came immediately after the Cowboys had tied the score at 27-27. The Cowboys, in frustration, grabbed his facemask at the end of the return, resulting in a 6-yard penalty that moved the ball to the Dallas 5. Mariani's big return set up the Titans' winning touchdown.
Not bad for a 7th-round pick, the 222nd overall selection in last April's draft, out of Montana.
"I visited three other teams -- Indianapolis, Atlanta and Houston -- but every team, until the seventh round, passed me by several times,'' Mariani said. "It was a frustrating experience to wait seven rounds, to wait all day. A long, hard day. I remember that every time I play against all those teams.
"I came here thankful for the opportunity. I never expected anything. I knew I had to win a job, that I didn't deserve a job. I learned there were return-game issues here in the past. Expectations weren't that high for a seventh-round pick from Montana. But it's been awesome.''
Mariani returns punts as well as kickoffs. He has fumbled twice in his duties. But it has not diminished his attacking style.
"I think it's very important on the kickoff return to hit it as hard and as fast as you can,'' he said. "That's my job. I have 10 guys in front of me doing an unbelievable job. We are getting more comfortable as the reps add up. We think we can make a big play now anytime we step on the field. We are always one block away, one step away from changing momentum and field position.''
Special Teams, Specialized
More NFL teams should draft returners to do simply that: return. Mariani's pass receptions thus far this season? Zero.
The Titans keep him fresh. They keep him focused. They want field position.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher gained a first-hand look at Mariani, 23, over the last four years since Fisher's son, Brandon, played linebacker at Montana. But Mariani is making an NFL name for himself that goes well beyond that connection.
He gains a national TV audience on Monday night when Tennessee (3-2) plays at Jacksonville (3-2). A Tennessee victory and Vince Young becomes 30-15 as an NFL starter. It would also be Tennessee's third straight win in Monday night games.
But focus on Marc Mariani. Watch the passionate and fearless kickoff return style of the kid from Havre, Mont., population 10,000.
He is hard to miss.