By Mary Cunningham

Tonight’s the night Eagles fans have been waiting for since last season ended with a 10-6 record and no playoffs.

We have all been exposed to so much hot air about Marcus Mariota that it is hard to tell the wheat from the chaff, or in Mariota’s case:

Whether he is the real deal or just a figment of Chip Kelly’s college imagination.

The knock on Mariota is that his immense college production stemmed from the design of Oregon’s offense more than from his own ability — that he was the “system quarterback.”

But all quarterbacks benefit from their offensive system, so assigning that label is lazy analysis. A QB prospect’s college system should merely be another factor in the evaluation, just like the quality of his competition or his supporting cast.

To a certain extent, concern about Mariota is understandable. While Aaron Rodgers benefits from the offensive scheme he plays in, his dynamic style clearly transcends it. Meanwhile, Oregon QBs all tend to look alike as they mechanistically execute the Ducks offense, producing gaudy numbers while displaying the same footwork and techniques and throwing to the same blissfully open receivers. Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, and Darron Thomas all had their moments, but with all due respect, no NFL team is going to be excited about drafting the Hawaiian Darron Thomas.

Mariota is much more than that. There’s no question that he’s more physically gifted than his Ducks predecessors, but more importantly, he began shaping Oregon’s offense to himself over time rather than the other way around. Oregon actually used a variety of pro-style pass concepts during Mariota’s tenure, and while Jameis Winston typically delivered 35 to 40 plays per game that — good, bad, or ugly — translated to the NFL for evaluation purposes, Mariota had at least 15 and sometimes as many as 30. Brett Hundley often had as few as five.

The reason that Oregon increasingly relied on Mariota’s ability to drop back, read defenses, and hit open receivers — he averaged nearly 100 more yards per game passing in 2014 than he did in 2012 — is because he’s a skilled passer.

As Grantland.com has pointed out, Mariota has always excelled at finding receivers later in his progression, dating as far back as the Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State in his redshirt freshman season, when he hit his fifth read for a touchdown on the Y-Cross pass concept.

And while Mariota’s throwing motion features some correctable mechanical issues, his completion percentage on throws that traveled between 11 and 20 yards was actually much better than Winston’s. The real key to Mariota’s development, though, is how he grew to consistently hit his receivers on time. In the play below, Mariota moved the safety with his eyes, stepped up in the pocket, and delivered a laser, which is exactly what he’ll have to do at the next level:

What concerns his critics about Mariota is his pocket presence. His issues aren’t fatal, as he scores better than Bryce Petty and Hundley on this measure, but he’s clearly behind Winston. Too often, Mariota slid into the rush or failed to stay balanced enough to make a throw while under pressure. And though his touchdown-to-interception ratio was incredibly low, he fumbled 27 times in three seasons, a liability he’ll have to clean up if he wants to win games in the NFL. (Winston fumbled 13 times in two seasons.) As with Petty, pocket presence is my biggest question mark here not because Mariota can’t improve his poise, but because his numerous other skills won’t matter if he doesn’t.

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