Marc Mariani understands the mathematics of football. An abridged version: Addition comes from opportunity.
As the Tennessee Titans’ rookie return man considered the fact that the franchise’s single-season kickoff return yards record — a mark that had stood for close to half a century — was within his reach, he attempted a quick calculation.
“So does that mean I’m doing a good job, or we’re just returning a lot more kicks?” he said. “I don’t know which one it is.”
With his first return in the 34-14 loss at Kansas City on Dec. 26, the seventh-round draft pick out of Montana eclipsed the mark of 1,315 yards set in 1963 by Bobby Jancik. Mariani entered Sunday’s regular-season finale with 1,411 yards on 56 returns, the latter also the most in franchise history.
It’s not that the Titans, who finished with a losing record, had any more kickoffs this season than in previous ones. It’s just that Mariani never gave anyone else a chance. He seized the opportunity that was presented him when he was installed as primary returner for both punts and kickoffs during the season-opener against Oakland, and he put up big numbers as the only player to handle either job all season.
Only two other players in franchise history — Mel Gray (1995 and 1996) and Bobby Wade (2006) — returned as many as 50 kickoffs in a season, and Gray was the only one who, like Mariani this fall, also returned at least 20 punts in the same season.
The season Wade got there, the team returned 79 kickoffs overall in an 8-8 season. Gray did it in back-to-back 8-8 campaigns in which the team had between 60 and 70 returns, as was the case this season.
“Marc took it and ran with it,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “… [He] had a lot of help this year from all those guys that were blocking for him. Coach [Alan] Lowry schemed things up well and he took advantage of his opportunities.”
Two days after he set the record, Mariani was named to the Pro Bowl as the AFC’s return specialist. His selection had a lot to do with the fact that he was the only player in the NFL with both a punt return and a kickoff return for a touchdown. That was something only one other player in franchise history, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, had accomplished (1975 and 1977).
“I’ve just been excited to be out there on Sundays and be able to contribute,” Mariani said. “To be given the responsibility of the return game was a lot for a rookie. I took a lot of pride in it.”
Mariani probably wouldn’t have threatened the mark had the team had more success. When the Titans went 13-3 in both 1999 and 2000, for instance, the entire team had fewer kickoff returns than Mariani did this season because opponents simply did not score very often.
Then again, he was only the fourth Titan/Oiler in the past 30 years to lead the team in kickoff returns and average better than 25 yards, and just the third during that time to take one all the way for a touchdown.
“I don’t know the combination of events that took place to get there, but we — as a unit — have taken pride in it all year,” Mariani said. “We’ve had some big plays. I’ve tried to be consistent and make good decisions back there, but to be in the record books with such a great organization is pretty special.
“I don’t have any words to describe that — a record that’s stood for almost 50 years?” he said. “That’s crazy.”
Funny how things can add up.