HENDERSON, Nev. -- Quarterback controversy? What quarterback controversy?
Sure, Marcus Mariota's debut for the Las Vegas Raiders in Thursday night's 30-27 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Chargers gave the Raiders' offense a decidedly new look. Mariota's willingness and talent to extend plays with his legs and bring a new dimension had the Raiders on the precipice of victory after Derek Carr left late in the first quarter because of a groin injury. But, as Mariota himself said, he is not trying to take Carr's job.
"This is Derek's team," Mariota said after his first significant action since Oct. 13, 2019.
"For me, I just try to come in and help these guys get a win. Derek is a great leader and somebody this team can look to. It was cool for me to get to experience playing again after not playing for a while and to have his support, have Coach Gruden make that transition a little easier for me meant a lot. I thought it was the reason we had some success."
Mariota, using myriad run-pass option plays, rushed for a game-high 88 yards on nine carries. Eight of those attempts resulted in a first down. The only NFL quarterbacks to have more first-down runs in a game since 1992 are Lamar Jackson with 10 such runs last season against the San Francisco 49ers and Michael Vick with nine against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2006. Mariota also had a tough 2-yard TD run.
Truthfully, it was a facet of Raiders coach Jon Gruden's offense that's been missing since he returned to the sidelines in 2018.
"This is just a real credit to the coaches and really credit to Mariota," Gruden said. "He's a hell of a player. We called some plays we didn't really practice, but practiced earlier in the season. If Derek can't go, we're always going to try and do what our quarterback does best and this guy can really run. He's a dual threat, and he really proved that [Thursday]."
Mariota also passed for 226 yards, with a pretty 35-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Waller down the left sideline, Mariota's first TD pass since Sept. 29, 2019.
"It was tough to see Derek go out, No. 1, but yeah, I feel like Marcus played great," said Waller, who had nine catches for 150 yards. "The way Marcus comes to practice every day, has a good attitude and plays hard, I feel like it was no surprise to how he played tonight."
Added running back Josh Jacobs, who rushed for 76 yards, including a 1-yard over-the-pile TD, on 26 carries: "He made the defense play honest. The ends couldn't come chase us down like they did last game we played them. They had to play their gaps and play their responsibilities."
It was only the third game in which Mariota was active this season. He struggled with a shoulder injury in training camp and was recovering from offseason surgeries on his ankle and elbow to the point that the Raiders shut him down and he began the season on injured reserve. This after Gruden referred to Mariota as a "dazzing playmaker" early in camp.
The Raiders had been taking heat for the massive-for-a-backup-QB contract he was given -- Mariota is making $7.5 million this season -- and his lack of involvement. But Gruden said Mariota's play Thursday night "put an exclamation point" on why the Raiders signed him. Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon and the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft by the Titans, was supplanted by Ryan Tannehill last season.
"I just wish," Gruden said, "we could've won the game for him."
Strange playcalling to close out the first and second halves -- why were the Raiders running the ball at the end of the second quarter and passing at the end of regulation? -- and an inability to score what would have been a game-winning touchdown on the first drive of OT after getting a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line doomed the Raiders.
As did a costly interception by Mariota with Las Vegas at the Chargers' 21-yard line with more than two minutes left in regulation, in position for what would have been a game-winning field goal. The throw was slightly behind Zay Jones, bounced off his hands and was picked off by Chris Harris Jr. (Mariota chased Harris down after a 51-yard return, preventing a pick-six.)
Indeed, a win would have netted Mariota a nice payday.
As it was, thanks to his convoluted contract, Mariota earned a $200,000 incentive (it would have gone up to $325,000 with a win) by playing at least 60% of the Raiders' offensive snaps, and his base salary went up by $625,000 by passing that single-game snap threshold.
It all makes for an interesting discussion -- if Carr's groin injury is significant enough to keep him out next week against the Miami Dolphins and Mariota's fellow Hawaiian and mentee, rookie Tua Tagovailoa, and with the Raiders all but eliminated from the AFC playoff race, should Gruden simply shut Carr down and roll with Mariota the final two games, just to see what he can do?
Carr, the Raiders' all-time passing leader who signed a five-year, $125 million extension in the summer of 2017, will be entering a contract year in 2021. His play was worthy of an extension at the midway point of the season, but, like the rest of the team, has slipped of late with eight turnovers in the four games preceding the Chargers loss.
After all, Mariota was Raiders general manager Mike Mayock's top QB prospect in the 2015 draft -- ahead of No. 1 pick Jameis Winston. Gruden, then with ESPN, suggested whichever team drafted Mariota build its offense around him.
That's all in the future, though, and after one game, Mariota was reminiscing about the recent past.
"To be truthful, it's been a long journey," he said. "I've been through kind of everything, from injuries, to surgeries, to mental lapses, the confidence thing ... I was trying to kind of find my way again, and they gave me an opportunity to kind of take some time. They were patient with me. I just appreciate the fact that they were willing to do that.
"Part of being an athlete, you're going to go through some ups and downs. I think the staff did a great job of kind of keeping me level-headed and kind of fighting through it. When it comes down to it, it's still ball. I just love being out there again. It was fun to play. Unfortunately, we just didn't make enough plays."