ATLANTA -- As Marcus Mariota suited up for the Falcons Week 6 contest against the San Francisco 49ers, there was something that held space in the back of his mind. Three years ago, he suited up for another Week 6 matchup. With Tennessee at the time, it would be the last start he would make until the Falcons picked him up off the free agency market this offseason.
Three years ago - in October of 2019 - Mariota completed seven of 18 passes, threw two interceptions and was sacked three times against the Denver Broncos. It was a game in which an offense ran by Mariota was shutout. The next week, Mariota was on the sidelines as Ryan Tannehill took over in Tennessee. And you likely know the rest of the story: Tennessee went to the playoffs that year, Tannehill was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year and Mariota landed with the Raiders in the offseason. For the next two years, he operated as Derek Carr's backup, attempting just 30 passes in two years of seldom relief for Carr.
This story - Mariota's story - was in the back of his mind as he ran out of the Falcons locker room as Atlanta's starting quarterback on Sunday. What happened next was a moment of redemption for Mariota.
Three years after losing his starting job with the Titans, Mariota led the Falcons to a 28-14 win over the former NFC West divisional leader. In said game, Mariota was 13-of-14 through the air, totaling 129 passing yards and two touchdowns. As a dual threat, Mariota accumulated 50 rushing yards and added one rushing touchdown to his total on the day. He didn't have a single turnover on Sunday.
It was - by all accounts - not just one of his most complete performances as a Falcon, but one of the most efficient throughout his entire career in the league since being drafted No. 2 overall in 2015.
The fact that it happened almost three years to the day that he was benched in Tennessee? Now that's just poetic.
It was - in a way - a small version of a much larger redemption arc Mariota is hoping to have in Atlanta.
For Mariota, he'd be lying if he said possible redemption and career rejuvenation wasn't what he was looking for when he reunited with Arthur Smith in Atlanta, the play caller in Tennessee three years ago.
"When I look back on it, it was that I wanted to redeem myself," Mariota said. "I really believe in what Arthur is doing. I believe in the scheme. I didn't play well enough (at Tennessee), and I wanted to have an opportunity to redeem myself, and to be able to show that I can play in this system."
Six games into the season - with a record at .500 - Mariota said he feels like he can confidently say he can do exactly that.
"I think every game that I've played in this year I've gotten more and more comfortable," the veteran quarterback said. "It's tough coming off a couple of years where you're not getting a lot of game time. Truly the only experience that you get is being out there.... but I've gotten to a point where I feel really comfortable in this scheme."
This is something Smith has noticed recently, too.
It was going to take time for Mariota to settle into a starting role once again. Smith said he feels like you're starting to see what Mariota can provide an offense as he gets more and more accustomed to suiting up on Sundays... Suiting up with the full intention of playing every offensive snap, that is.
"He didn't play for two and a half years," Smith said. "So, it took a couple games, and there are some things where you're kind of rusty here and there, but I feel like every game he's getting more comfortable."
More so, Smith continued by saying the locker room - and the men inside it - are behind Mariota. He's won over the team, Smith said.
"These guys believe in him," he added. "Those are things you can't put in a stat sheet."
But is that true? Does the locker room truly believe in Mariota? Through various conversations in said locker room after the win, the answer is: Yes. Yes they do.
"He's calm," Caleb Huntley said. "Some guys panic, but Marcus is always calm, always focused. He's a leader who knows how to get the win, who knows how to do things to get the job done. We all believe in him."
Moments later, Jaylinn Hawkins added his two cents from the defensive perspective.
"Marcus is one hell of a leader, man," Hawkins said. "He's one of the coolest dudes I ever met in my life. No cap. He's very, very humble individual who is sharp at what he does. He's always poised. There's no panic in his game or himself… That's a model citizen right there."
For Mariota, the journey to this point hasn't been easy. He would never say it was. It also hasn't been what he wanted. No one wants to lose their job. But he wouldn't take it back. No way, he said.
There are very few quarterbacks who get the opportunity for a second chance in this league. Mariota, for his part, is trying his best to make the most of that chance.
On Sunday, he took a step in the right direction of that journey, with Smith noting Mariota's efficiency in all aspects of the game shouldn't be overlooked.
"We knew we had to be efficient, and Marcus certainly was," Smith said. "He made a lot of really good plays, and give credit to our o-line, too, because you're able to progress a couple of plays. He made some really big throws for us, and made some huge plays with his legs, too. It certainly helps us stay on track and (be) efficient. I can't say enough good things about Marcus and the way he's leading this football team."
As Mariota suited up for Sunday's game, he thought back to arguably the lowest moment of his career.
On Sunday evening, as he headed to the podium for his postgame press conference as the Falcons starting quarterback following a decisive win, he was on the up-and-up again...
As confident in himself, his knowledge of the scheme and his skills as ever before in the last three years.
"You go through a process of looking within and reflecting," Mariota said. "Throughout that journey for me, I knew I had to find my confidence to be able to play at a high level. When you get your confidence taken away from you it is tough as an athlete because that's truly the only mental weapon that you have. So, to be able to build myself back up through the Raiders organization, through the Atlanta organization, through these teams and my teammates and the quarterback rooms that I've been a part of, it's been very important for me. It's been critical in my career."
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers during Week 6.